Terry Wallis, who spontaneously regained his ability to speak after a traumatic brain injury left him virtually unresponsive for 19 years, and who then became a subject of a major study that showed how a damaged brain could heal itself, died on March 29 in a rehabilitation facility in Searcy, Ark. He was 57.
He had pneumonia and heart problems, said his brother George Wallis, who confirmed the death.
Terry Wallis was 19 when the pickup truck he was in with two friends skidded off a small bridge in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas and landed upside down in a dry riverbed. The accident left him in a coma for a brief time, then in a persistent vegetative state for several months. One friend died; the other recovered.
Until 2003, Mr. Wallis lay in a nursing home in a minimally conscious state, able to track objects with his eyes or blink on command.
But on June 11, 2003, he effectively returned to the world when, upon seeing his mother, Angilee, he suddenly said, “Mom.” At the sight of the woman he was told was his adult daughter, Amber, who was six weeks old at the time of the accident, he said, “You’re beautiful,” and told her that he loved her.
“Within a three-day period, from saying ‘Mom’ and ‘Pepsi,’ he had regained verbal fluency,” said Dr. Nicholas Schiff, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan who led imaging studies of Mr. Wallis’s brain. The findings were presented in 2006 in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
“He was disoriented,” Dr. Schiff, in a phone interview, said of Mr. Wallis’s emergence. “He thought it was still 1984, but otherwise he knew all the people in his family and had that fluency.”
Mr. Wallis’s brain scans — the first ever of a late-recovering patient — revealed changes in the strength of apparent connections within the back of the brain, which is believed to have helped his conscious awareness, and in the midline cerebellum, an area involved in motor control, which may have accounted for the very limited movement in his arms and legs while he was minimally conscious.
Mr. Wallis, who regained some more movement after he was awakened, was diagnosed with severe quadriparesis, characterized by muscle weakness in his limbs.
“He’s a unicorn in the sense that he emerged so late,” Dr. Schiff said. But, he added, “We’ll never know exactly why he emerged after 19 years.”
Mr. Wallis’s family believes that regular visits home while he was minimally conscious had an impact. “We think that helped his awakening,” his brother George said.
Mr. Wallis’s recovery occurred nearly two years before the death of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who had suffered extensive brain damage and fell into a persistent vegetative state when her heart stopped beating in 1990. Her feeding tube had been removed after a bitter national debate over patients’ rights.
Terry Wayne Wallis was born on Feb. 4, 1964, in Marianna, Ark. His father, Jerry, was a mechanic and a farmer. His mother, Angilee (Marshall) Wallis, worked in a shirt factory.
At the time of his accident, Mr. Wallis was working as an auto mechanic and, his brother said, was “a little wild and lived on the edge, doing what he could do to enjoy life.”
After Terry awakened in 2003, his father said in an interview, “He enjoyed flirting with the nurses and he could move his arms and legs but couldn’t get up.”
He added: “He could talk to us, but it was like time had stopped for him. He remembered people from the time he wrecked.”
George Wallis recalled an incident from eight years ago when he took his wife, Lindsey, to visit his brother, who by then was more than a decade into his recovery.
“My wife is quite a bit younger than I am, and my mom said: ‘Terry, do you know who this is? This is Lindsey. She’s George’s wife,’” Mr. Wallis said. “And Terry said, ‘She’s way too pretty and way too old for him.’ He was thinking that I was still 12 years old.”
Until he was moved to a rehabilitation facility eight months ago, Mr. Wallis spent nearly all of the last 19 years living at his parents’ home, cared for by family members, including his daughter and his mother, who died in 2018. “She was the glue,” his brother George said, “the absolute savior.”
In addition to his brother George, his daughter and his father, Mr. Wallis is survived by another brother, Perry; a sister, Tammy Baze; and three grandchildren. His marriage to Sandi Wallis ended in divorce.
Dr. Schiff said that Mr. Wallis and other patients “are still teaching us” about the potential for the brain to deal with trauma.
“I think Terry’s legacy to neuroscience at the highest level,” he said, “is to instill our enduring, undiluted and deep interest in understanding how human consciousness may recover after serious brain injury.”