I can’t remember when it started, but I remember I would wake up regularly to hearing him muttering and talking in his sleep. Sometimes he would sit upright and scream. Other times, he would whimper, his voice coming out whiny and afraid. It was the whimpering that scared me more than the screaming, for some reason. During the day, he was my big brother — we’d play basketball together and he’d buy me popsicles from the ice cream truck with his pocket money, help me cross the road and tie my shoes. He’s only a couple of years older than me, but two years can be a huge gulf during childhood. He was my hero. But at night, he became this frightened little boy, who lashed out at me when I tried to wake him up. As the days went by, though, I became used to it. When we got older, he didn’t grow out of it, as most children do. It got worse. He started experiencing a jumble of symptoms – night-terrors, sleep paralysis, sleep-walking, and also what I now know is REM disorder. It didn’t get better. Then, his visions and hallucinations began to seep into the daytime. What beasts and terrors had been confined to his dreamscapes, now haunted him during wakefulness as well. He was diagnosed with sleep disorders combined with schizophrenia.
I wanted to help him; it took a toll on every part of his life. He was more intelligent than me, with a potential bright future ahead, but he fell behind in his studies, unable to concentrate. I started to study the brain for him, because I wanted to understand what was happening inside his mind. So I began on my quest to study the brain, to unlock its secrets, because I wanted to help him – and others like him – to escape. I wanted him to return to being himself.
My brother, unfortunately, never really improved. No amount of drugs could help him. And he insisted this was because his visions weren’t due to a disorder, they were real — he would often shout and scream that drugs couldn’t take something away if it were real. As I progressed in my scientific studies – which I had embarked upon for the very reason to help him — ironically, it caused a rift between us. I thought he would be proud when I got my PhD. But he almost saw my scientific endeavours as a betrayal. As a sign that I didn’t believe him. I guess the fact that I’m his younger brother doesn’t help much. It doesn’t matter how many qualifications I attain, how many scientific publications I write, how respected I am among my academic peers — my brother will never listen to me, and he refuses to set foot in my lab, or try any of the treatments I recommend. We haven’t spoken in years.
However, what I’m about to narrate — what I’ve been through tonight — isn’t about my brother.
What I’ve experienced these last few hours, though, has…well, suffice to say, for the first time in my life, I’m reconsidering my brother’s point of view.
A few days ago, we had a very perplexing case come into the sleep lab. The patient is a man in his mid-20s, who had lapsed into an atypical coma a few days before he was transferred to our facility. The patient’s older brother accompanied him, and sat in the Sleep Room on a chair next to his bed, concerned, holding his hand.
I’ll admit, one of the reasons I took such an interest in this case is because it struck a personal chord with me. It reminded me of my relationship with my brother. Some of my colleagues were hesitant to take on this patient for observation. The reason is, this patient presents with a whole list of strange and unusual symptoms. The patient’s brother reports that the patient had a slight head trauma a few days before he went into the coma — not substantial enough to cause significant head injury, but it probably did contribute to his symptoms, we thought. His brother later told us the patient actually documented the hours prior to his succumbing to the coma — he was suffering from extreme delusion and hallucinations.
The patient’s leg is what should, in theory, provide a diagnostic clue. When I was placing wires on the patient (we have to place sensors around the chest, abdomen and legs to monitor breathing patterns and leg movements), his left leg truly shocked me. It seemed necrotic. I’d never seen anything like it. The team from pathology took several biopsies and sent them for analysis at the top medical centres and specialist laboratories around the world. Endocrinologists were consulted in case it was a freak hormonal disorder. Dermatologists have examined him, in case it was an infection or some strange injury or burn on his skin. Experts in tropical diseases have flown over to investigate in case it was a poison from a bite or something similarly obscure. We have been thorough, and every avenue had been looked into. His bloodwork, pathology report, everything was coming out clean. Whatever this is – we didn’t have an answer. We don’t have this disease categorised yet. We don’t have the tools to detect it, because we don’t know what it is.
The professor in charge of our lab has a theory that the patient may have been exposed to some airborne pathogen, which infected his peripheral and central nervous system. The symptoms in his leg are spreading slowly, most likely through his nerves. It may explain the unusual brain activity we’re picking up on — if it has infected his brain, too. What’s strange is, his brainwaves aren’t typical of a coma patient, but all his other physical attributes are. His pupils are unresponsive to light, and he is unresponsive to all stimuli applied, including painful stimuli, except for reflex responses.
He is a medical mystery, and he’s causing a sensation around the world in medical and scientific circles. He may hold the key to some obscure disease, and by extension, a new discovery. We’re looking at uncharted ground here.
But right now, he’s here, alone in the lab, with only me to monitor him and track his brain activity. Some people aren’t sure if whatever disease he has is contagious. But we don’t think so. Nonetheless, I took one look at his brother, holding his hand and looking forlorn and desperate – and I knew I just had to help, in whatever way I could.
So, this afternoon, one by one, my colleagues at the lab checked out for home. Soon, there was just me left, staying overnight alone to monitor the patient. I have done this, as I say, many times before. It’s the usual routine. I peered in for a moment through the window into the Sleep Room. I double-checked the signals, ensured the cameras were working. Satisfied with everything, I made myself comfortable in my chair and settled in for the long night ahead.
I turned on my personal laptop and checked emails and so on. Can’t use speakers or headphones, on the chance that patients call out or make a noise during the night — can’t risk missing something like that.
I was reading something online when I first heard footsteps coming from the corridor. I didn’t think anything of it — probably one of the patients had woken up and had to use the restroom, or something. I was immersed in the article I was reading, when suddenly everything seemed to stand still as the realisation hit me — there were no other patients in the sleep lab tonight. Just me and Coma Guy.
My head turned to the monitor instantly, in the dubious hope that maybe the patient had woken up. Nope. Still on the bed, unresponsive, like a log.
The footsteps were in the corridor, and they seemed to be going towards the Sleep Room.
I swivelled in my chair and scrambled to the door, in long hurried steps, almost leaping to it. I opened it and peered out. There was no one in the corridor.
Just to be safe, I checked the nearby rooms, including the vacant Sleep Rooms. All the doors leading to the Sleep Lab were locked – only my staff security swipe-card can open those. I was safe and sealed in. It had been my imagination.
Sighing, I returned to the Monitoring Room. Another quick check that the recordings were in order, and I settled into my laptop routine again.
With the computer fans humming away, the steady beep of the patient’s heart rate, and nothing interesting online, I was on the verge of sleep. That almost-unconscious phase is actually when you’re nearly into Stage 1 sleep, the first stage of non-rapid eye-movement (NREM) sleep – in case you’re interested.
The steady sound of the patient’s heart rate is what had almost lulled me into a trance – and it’s the heart rate that woke me up again, with start. The patient’s heart rate had spontaneously increased. Very fast.
I looked up eagerly at the EEG signal – it had changed, gotten quicker. Responsive to something. Was the patient waking up? I stared at the infrared camera image, which was blurry, so I got up and went to look in through the window.
Nothing. There was no movement, no change in the patient’s consciousness. But his breathing and heart rate had increased. His brain activity had changed, within the coma. Was he experiencing hallucinations?
I stared at the stationary figure on the bed for some time in the darkness.
And then, something within the room moved. At first, I thought it was the shadow of the cabinet on the other side of the room. But the shadow was moving. Creeping. A black mass, creeping slowly towards the bed. I blinked, trying to be sure of myself. It was so dark, that sometimes the mind creates shapes of darkness and shadows — illusions. No…it did seem to really be there. It was elongating now. As though something, this black thing, had been on all-fours and was now standing up. To stand over the patient in his bed.
An intruder. Someone here to attack the patient? Or just someone mentally unstable who had somehow found a way in? Perhaps they had tailgated and slipped in behind a member of staff as they had entered through the security-protected doors.
“Hey!” I shouted, banging on the window. “Hey, who’s there? You’re not supposed to be in there!”
The figure stood, unmoved.
I went back to the door, through the corridor, and into the sleep room. I turned on the light.
No one was there. There couldn’t have been time to escape – if they’d exited the sleep room, they would have run into me in the corridor.
How odd. Most likely a trick of the darkness. Just to be certain, though, I checked underneath the bed, and in the ensuite bathroom, and in the cabinet for good measure. Everything was in order. I looked at the patient in bed — I was now standing over the bed in the same way I’d imagined the shadow had done. The patient’s breathing had returned to his normal pace.
I went back to the Monitoring Room, and I looked at the screen displaying the camera view. We’re able to play-back video without affecting live recording, so I rewound the recording a few minutes. There was nothing on there – no shadow. Everything was just like usual, empty room, with the patient in the bed – nothing moving until I entered a few minutes later to check up.
I sat down at my laptop again, not really able to concentrate anymore on the article I had been reading. I decided I needed some light relief. I went to Youtube and started watching some videos, with the speakers turned off. Soon, I was able to relax and was engrossed.
I don’t know how long passed in this way – an hour or so, I think. My eyes went back to the recording screen to make sure all was well.
There was no EEG signal. It was flat-lining. No heart signal. No breathing signal.
My heart jumped into my throat – the patient was dead? And I’d missed it, I should have done something, what had happened? What a fool I was, getting wrapped up in videos….
I looked at the camera-feed and…. The patient was gone. The bed was empty.
In the midst of the rush of adrenaline and confusion and fear (though at that point I was more afraid of losing my job for negligence, than anything else) — I ran into the Sleep Room and turned on the light. The bed was tousled, as though the participant had just walked off. But that was impossible. The door had been closed, and the outer door had a security lock, only those with a swipe-card could get out.
Feeling jittery and trying to stave off the thoughts that I was going to get into a lot of trouble because I had let my guard down and let this patient walk off — I looked in the adjoining restroom. Nothing. Feeling stupid, I looked in the clothes cabinet. Nothing. I got on hands and knees, the carpet feeling rough under my palms, and looked under the bed.
The patient was lying under the bed.
I let out a sigh of relief.
“Hello?” I asked. No response. His eyes were closed.
Without thinking about it, I shuffled sideways, halfway under the bed, and used one hand to slowly drag the man out. He was still unconscious. The wires were still attached to his head, but had been unplugged at the other end, from the recording machine — so they trailed, long unattached wires, like dreadlocks, from his head.
Heaving and panting, I somehow managed to get his dead-weight back into bed. I then set about plugging everything back into where it should be, and then covered him with the blanket again. I went back into the Monitoring Room — the signal was back and recording. The signal indicated he was indeed still comatose.
How had he managed to get out of bed? Had he regained consciousness unplugged his wires, and then hidden under the bed for some reason — perhaps scared at the new surroundings — and then relapsed back into the coma while there? Highly unlikely, but the only solution to this conundrum that I could think of. This was all so strange. Only one way to find out — the video. Visual evidence. With that, we’d know exactly what happened. I clicked rewind on the video feed.
The past hour was just a blank, dead screen.
I felt winded. I sat down on my chair, heavily. There must be some rational explanation for this.
I went to the door that opened into the corridor, and I closed it. It locks automatically, so only I can open it to get out, with my card. Just to be safe.
I also thought it might be a good idea to check in with Security Services. They’re around, via phone access, 24/7 for any lone workers at our facility, so it might be a good idea to tell them about the footsteps and all that, so they could send someone over. Before, I had thought this was excessive, I don’t like to cause a fuss over nothing, but now, well. Perhaps someone was playing a prank on me. Now I just wanted someone here with me. Some reassurance.
I picked up the office phone, and there was no dial-tone. Never mind. I took my mobile from my pocket. No signal. Odd. I tried changing position etc, but it was no use.
I went onto my email to message a colleague, to see if I could ask them to ring security for me.
“This email could not be sent. Please check your connection and try again.”
The internet connection was definitely still there. I loaded a Youtube video — it was playing fine.
I clicked on another video – and a screaming erupted, startling me.
To say I was annoyed is an understatement — had someone put a screamer into one of these videos? I hit the mute button, and it made no difference. My laptop was already on mute.
I got to my feet, my head spinning with the unexpected screaming. It was unrelenting. I checked the EEG screen. Brainwave activity was as before, comatose, but his chin muscle signal was active. It meant that his mouth was moving. The infrared camera image was too grainy to tell – so I glanced at the window into his room. Indeed, his mouth was wide open, his chest muscles straining. He was screaming, unrelentingly. But his brain signals…he was still in a coma.
Before I could mentally process this, the patient sat upright in bed.
Here’s the thing: there was no activity in his orbito-frontal, parietal or motor regions. Basically, the brain areas that should control his decision to sit up, plan the movement, and signal his muscles to move — all were “quiet” — all were inactive. By the look of the signal, his brain wasn’t actually controlling his movements.
What the hell?
Maybe – maybe there was something wrong with the signal? Maybe there was an error with the recording equipment.
I ran into the door, which I’d closed just a few minutes ago. It wouldn’t open. I tried swiping my card. It wouldn’t open. No beep. Nothing.
I went to switch on the light. Maybe I wasn’t aiming the card at the sensor properly in the dark? The light wouldn’t come on. The light was completely out.
There is a pane of frosted glass at the side of the door (that opens from the Monitoring Room to the corridor). Perhaps I could smash it and squeeze through? I lifted the chair above my head and steadied myself, planting my feet firmly, and got ready to swing…
Someone pushed me. Someone shoved me, forcefully, away from the door. I toppled over, the chair falling from my grip, onto me in a confused, tumultuous movement where I couldn’t tell where my head was in relation to my feet and the floor. I managed to untangle myself, pushing the chair off me, not thinking about the malicious force that had thrown me onto the floor — taking it all in my stride — adrenaline making me incredulous, perhaps.
Then, the recording computer monitors went dark. The EEG signals, and the camera-feed screens, both, just pop and they were gone. I was plunged into greater darkness. I ran to the window to look in at the patient. He was sitting upright in bed, still screaming. He had been screaming relentlessly throughout all this. I stared at him and banged on the window. Trying to get him to wake up. This wasn’t a normal coma, perhaps I could wake him up if I tried? I don’t know what the hell this was. I was willing to throw all protocol out of the window now.
And then someone closed the blinds from the other room.
I stood staring at it. I didn’t see a hand pull the blind down, only the jerking movement of the dark blind being pulled to the bottom of the window pane. Someone else might have shouted out, asked who was there. I don’t know why, but I just didn’t. Maybe because I knew it would be no use. I never thought I would type this, but I knew then, I knew this wasn’t a human I was dealing with. I felt drained.
I went meekly, aimlessly, and sat down in my chair facing my laptop. It seems that electricity has gone from the building, somehow. At least, from the Recording Room. I can’t check elsewhere. That should mean that the security doors automatically unlock, but they haven’t. I’m trapped in here. The only reason I can still access the internet is because my laptop was fully charged. I’ve tried emailing many people, I’ve tried signing in to Skype, I’ve tried messaging on Facebook, but I always get an error message. There is no signal on my phone.
In desperation, I tried posting on the internet. The submissions box somehow still works. And so, here I am.
The patient is in the room next door. He keeps screaming, on and off. Is he in a coma, or is he awake now? I don’t know. I almost don’t want to know. He now and then screams an actual word — a strange word — a few foreign syllables, over and over. I don’t know what he’s saying. I have no idea what is going on. There is no explanation for what has happened — not that I can tell. I have a feeling that this — whatever this is — has its sights set on the patient alone, and just wants me to keep out of its way. I have no choice but to oblige, I’m out of options.
I just need to make it through the rest of this night. It seems to stretch out before me, never-ending.
When morning comes, if I make it out of here alive, I’m going to go and visit my brother. And I’m going apologise to him.