A long and sad refrain

March, 1, 2014
Schumacher FansPhilippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty ImagesMichael Schumacher fans wish him well soon after the skiing accident that put him in a coma Dec. 29.

I stand reminded once again that there is a fate worse than death. I have seen people suffer it too often. The memory is a gloom unlike any other.

John F. Burns, London bureau chief of The New York Times, has in my mind produced the most profound body of work on the tragedy of Michael Schumacher.

This week, Burns went to Grenoble, France, where Schumacher has lain in coma since his injury in a skiing accident Dec. 29.

The indication was that Burns was the only journalist, or one of a handful at most, still there.

"The hubbub of jostling reporters and television crews," he wrote, "is a memory now …"

This in an Alpine city that was mobbed by media for weeks after the winningest driver in Formula One history -- 91 Grand Prix wins and seven world championships -- was brought there.

The theme I gleaned from the Times story is that Schumacher is slipping from the mind of the world, slipping toward the ranks of the forgotten comatose.

I've been there. Not to Grenoble, but there.

I went to Madison, Fla., while an obscure driver named Don Williams was setting the terrible record for living in coma after a NASCAR crash -- 10 years and three months. I went to his funeral in 1989.

I went to San Antonio while another NASCAR driver, Rick Baldwin, surpassed Williams' awful milestone, surviving in coma for two days short of 11 years, until 1997. I saw his two daughters grow up, from little girls into lovely women, during the time their father was "going for the Guinness Book of World Records for taking a nap -- for sleeping," as one of them put it, bravely but tearfully, to her friends at school.

Another NASCAR driver, Bruce Jacobi, lay in coma for nearly four years after a crash at Daytona in 1983. Butch Lindley, champion of NASCAR's National Sportsman Series, now the Nationwide Series, in 1977-78, lived comatose for five years after a crash in a non-NASCAR race in 1985.

Pattie Petty, Richard's daughter-in-law, accepts comatose kids at her and husband Kyle's Victory Junction camp in North Carolina. Seeing them, Pattie once told me, reminds her to be thankful that their son, Adam Petty, killed at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000, was taken from them immediately rather than lingering in what neurosurgeons call persistent vegetative state for months or years or decades.

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Bruce Jacobi
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesBruce Jacobi, who raced in NASCAR, USAC Sprint Cars and Indy car, lay in a coma for nearly four years after suffering extensive injuries in one of the qualifying races for the 1983 Daytona 500.

If not for Victory Junction, these kids would be forgotten by all but their mothers -- some fathers, unable to deal with the burden, just up and walk out on the families.

Another friend, Dr. Jerry Punch, the ESPN reporter, once told me of the terrible conflict of intellect and emotions all good trauma docs face often.

To paraphrase Jerry, when a patient is brought in, critical from a highway accident or other trauma, every bit of a doctor's training compels him to save this person whatever it takes -- this, even though you know that, if the person survives, he or she will be comatose, an awful burden on a family, perhaps for years.

But you save the person. Period.

"There's just too much we can do to keep you alive once you get in here," the neurosurgeon who initially treated Don Williams at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach once told me.

Doctors at University Hospital Center in Grenoble could do vastly -- perhaps exponentially -- more for Schumacher than the docs at Halifax could do for Williams in 1979. Schumacher was put into a medically induced coma, a technique I first learned of in 1994 when Karl Wendlinger, a former teammate of Schumacher's on the Mercedes Junior team when they were rising through the ranks, was placed in an artificial coma after a crash in Monaco.

When the heavy sedation was removed, Wendlinger woke up. Schumacher hasn't, as far as we know, with his family and manager remaining silent about his condition and asking to be let alone. Burns quotes one neuroscientist as saying "it's too early to say somebody is in a persistent vegetative state."

Burns' movement around Grenoble was respectful and unobtrusive, and his phrasing was delicate, sensitive -- "what is known seems increasingly dispiriting …"

The irony of Schumacher's injury is not lost on anyone who knew him, or even of him -- those countless risks taken in racing cars, only to be felled while on vacation in a skiing accident, apparently at moderate speed.

So what I write here is not an indictment of motor racing. It is a lament over one of the worst words in the English language, and the worst and longest nightmare in all the human condition: coma.


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