MOVIE: Coma (2007)

This HBO-made documentary follows the ups and downs experienced over the period of a year by four brain-injury patients at the Center for Head Injuries, JFK Medical Center, New Jersey. The four patients are all very different. First, there’s Tom, a 31 year old who fell off a balcony and after only a few weeks at the Center has already come out of his coma and moved into a fairly conscious state (he’s the most “normal” of all the patients, but even after a year is still not able to speak very clearly or walk or care for himself). Then there’s Roxy, a 19 year old girl who was injured in a car accident, and who is also in a fairly conscious state, though she suffers from delusions that make her believe she is 13 years old and being tortured by “evil” people. Al-Khan is an African American who seems to have the greatest overall health issues (repeated infections) and keeps moving from a persistent vegetative state to a minimally conscious one (persistent vegetative meaning he is not aware of his surroundings at all, with minimally conscious meaning he can do things like follow a light with his eyes, make noises like speech, and recognize familiar faces). And finally there’s Sean, who is 19 or 20 and was attacked and thrown off a bridge — he is in a fully persistent vegetative state, and of the four has been in the Center the longest (a year already when the documentary begins).

By watching the changes — steps forward and back — of each patient, we get a mesmerizingly intimate look at the mysteries of brain injury. We also see the very raw emotion of the families struggling to hold it together for their injured loved one, but barely managing to get through each hard, often hopeless-feeling day. I’m not embarrassed to say I was essentially crying non-stop throughout most of this film. But at the same time, there were many elements of it I found utterly fascinating — there’s just so much we STILL do not know about the human brain, and though these four patients all had similar injuries, the variety of differences between their recoveries is simply stunning.

This is the second HBO-made documentary I’ve seen in the last few months, and I was as impressed by it as I was by the other one (a doc called Thin, which was a profile of patients at an eating disorder clinic — also fascinating). I really had no idea HBO had it’s own documentary series, and I have to say, I’m really looking forward to watching more of these. This is a very simply made film, but it taught me more about every angle of this subject than all the discussions about Terry Schiavo did. I finally understand better what her parents were going through and why it was so difficult for them to give up on their daughter despite the fact she was not showing any real progress towards recovery. And, I also understand better why her husband wanted to end her life — for her sake, and for the sake of everyone else suffering along with her.

All in all, a complex, thoughtful, and extremely sensitive film. Highly recommended, so if you are an HBO subscriber, keep an eye out for it. It looks like it will be repeating several times over the next week or two. You can find more information about the film, including scheduling details, at it’s page at HBO:

Genre: Documentary
Directed by: Liz Garbus


3 Responses to “MOVIE: Coma (2007)”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I can relate to the families in this film, and I have to say that it brought back every emotion that I felt 13 years ago…the day my family’s life changed dramatically forever. This was the most powerful documentary that I have ever seen. I truly hope people (starting in adolecent years) see this documentary to realize and understand how fragile and precious life is. Your life can literally change in a split second. Before I saw Coma, I did not think that there were other head-injury. Everybody is delt a different deck of cards and everybody handles situations differently. This documentary was phenomenal…I hope it is on regular cable so that more people can see “Coma.”

  2. megwood Says:

    Thank you for such a wonderful comment about this film — it really brings home the message it’s trying to send. I’ve noticed that most of the other HBO documentaries have eventually been released on DVD, so I’m hoping they’ll do the same with this one as well. I’ll keep an eye out for the DVD and if I see it, will post here again to let people know!

  3. Marni Says:

    This movie was riveting. And so sad. Heartbreaking to see people with such hope (like Shiavo’s parents) where there really isn’t any. Fascinating.

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