'You Can't Get Out': This Is What It Really Feels Like To Be In A Coma

Jardine Howlett missed her son's third birthday after getting pneumonia – and woke up weeks later.
Jardine Howlett and her two children (left), the Christmas before she contracted pneumonia.
Jardine Howlett
Jardine Howlett and her two children (left), the Christmas before she contracted pneumonia.

In My Story, readers share their unique, life-changing experiences. This week we hear from Jardine Howlett, who’s 39 and based in west Sussex.

It was the night before my son’s third birthday party that I started feeling really unwell. I’d had quite mild symptoms for a couple of days before that – an upset stomach, feeling a bit cold and shivery and tired – but I just thought I had a cold or something coming on and didn’t think much of it.

But when I was supposed to be getting ready for the party, I realised I didn’t have the energy to do it. It was a bit like I was carrying a lead weight around with me.

I was a lone parent at the time, and my parents said that I didn’t look well, so my mum very kindly offered to stay over to help me bath the children and put them to bed.

I went to bed and then woke up at about one o’clock in the morning, feeling all of a sudden very hot. I got up to get a cold flannel and it suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t catch my breath.

I went into my mum’s room to get her mobile – she can’t really use it – and I used it to dial 999. They decided to send out a first responder and at that point, I thought ‘I’m just being dramatic’.

The paramedic gave me a nebuliser to help me breathe, but it was clear after 5-10 minutes that my breathing was still getting worse. An ambulance was ordered.

From there it all happened quite quickly. I walked to the ambulance, but I couldn’t walk out of it. When we arrived at the hospital, 10 minutes later, I’d been coughing so hard that my oxygen mask was full of blood. I felt like I was suffocating, and I remember pleading with the ambulance crew not to let me die.

Jardine and her two sons in hospital.
Jardine Howlett
Jardine and her two sons in hospital.

Suddenly, I was put in a room full of doctors and nurses. Obviously, my main concern was that I hadn’t said goodbye to my boys. They were very little, both under six, so everything was flashing through my mind. Who’s going to take care of them, what’s going to happen to them? I was fighting for what I felt were going to be my last few breaths.

The doctors were saying: “Don’t struggle. We’re trying to save you.” And that’s pretty much all I heard before waking up in a different hospital in ICU, three weeks later.

I’d been placed me in a medically induced coma.

What had transpired, was that doctors had found I’d had a bacterial infection, Strep A, which had led to me having double pneumonia. If it’s not treated, pneumonia can lead to quite serious complications. So in my case, it was sepsis and ARDS, which stands for acute respiratory distress syndrome. It’s essentially when your lungs aren’t functioning well enough to do the job they need to do.

When they woke me from the coma, I was confused about where I was. At that point, you’re on quite a lot of drugs, so actually, you feel like you’re being held against your will. It’s quite frightening. You don’t necessarily believe what’s being told to you, because you’ve been in a sort of crazy dream world for a few weeks. You don’t really trust anything that’s going on around you.

“You feel like you’re continuously awake, but somewhere you can’t get out of.”

In a coma, you feel like you’re continuously awake, but somewhere you can’t get out of, and you just go from one scenario to another.

In my dreams, I was trying to get home to my boys. I started off close to home in places I ‘recognised’ in the dream sense, but as time went on and in each new scenario, I was getting further and further away from home. The scenarios became more unsettling, unfamiliar, and as much as I’d keep moving, I couldn’t find the end or the way out.

That’s quite a common feeling among people who’ve been in comas, from the support groups I’ve seen. Some people describe their dreams during that time as terrifying.

Whether external factors play into what your dreams are, it’s hard to say. You don’t wake up feeling like you’ve had a really nice, long restful sleep for three weeks, you wake up feeling tired, like you haven’t slept for months.

When I first came round, I was still very ill, so I didn’t see the boys straight away. The consultant said that my lungs were like wet sponges that had been left out in the sun, they’d gone stiff. I couldn’t move a muscle, I couldn’t even lift my hand. I could just blink, really. It was awful.

I was put on an ECMO machine, which stands for extracorporeal life support – it’s something you’ll be put on when a ventilator no longer works. It’s essentially like a lung bypass machine, so you can see the tubes running down your legs and your blood going out, then the machine puts the oxygen in, it takes the carbon dioxide out, and then it puts the blood back into your body. I was put on the waiting list for an ECMO machine because there aren’t many in the country, so I was extremely lucky to get one.

Recovery was just taking one step at a time to start building myself up. I had a sea of nurses and doctors around me 24/7 – they were amazing. Once I had all the tubes removed from around my face, I felt more ready for the boys to come in, because it wouldn’t be as frightening for them.

The boys had been given colouring books of all of the machinery, which is designed to help them prepare for what they’re going to see. I saw my youngest son first – who’d obviously just had his third birthday. My parents brought him into hospital while my oldest son was at school.

I was so pleased to see him, but you know, I’ll never forget the look on his little face. He was terrified when he saw me. I wasn’t strong enough to sit up or hug him, so he just sat on my dad’s lap the entire time, not wanting to fully look at me. I didn’t push him. My dad had brought some of the presents that I had wrapped for his birthday, so we opened those together.

A few days later, my eldest son came in after school. He was much more forthcoming, he just hopped up on the bed and snuggled next to me and watched Hey Duggee. Because he’d got in with me, my youngest felt happier to snuggle up too. It felt amazing to be back with them. It really was like the best medicine I could have asked for.

Slowly, very slowly, I was building myself up physically, taking a few steps, and then eventually walking to the end of the ward, still attached to the machine.

Just as suddenly as my pneumonia came, everything changed. The doctor started reducing the ECMO to see how I’d cope. They decided to remove it completely on the 5th July, which was my 34th birthday and my oldest son’s sixth birthday.

The doctors and nurses helped us have like a little bedside party for me and my son, with cake and decorations fashioned from aprons and surgical gloves blown up as balloons.

After six weeks in hospital I was discharged. I wasn’t ready to go straight home to my boys, unfortunately, because I still couldn’t get around that well and didn’t have the energy to look after them. I still had oxygen tanks, so I went to stay with my sister for a few weeks as I built myself back up.

Jardine after leaving hospital with her oxygen tank (left) and a recent picture with her boys (right).
Jardine Howlett
Jardine after leaving hospital with her oxygen tank (left) and a recent picture with her boys (right).

It’s been five years and I would say I got back to a reasonable standard of health quite quickly, but there are some things that endure. My memories were a bit foggy for quite a long time, which took several years to gradually get better. My hair came out in clumps not long after I got home, and that was unexpected, but apparently that’s quite common after an ICU stay. It’s just losing your hair, but it has a big emotional impact just as you’re starting to feel better.

My lungs are my weak spot. If I’m ever feeling tired or rundown, or if I’m pushing myself too hard, there’s a slight pain in my chest, even today. It basically reminds me to take my health seriously and appreciate that.

And of course, I would advocate that anyone that’s entitled to a free pneumonia vaccine should have one. If you’re worried about your health, don’t leave it too late. Call a doctor, go to the hospital if you need to. Just do it. Don’t feel like you’re being a pain.

Jardine is working alongside Asthma + Lung UK to raise awareness of pneumonia and encourage those who are eligible to get their one-off pneumonia vaccine, as well as their flu jab and Covid-19 booster.

She was interviewed by Rachel Moss and her answers were edited for length and clarity. To take part in HuffPost UK’s My Story series, email uklife@huffpost.com.