Martin Pistorius: Ghost Boy

One of the most frightening disorders the scientific community has discovered is called locked-in syndrome. Basically it’s a situation where a person seems to be in a normal coma except in actuality they are fully aware of everything that’s happening. This living hell of being trapped in one’s own body can persist for years or even decades. Until relatively recently there was no way for these people to communicate with the outside world at all. This is what happened to young Martin Pistorius.

There was no warning of what was to come.

At 12 years old Martin was a healthy, ordinary boy. That is until one day he started developing rather common cold-like symptoms. His condition quickly deteriorated and doctors at the time believed he had contracted some strange neuro-degenerative disorder that was eating away his brain and leaving him brain-dead. They even suggested letting him die peacefully in his sleep.

Martin slipped into a coma and lingered unconscious for four years. Then he woke up. Well, his mind did but his body was still paralyzed. For a decade he remained in this state. His own mother even whispered “I hope you die” to him during a visit. Of course he heard every word.

His mother’s words were harsh but they came from a place of love. She would later be an invaluable champion of his recovery.

Then came a miracle of technology. A therapist Virna Van Der Walt grew more and more suspicious of Marin’s awareness and urged the family to get him retested by modern doctors and specialists. Remember when I said that only recently communication with patients in comas has become possible?

There are a few ways to communicate with someone who is paralyzed or in a coma. It’s all very technical but effectively it comes down to the fact that even though the body can’t move, the mind is still active. With machines that scan the brain, a basic form of communication can be worked out: Imagining certain experiences can generate different chemicals, thinking about different memories causes blood to concentrate in areas of the brain, ect. All you need is the ability to respond or not respond and you’ve established the basis of a “yes/no” communication system.

Martin responded very well to this new therapy. So well, in fact, that within a few years his body had recovered, and he had re-learned how to walk, read, and socialize. Now he’s happily married with a college degree.

Definitely a fairytale ending.

His autobiography, “Ghost Boy,” is available here:


In 2015 he also did a Ted Talk which you can view here:


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