This is the story of two extraordinary people and the endurance of their love. This is the story of how the human brain remains an undecipherable mystery even to the most groundbreaking medical professionals. This story is so unbelievably inspiring; it will challenge even the most cynical amongst you to believe in miracles.
On Valentine ’s Day 2010, Sally Nielsen received the phone call that we all believe will never happen to us; her fiancé, twenty five year old Sam Goddard, had suffered a catastrophic brain injury whilst playing a friendly soccer match and was now in intensive care. To this day, doctors are still at a loss to explain how a previously fit and healthy young man could have ended up with such a severe brain injury for no apparent reason. Medical staff grimly prepared Sam’s fiancé and his family for the worst – Sam was not expected to survive.
But five weeks later, Sam woke up. Miracle number one.
He was not, however, the same Sam. This Sam required twenty four hour care. He could not walk, nor could he speak and he required a feeding tube. Yet Sally remained loyally by his side and despite being told by various people (including Sam’s parents and medical staff) that it was OK if she decided to walk away from the situation, she adamantly refused to leave. For Sally, Sam was still her soul mate despite everything that had changed in their lives.
Sam underwent an intensive rehabilitation program at Princess Alexandra Hospital’s Brain Injury unit and over a period of several months, was able to relearn how to walk and help with some of his personal cares despite an initially bleak prognosis. This was a miracle doctors told his family, given the extent of his brain injury. Miracle number two.
But Sally was not satisfied. She still believed that her Sam had the potential to further recover. So she began a quest and after much research, discovered the drug zolpidem. Better known as Stilnox, this drug reached notoriety several years ago as a sleeping tablet which caused bizarre and serious side effects including sleep walking and sleep driving. In recent times however, Stilnox, when given to some patients with severe brain injuries, was noted to cause dramatic improvements in their conscious level and ability to function. It is however, an experimental treatment and has only been trialled overseas in a handful of patients. Sally, after discussion with Sam’s family and the doctor who discovered the use of Stilnox in brain injuries, decided it was worth the risk.
For those of you who saw the episode of ‘Australian Story – Love and other drugs’ which was about Sam, the change we witnessed after a dose of this medication was phenomenal and so unbelievably amazing it gave me chills. It was as if the drug unlocked a secret door in Sam’s brain. Suddenly, Sam could communicate. He told Sally how much he loved her and still wanted to marry her. He told his family about his frustration regarding his inability to speak since his brain injury. He sang along to his favourite music. He was, for all intents and purposes, Sam again. Miracle number three.
The cruelest part of this miracle though is the fact that the effect Stilnox has on Sam only lasts an hour or so – and then that door is closed again. It is a bittersweet ‘cure’ and almost reminiscent in some ways, of a fable in which a handsome prince is cursed and locked away from the world, trapped inside his body but for an hour a day when he may return to his true form.
As a member of the medical profession myself, despite the wonderful outcomes that Sam has achieved with Stilnox, I can understand my colleagues reluctance in advocating the use of this drug. We do not know how it achieves the effect that it does. We do not know what is the ‘safe’ dosing range for this drug. We do not know what side effects it causes and if there are any long term consequences. As miraculous as Stilnox has been for Sam, it could have very easily had no effect. Or an adverse one. To date, there have only been a handful of studies on the use of this drug in brain injuries. The largest of these studies from South Africa, showed some improvement in brain activity and functional ability to some extent in 10 out of the study’s 23 patients. What this translates to clinically however is perhaps the most relevant question and the only way to answer this is, of course, via more research.
In the meantime though, Sally is still planning to marry her prince and is hoping that one day, they can both live happily ever after.
You can watch the full episode of Australian Story here