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The Full Story Behind The Woman Who 'Woke' From A Coma After 27 Years

Munira Abdulla stunned the world when she 'woke up' after spending nearly three decades in a coma following a violent car crash and it was described as a 'miracle' across the world. However, that's not the full story.

Munira Abdulla, a United Arab Emirates (UAE) citizen, was 32 years old when she was involved in a violent car crash in 1991 that left her with devastating brain injuries.

She was driving to her home in Al Ain at the time with her four-year-old son Omar in the car (Omar escaped with minimal injuries).

Abdulla spent 26 years in the UAE receiving limited treatment for her injuries until April of 2017, when her family were given a grant from the Crown Prince Court to receive comprehensive and multidisciplinary medical treatment from specialists in Germany.

Munira Abdulla. Photo: Khushnum Bhandari for The National

She was sent to the Schoen Clinic in Munich and came under the care of chief physician, Doctor Friedemann Müller, who directed her neurological treatment as well as several orthopedic surgeries to correct her posture.

Müller's team attends to a rotation of approximately 30 patients at any one time who have suffered traumatic brain injury such as stroke or diseases that involve neurological factors.

Müller told 10 daily that when Abdulla initially came to the hospital, his hopes that she could recover from her injuries quickly waned.

"I have to admit after six months or longer, we did not see any difference in her observable behaviour, so we did not expect any more to happen," he said.

While Abdulla's state is being described as a coma in media reports, this is not strictly the medical definition of her experience.

Instead, Müller said that she was in a "minimally conscious state minus", which is more conscious than the 'vegetative' condition that the public imagines when they think of a coma patient.

Rather than simply being conscious or in a coma, a patient's consciousness can be thought of as a spectrum.

Source: Getty.

What is popularly thought of as the 'vegetative state' (now medically defined as unresponsive wakefulness syndrome) describes a patient's complete lack of awareness of themselves or their environment.

Patients who improve from this state -- as coma patients tend to do after several weeks or months -- will reside in what is called a disorder of consciousness. There are two levels of this: patients who can only fixate their gaze on objects (the minimally conscious state minus) and patients who can fixate their gaze as well as follow simple commands (the minimally conscious state plus).

Abdulla could only fixate her gaze when she arrived at the Schoen Clinic but this sign was enough for doctors to pursue treatment.

Approximately 10 months into her treatment, Abdulla began to show small flickers of improvement that gave the team at the Schoen Clinic the impression she could eventually wake up. 

"We noticed there was some sounds coming from her which were somewhat new," said Müller.

Omar began to report to the doctors that his mother was saying his name. However, the doctors remained sceptical as her voice was hoarse and she was speaking in her native Arabic that it was difficult for her physicians to assess what was truly happening.

Schoen Clinic, Germany. Source: Getty.

"Over a period of some days, maybe two weeks or so, this developed quickly into discernible words and we realised that she was really calling her son by his name," Müller said.

"There were also deeply-lasting memory traces of the Quran and she was able to follow with her lips when her son prayed for her. In the end she was reporting phrases from the Quran that were discernible."

Müller said that the team were surprised and excited but he felt "a little bit ashamed" that he had told the son he did not believe his claims that Abdulla was speaking.

It is regular for patients in the minimally conscious state minus to wake into consciousness after several months or years but Müller says it is unheard of after 27 years.

There are very few cases of people waking up from minimally conscious states after stretches of years and even fewer of these have been verified by medical literature.

Terry Wallis, an Arkansas man, woke from a minimally conscious state like Abdulla's in 2003 after 19 years following a traumatic head injury that he sustained in a car accident.

Abdulla is now able to recognise and respond to her surroundings to a limited extent.

Her daughter reported to Müller last week that she is able to recognise members of her family and indicate who is missing when they visit her in her UAE rehabilitation centre. She can also comment on the colour of her daughter's dresses and say whether she likes them or not.

Munira Abdulla is tended to by her son Omar at ProVita International Medical Centre in Khalifa City. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

Abdulla is also able to engage in simple conversations and shows purposeful arm movements when responding to commands -- although these movements are still far from functional.

However, Müller stressed that Abdulla still suffers extensive brain damage as a result of her injuries and that she remains extremely disabled in her current state.

"She'll always be depending on heavy nursing care, she will not be able to lead an independent life.

I don't think you can expect that she will read a newspaper and understand the meaning," he said.

Müller can not speculate on what his patient was experiencing for the 27 years that she was in minimal consciousness but he believes that she may have had some recognition of the world around her.

"I guess that she had some feelings of emotion when she saw her son or heard her son because he was with her all the time," he said.