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Man speaks after 19-year silence Tuesday, July 8, 2003 Posted: 6:23 PM EDT (2223 GMT)
(CNN) -- Nearly 19 years after a wreck left a man paralyzed and unable to communicate, his power of speech has returned, the man's family said Monday.
Terry Wallis was 19 when the pickup truck in which he and two friends were driving near Stone County, Arkansas, drove through a rail and off a 25-foot bluff and tumbled to the ground. One man was killed; another emerged without a scratch; Wallis was paralyzed.
Doctors told his parents that he was in a coma, said his mother, Angilee.
Though his parents brought him home every other week, and continued to talk to him, they had no idea whether he understood them, she said.
That eased a few years ago, when he began responding to questions with grunts of assent or disagreement, and by blinking his eyes, said Jerry Wallis, Terry's father.
But June 12, their son made a major advance, the parents said.
That was when Angilee drove to the nursing home 26 miles from their home in Big Flat, Arkansas, 100 miles from Little Rock, for what she thought would be a typical visit.
The nursing home worker escorted Terry's mother to his room and, as she always did, asked her patient who his visitor was.
"He just said, 'Mom,'" Angilee said. "I like to fell over."
Not only were she and the nursing home worker surprised, but so was Terry, Angilee said. "You could tell by the look on his face. His eyes were kind of big."
By the end of the day, "We had him to wear the name out."
The next day, she brought her son home, and he added "Pepsi" to his vocabulary. "He loves Pepsi," Angilee said.
June 14, the day before Father's Day, she said he added "dad" to his vocabulary.
The next day, when she brought him back to the nursing home and had him reveal his newfound abilities to the staff, "they were beside themselves," she said.
"I said, 'Terry, what can you say?' He said, 'Anything I want.'"
Though Terry's speech is slow and labored, he can indeed say whatever he wants, she said. "I said, 'I'm so proud of you.' He said, 'I'm proud of me, too.'"
'He would not have talked dirty before he wrecked' Since then, she has been trying to catch up with her son, and finds him to be a willing participant. "He loves to talk."
But he remains stuck in 1984, she said. Asked who the president is, her son replied, "Ronald Reagan," she said.
And brain damage suffered in the accident is evident in his poor short-term memory, she said.
During the years when he was not responsive, Angilee said she sometimes thought that, for his sake, it might have been better had he not survived.
"It has crossed my mind several times, probably," she said.
His father agreed. "I thought it might have been best ... for him, not for me."
Both agree they're now glad that did not happen, and held out hope things could continue to improve. Terry remains paralyzed, but he has some movement.
"Maybe, if he can get some help, maybe he'll get better," he said. Already, Terry has had 12 speech therapy lessons, "but that's the only therapy that he's had."
In fact, the parents said, Terry was never seen by a neurologist after the accident.
"They told us it would cost $120,000 just to evaluate him to see if he could be helped, and we didn't have that kind of money," said Jerry, who is a farmer. His wife works in a shirt factory.
Attempts to get Medicaid to pay proved fruitless. "They said the government will not put out that kind of money on no more chance than he's got to re-enter the workforce."
As a result, their son was never evaluated, he said.
It's not just his language abilities that have changed. So, too, has his personality, Terry's parents said. When the speech therapist asked him what she could do for him, "He told her, 'Make love to me,'" said his father.
"That's kind of strange, because he would not have talked dirty before he wrecked."