SA man tells of his 12 years in a vegetative state: “I was aware of everything”

Martin Pistorius and his wife, Joanna. Photo: Martin Pistorius via NPR Read more:
“Locked-in syndrome” survivor, Martin Pistorius and his wife, Joanna. Martin says his wife helped him to understand the true meaning of the Bible passage (1 Cor 13:13) about faith, hope and love. (PHOTO: Martin Pistorius via NPR)

Originally published in The Gospel Herald

When 12-year-old Martin Pistorius fell into a vegetative state in the late 1980s, the diagnosis of Cryptococci Meningitis was expected to leave him in that condition until he died a short time later. But the boy didn’t die. And 12 years after his paralysis, he woke up to tell his story.

The South African boy first started showing signs of the illness when he lost his ability to move, and then could no longer speak. His parents, Rodney and Joan, were told that all they could do is bring him home and make him comfortable until he passed away from the illness.

The family continued to care for Martin for 12 years, waking up at 5 am every day to take him to his special care center where he stayed until picked up by his father. “Eight hours later, I’d pick him up, bathe him, feed him, put him in bed, set my alarm for two hours so that I’d wake up to turn him so that he didn’t get bedsores,” Rodney stated to NPR in a recent interview.

But Martin was completely aware of everything that was going on around him, as he explains in his book, “Ghost Boy: My Escape From A Life Locked Inside My Own Body.

“Yes, I was there, not from the very beginning, but about two years into my vegetative state, I began to wake up,” Martin explained.
The horrific realisation hit Martin around age 14 when he says he was aware of everything, just like any normal person. “Everyone was so used to me not being there that they didn’t notice when I began to be present again,” he says. “The stark reality hit me that I was going to spend the rest of my life like that – totally alone.”

Dark period
From there, things got really dark for Martin. He explains how he was able to disconnect his thoughts and not pursue the lonely emotions going through his mind every day. “You don’t really think about anything,” he continued. “You simply exist. It’s a very dark place to find yourself because, in a sense, you are allowing yourself to vanish.”

Martin’s story continues to awe as he explains some of the torture he endured at the hands of caregivers. From verbal abuse to sexual abuse to physical abuse, Martin was aware of it all.

But perhaps the worst thing imaginable happened to Martin when his mother once told him that she hopes he died. He struggled with her words, wondering how a mother could ever say that to her own child. “As time passed, I gradually learned to understand my mother’s desperation. Every time she looked at me, she could see only a cruel parody of the once-healthy child she had loved so much.”

Martin explains in his book that its when he began reconnecting with his thoughts that his body began to slowly recover, too. Now married but still reliant on a wheelchair for mobility, Martin’s wife, Joanna, helped re-introduce the now-39-year-old man to the Lord.

“It was she who has taught me to understand the true meaning of the Bible passage we were having read at the service: ‘There are three things that will endure – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.’ My life has encompassed all three and I know the greatest of all is indeed love, in all its forms,” Martin explains in his book. “I’d experienced it as a boy and man, as a son, brother, grandson and friend, I’d seen it between others and I know it could sustain us through the darkest of times.”

Pistorius moved from Johannesburg to England in 2008. He now lives in Harlow, England, with his wife. You can check out the complete 12-minute audio interview with Martin over at NPR’s website.

According to a reviewer of Ghost Boy Martin speaks of his faith in God during his ordeal; that while he couldn’t explain it, he knew that God was with him and he wasn’t alone. 


  1. Awesome story

  2. Stark reminder to treat someone in a coma or vegetative state as being AWAKE. Not the first time I have heard this from someone who has come through !!

  3. Shalom!
    How great is our Creator!
    Never under estimate the Body, Soul, Spirit. Combination! Life is life eternal. This is such a wonderful encouragement for all the tests we encounter as we walk this earth.
    What a God given Daddy to even wake up to care for his child!