18-year-old with cystic fibrosis explains what it feels like to be in a coma

A coma patient lies in bed at Sant’Anna hospital in Crotone

In a recent video, 18-year-old Claire Wineland explains what it’s like to be in a coma.

Turns out, it’s really freaking weird.

Five years ago, Wineland, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, a genetic disorder that affects the lungs and digestive system, had to be put into a coma for two weeks after developing a dangerous post-surgery infection in her lungs.

To be clear, her coma was not caused by trauma to the brain, the usual source of naturally occurring comas.

Rather, Wineland was in a medically induced coma, meaning that her doctors used drugs to keep her continuously sedated while they tried to heal the infection.

Wineland describes having vivid dreams throughout her time asleep, and explains that these dreams would often include indirect references to what was happening in the waking world around her. She says,

“Everything that happens in the real world, you hear, you’re aware of. You kind of know what’s going on. But it goes through this weird filter thing in your brain… And then, it turns into something else once it actually hits your consciousness.”

For example, she says that the “best part” of the coma was her “Alaska hallucinations.” Before her surgery, Wineland had never been to Alaska or had any particular interest in it. But in her coma, she dreamed persistently that she was there. She recalls,

“It was so beautiful. It was like pine trees and coves… And I remember just sitting there and staring at the most beautiful scenery ever for hours and hours … It would be freezing cold, but I didn’t care.”

The answer as to why her unconscious mind seemed obsessed with Alaska finally came when Wineland discovered that she had been “getting ice-packed the whole time.” While asleep, she had had a very high fever, and her medical team had packed ice all around her. Somehow her brain converted that coldness into a whole frozen, Alaskan landscape.

A particularly intriguing aspect of Wineland’s coma experience is that people’s voices would impact the tone of her dreams. She says, “If I liked the person who was talking and I felt safe there, it would affect what was going on in my head.” When surrounded by loved ones, she would dream of beautiful, safe spaces.

But when the people speaking were strangers, she felt less secure. She explains, “it was always strange, and I had no idea where I was, and I felt kind of lost.”

Wineland found her weeks asleep educational. She says,

“I learned so much from that experience. … It showed me who I care about, and who makes me happy, and … how our own minds can be manipulated.”

This video is one of many that Wineland has produced about living with serious illness.

Her sense of humor and enthusiasm for life are contagious, and it’s worth checking out her YouTube channel, The Clairity Project, for insight into such topics as “Tips for Interacting with a Sick Person” and “The Upside of Being Sick.” (Apparently, the concert seating is pretty sweet).