May 9, 2006

Coma Misrepresented on the Big Screen

By Megan Rauscher

NEW YORK -- The portrayal of coma and awakening from a coma is grossly inaccurate in major motion pictures, research shows, and many moviegoers are unable to tell fact from fiction. They admit that what they see in films regarding coma may impact real-life decisions for a loved one.

In a review of 30 movies from 1970 to 2004 with actors depicting prolonged coma, coma experts found that only two showed a "reasonably accurate" representation of coma.

Problems with the depiction of coma included comatose patients, without feeding tubes, suddenly waking after years of being in a coma with no physical or mental problems and with a Sleeping Beauty-like appearance.

"Miraculous awakening from prolonged coma with no long-lasting effects was a typical feature," report Dr. Eelco F. Wijdicks, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and his son Coen Wijdicks, who is working on a master's degree in anatomy and cell biology at Rush University in Chicago.

Not showing typical coma-related effects such as muscle wasting, bed sores and incontinence may be a conscious decision on the part of filmmakers to "maximize entertainment but is a disservice to the viewer," they write in the journal Neurology.

Virtually all of the films showed the comatose person with eyes shut at all times, when in reality people in comas often have their eyes open or open them in response to speech or pain.

One film showed a comatose person tapping out a message in Morse code with his finger. "We expected misrepresentation - not gross representation," Eelco Wijdicks told Reuters Health.

As part of their study, the Wijdicks showed clips of 22 scenes depicting coma from 17 of the movies to 72 people with no medical training and asked them how accurately the comatose state was portrayed.

"We expected that the viewing public would recognize the inaccuracies, but we were surprised by the high number of viewers who thought some of the scenes were very plausible," Eelco Wijdicks commented.

For example, more than one-third of the time, viewers were unable to spot important inaccuracies in the scenes and 39 percent of viewers admitted that what they saw in the scenes might influence their decisions if a family member were in a coma.

"The public has become more sophisticated in their medical knowledge and we presume they would appreciate a more accurate display of devastating neurologic injury," write the Wijdicks in their report.

SOURCE: Neurology, May 9, 2006.