What's it like to be in a coma? Teen's vivid description goes viral

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Thursday, July 16, 2015
Claire Wineland was put in a medically-induced coma for two weeks so doctors could fight a dangerous infection. Her account of what it was like has gone viral.
Kaye Kittrell/ABC News

Claire Wineland said she vividly remembers her two weeks in a medically-induced coma, and she's sharing her experience in hopes of starting a conversation.

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Wineland, who has cystic fibrosis, was undergoing a routine treatment procedure when she contracted a dangerous infection called blood sepsis. Doctors sedated her to fight the infection, and she was in the medically-induced coma for two weeks.

Now she's made a video to talk about all the details she still remembers years later.

"Being in a coma is like a magnified and intense version of our own dreams," she said. "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."

Wineland said she began to make sense of some of her memories when she awoke from the coma.
Kaye Kittrell/ABC News

Wineland grows wide-eyed while explaining that there are aspects of those two weeks that still fascinate and confuse her. She said she has a memory of her family talking about a nurse, which at the time her brain interpreted as a gossiping session at a summer camp. It was a conversation that Wineland could have sworn she had taken part in, but in reality she wasn't speaking.

"Sometimes this messes me up when I'm going and looking back," she said. "I remember so clearly saying something back to them and being like, 'Oh yea, that Peggy.' [But really] I didn't say anything."

Wineland also said she would spend hours dreaming of Alaska, which at first she found to be random.

"I've never been to Alaska. I've never shown any interest in Alaska, but for some reason while I was asleep, I kept going to Alaska in my head," she said, "and it was so beautiful."

What she later realized was that ice packs were being applied to reduce her fever. Dr. Michael DeGeorgia, a neurologist from University Hospitals Case Medical Center, said patients' brains will often try to make sense of their surroundings in a similar manner.

DeGeorgia clarified that Wineland's experiences speak to medically-induced comas, which are distinct from comas brought on by traumatic brain injury. He also said our brains construct memories in similar ways during both dreams and sedation.

"When you're dreaming, your entire brain is not [synchronized]. When you wake up from [a] dream, the memory is almost there but can't quite get it," he explained to ABC News "When you're in and out of sedation [your brain is] not quite synchronized in laying down memories."

Wineland posted her video reflection on her YouTube channel, The Clarity Project, which she started to discuss what it's like living with cystic fibrosis.

"[There's a] hidden world and subculture of being sick," Wineland told ABC News. "No one really talks about it, it's [always] a story of dying person and not a sick person. The life of a sick person is incredibly fascinating."