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Waking Up after 19 Years


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I like his last line.

Coma Victim Wakes Up to Post-Communist World

Monday, June 04, 2007

By Peter Popham

A Polish railway worker has woken after 19 years of a coma to discover that his world has changed beyond all recognition.

"When I went into a coma, there was only tea and vinegar in the shops," Jan Grzebski, now 65, told a Polish news channel.

"Meat was rationed and there were huge petrol queues everywhere."

Mr Grzebski lost consciousness in 1988, after he was hit by a train. Doctors gave him only two or three years to live. But because of the tireless care of his wife Gertruda, who moved him every hour to prevent bedsores, he remained in good health. He was, however, completely removed from the dramatic changes across the world.

After regaining consciousness, he told his family that he had vague memories of family gatherings and of his relatives talking to him, trying to provoke a response. There was plenty for them to tell him about, if they had wished to startle him with amazing news.

When Mr Grzebski lost consciousnessin 1988, another Polish working man, the electrician Lech Walesa, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, was back at work after years under house arrest. But the Communist authorities still had him under close surveillance. Within two years, Communism had collapsed and Mr Walesa was elected President of Poland with 75 per cent of the vote. Walesa turned out to be a flop as president. And when he stood again in 2000, Mr Grzebski's relatives would have pointed out, that only 1 per cent of the electorate voted for him. By that time, Poland had a market economy, communism was receding rapidly into the past, but the injured railwayman was still dead to the world.

His wife, who was said by Mr Grzebski's doctor to have "done the job of an entire intensive care team", continued to change his position every hour. "I cried a lot, and prayed a lot," she said of those long and lonely years. "Those who came to see us kept asking, 'When is he going to die?' But he's not dead."

Mr Grzebski's remarkable story is a real life version of the film Good Bye, Lenin!, in which Katrin Sass, an East Berliner, suffers a heart attack and slips into a coma in 1989 - thereby missing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the sudden and dramatic transformation of everyday life as the communist system collapses. "Mother slept through the relentless triumph of capitalism," says the character, Alex, her son.

When she comes back to life, the doctor warns Alex that a shock might kill her, so he goes to drastic lengths to conceal from her the revolution that has occurred, rescuing tatty East German furniture, restoring the dingy communist decor, persuading friends to visit dressed as Young Communist scouts.

Gertruda Grzebska took no such precautions when her husband came round, and the miracle of modern Poland flooded his senses. He couldn't help noticing that people were complaining just as much as during the years of empty shops and martial law. "Now I see people on the streets with cellphones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin," he confessed.

"What amazes me is all these people who walk around with their mobile phones and yet they never stop moaning."

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