07/28/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
One terrible day in 1984 surgeons told Angilee Wallis her son Terry was lost to her forever. The 20-year-old had crashed through a guard-rail in a pickup truck and plunged off a lonely Ozark mountain road. Paralyzed from the neck down, he was in a vegetative state, walled off from loved ones, including an infant daughter. "One doctor told us, 'This isn't TV,' " Angilee recalls. "He said, 'People in comas don't just come out of it and everything's fine.' "
Still, for the next 19 years, Angilee, 55, hoped for a miracle, visiting her son twice a week at a rehab center near the family ranch in rural Round Mountain, Ark., to talk to him and hold his hand. But although Terry, now 39, could swallow food and open his eyes, he never uttered a word. That is, until June 11, when his mother showed up to see him and a nurse asked him who the visitor was. "Mom," he replied. Says Angilee: "I nearly fell over. Terry was grinning. I ran to him and hugged him. I said, 'Say it again!' "
He has—and more. Within five days of his awakening, Terry had begun speaking in simple sentences. Seeing his daughter, Amber, now 19 and married, for the first time, he declared, "I love you—you're so beautiful." Regaining consciousness after so many years is so rare that no statistics are kept, but experts believe Terry may hold the record for reviving after the longest period in a vegetative state. "It really is incredible," says Dr. James E. Zini, medical director of the Stone County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Mountain View, Ark., where Terry has lived since 1985. "We don't know what happened. He has a restorative potential that we never dreamed he had."
No comeback can restore the world he left behind. At the time of the accident, Terry was a newlywed with a 2-month-old daughter, Amber. But his bride, Sandy, then 17, moved on. She gave birth to three more children with another man and later dated Terry's brother Perry. Still, Sandy, who didn't divorce her husband, says she never stopped pulling for his full recovery. "My life," she says, "always had to be waiting for this." She insisted Amber visit Terry in the nursing home—often over her daughter's objections. "When I was 12," recalls Amber Wallis Cassulis, who works in a nightclub, "I said I didn't want to see him like that anymore."
Angilee's commitment never wavered. After obtaining legal guardianship of her son nine years ago, she and husband Jerry, 59, a farmer, spent untold hours at the nursing home, 22 miles from their hardscrabble homestead, and brought Terry home every other weekend and for holidays. "It's been a long 19 years," says Angilee, who works at a shirt factory. "But whatever shape he was in, he was still Terry." A man of few words, Jerry broke down when his son said, "Dad," after two decades of silence, calling it "the best Father's Day present I ever had."
The oldest of four children, Terry grew up a country boy who preferred tinkering with cars to academics and quit school in the 11th grade. "He was a mechanical genius," recalls Perry, 37. "There wasn't anything he couldn't fix." The night of July 12, 1984, Terry rode off with two buddies and never returned. The next morning the pickup was found in a gully, 12 feet below a bridge. One of his friends was virtually unhurt; the other died a week later.
Asked today about the accident, Terry insists he never had one. He recognizes his parents and siblings and has memories of life before the fateful night, but cannot grasp all that has happened since. The extent of permanent brain damage he has suffered is still unknown. "Sometimes he says, 'You're my baby girl,' and sometimes he doesn't seem to know me," says Amber. Adds Angilee: "He doesn't really ask about anything." He did want to check out her cell phone though. "He asked me to call his grandmother," she says, "and rattled off her number from 1984."
Worried that bad news might slow his recovery, the family still hasn't told him that his grandmother died in 2000. For the same reason, relatives haven't mentioned his wife's past relationships. But while Terry's speech is slurred and his thoughts are often confused, he still has a sense of humor. "Are you good-looking?" asked his mother when PEOPLE visited. Answered Terry, with a laugh: "You can see that!"
He hasn't lost his determination either. "The other day, he told me, 'I can do anything I want to do,' " Angilee says. "Then I said, 'Well, don't you think it's about time you started wanting to walk?' And he said, 'Yes!' " So can he beat paralysis? "The clinical answer is no," says Dr. Zini. "But I never thought he would talk again, either."
Steve Barnes in Mountain View