The very idea of being trapped inside your body, unable to move or respond to anything around you, is horrifying to most people. That was Jake Haendel’s reality for more than six grueling months back in 2017 – which makes what happened next that much more miraculous.
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The Boston, Massachusetts chef went down a life-threatening path in his early twenties, becoming addicted first to prescription opioids, then to heroin. His addiction got so bad that he was doing heroin as soon as he woke up in the morning. One day, he got arrested for doing heroin in the car, and things went downhill from there.
During his arrest in May 2017, Jake noticed that he couldn’t move his arms or legs properly. His wife, Ellen, had also been asking why his speech seemed slurred for days. After he made bail, he could hardly move, and Ellen rushed him to the emergency room.
The diagnosis was shocking and rare: Toxic Progressive Stage 4 Leukoencephalopathy. Put simply, Jake had damaged his brain by smoking drugs off of aluminum foil, producing a toxin that was killing large areas of his brain. With no cure or treatment, his condition continued to get worse throughout the next few months. By November, he could no longer eat, swallow, or breathe on his own, so he was admitted to the neuroscience intensive care unit and placed on a ventilator and feeding tube.
In the hospital, Jake developed locked-in syndrome, a rare condition where the patient can hear, smell, and see everything around them, but cannot move or speak. He was terrified inside the prison of his own body, listening to doctors and nurses discuss him as if he wasn’t even there. Even as he was moved from nursing home to home care, he remained trapped like a ghost, holding internal conversations with himself to keep himself sane.
“I could do nothing except listen and I could only see the direct area in front of me, based on how the staff would position me in bed,” Jake recalled. He later added, “I couldn’t tell anyone if my mouth was dry, if I was hungry, or if I had an itch that needed to be scratched.”
Jake was terrified of being trapped in his head forever. He felt extremely guilty that his drug addiction had caused such pain for himself and his family, he worried about the cost of his treatment, and he was intensely bored all the time. About six months into being locked-in, Jake made a mental decision to get better.
“You can do this,” he told himself. “You’re gonna make it.”
Doctors aren’t 100% sure how brains repair themselves after being damaged, but many feel that mental fortitude plays a big role in recovery. Perhaps it was Jake’s determination that moved the needle for him in the end, because he was soon able to move small areas of his body.
A tiny wrist movement got the attention of a doctor, and then he could blink his eye to answer questions. Now that they knew he was cognizant of his surroundings, doctors sent him for intensive therapy to regain his motor functions. With a lot of hard work, Jake regained the ability to walk and speak. He is one of very few “locked-in” patients to recover, and doctors aren’t even sure why!
Like many people who have suffered brain injuries, Jake’s personality has changed since his recovery. He is now much more optimistic and grateful, for one thing.
“I used to be so anxious and depressed,” he said. “But, after everything I’ve been through, things just don’t seem so bad.”
Jake is passionate about communicating with others, particularly to help make the world more accessible for those with disabilities. He hopes to create an app similar to Waze to help people with accessibility challenges find their way in the city better, and he’s raising money to pay off the hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical bills he incurred over the years.
Most importantly, he’s back to living his life, this time without drugs! He is known as “miracle man” on Reddit, where he shares milestones like having a picnic in the park for the first time since his recovery.
“Today i had a picnic,” he wrote. “So grateful for the little things.”
Miracle man, indeed! Jake went through an unimaginable ordeal, but we’re so glad he emerged with a new perspective on life. We can all learn lessons from his near-fatal mistake.
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