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Connecting After A Coma

This column was written by CBS News The Early Show National Correspondent Tracy Smith.
One of the blessings of my job is that I get to meet a lot of people with incredible stories. But if I had to choose the most amazing story I've ever covered, this would probably be it.

Just hearing the Scantlin family describe the 20-year journey they've taken from hope to hopelessness and back again gave me chills. And then I met Sarah herself. I was sitting in a courtyard of the nursing home, talking to Sarah's brother, Jim, when a nurse wheeled Sarah over. It was a moment that literally took my breath away.

After 20 years locked inside her own body, she is talking, but she still struggles with each word:

I'd ask a question.

There would be a pause,

She'd look away.

And then, slowly, her lips would move, and, quietly, she'd answer.

At first, I felt guilty asking her questions, seeing how much effort it took for her to answer me. But it seemed to me also that Sarah has spent so many years unable to communicate that she was willing, almost desperate, to do this slow and painful dance of a conversation with me.

I asked her about what she said to her parents on that first remarkable phone call in February, when they found out she could talk. She said, "I love you."

And I asked her what she said when Mom asked if there was anything she needed. Sarah told me, "Makeup." (Of course, that's the first question any mother would ask!)

Her parents had told me that Sarah might be more responsive to some topics, less to others.

"She doesn't know who the president is," her dad told me. "But back when she was 18 (before she went into the coma), she probably didn't know who the president was either! It's just not something she was interested in."

That comment got me thinking: Sarah's 39 now, but she fell into a coma when she was a teenager in the '80s. I was a teenager in the '80s, too. So what was I talking about back then?

I started talking '80s pop culture: movies, music, TV. I asked: "Who's cuter? John Travolta or Tom Cruise?" and that's when Sarah truly lit up. She knew the bands, the movie stars, the songs (some she actually knew better than I did), and we ended up singing "Summer Lovin'" together, with Sarah helping me with the words.

And through all of it, I felt, I saw, and I heard a connection. We didn't have a serious conversation. Sarah's not at that serious-conversation-with-strangers stage yet. The most I was able to glean was that Sarah thinks John Travolta and Rob Lowe are both cuter than Tom Cruise.

But my time with Sarah convinced me that this wasn't someone just mimicking what I was saying. This was a young woman with her own thoughts and her own indomitable will, using all the strength she could muster to share those thoughts with me.

Doctors don't know whether Sarah will make much progress beyond where she is now.

Then again, they were just as shocked as the rest of us by what happened in February, so any prognoses are pretty much out the window at this point.

So maybe we should go by what Sarah says will happen. In our stilted, silly conversation, she made two things clear to me: She plans on walking, and eventually going home.

Read part one and part two of Tracy Smith's report.