Improbable Resurrections: 5 Real Cases of Coming Back to Life

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Photo credit: Toby Hudson

On Easter Sunday, Christians around the world will celebrate Jesus Christ's resurrection, in which he is said to have risen from the dead three days after his crucifixion, according to the New Testament.

Biblical miracles aside, the secular world is replete with stories of recoveries from near-certain death. Over the years, people have survived everything from brain-eating amoebas to comas, and lived to tell the tale.

Here, we bring you true accounts of some of the most improbable resurrections in medical history. [The 10 Most Controversial Miracles]


Hollywood movies make it seem like comas are nothing more than a light sleep, but the reality is, a person doesn't always awaken from a coma, which is defined as a state of deep unconsciousness that persists for an indefinite period of time. But in rare cases, people have been known to rouse from coma states even after many years.

A woman named Patricia White Bull entered a type of coma called a persistent vegetative state — in which the patient is awake but not responsive — while giving birth to her son, the LA Times reported. White Bull lay in a near-coma for 16 years, when one day in 1999, as a nurse was rearranging her blankets, she reportedly sat up and said, "Don't do that!" Other coma cases of severely brain-damaged patients have been reported, but in most of these, patients either wake up within a few days or weeks, or remain in a coma state for the rest of their lives.

Shot in head

Few injuries can be as instantly fatal as being shot in the head. But on occasion, people have been known to survive the brutal trauma of a bullet to the brain.

In January 2011, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was shot in the head in an apparent assassination attempt, during a shooting that left six other people dead. Giffords was in critical condition. Doctors removed part of her skull during surgery to prevent damage from brain swelling, and placed her in a medically induced coma, according to CNN.

The bullet passed through Giffords' skull front-to-back, causing less damage than a shot passing from one hemisphere to the other would have done. Giffords recovered, but she still has difficulty speaking and walking and her right arm is paralyzed.


Everyone's familiar with the image of a rabid dog, mouth frothing and ready to deliver a fatal bite. The rabies virus attacks the central nervous system, causing brain disease and death within days of the onset of symptoms.

Usually transmitted to humans by bites from wild animals such as raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes, the rabies disease is preventable if treated by vaccination before symptoms begin. But after symptoms occur, survival is rare — there have been fewer than 10 documented cases of human survival from rabies, and only two of these patients had not received preventative drugs, according to the CDC.

Jeanna Giese is the first person known to have survived rabies without receiving a vaccine, Scientific American reported. When she was 15, Giese was infected by a bite from a rabid bat in Fond du Lac, Wisc. Doctors put Giese in an induced coma to allow her immune system enough time to develop antibodies to the virus, and gave her antiviral drugs. Giese survived and recovered most of her cognitive abilities within a few months. Others have since been treated successfully using the same protocol.

Catatonic state

The 1990 film "Awakenings," starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, is the true story of how a doctor revived a group of catatonic patients who survived an encephalitis epidemic in the 1920s.

The film is based on the 1973 memoir by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, who treated patients who survived a form of encephalitis called encephalitis lethargica. The disease can trigger delayed physical and mental responses and lethargy, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Sacks administered the then-experimental drug L-Dopa, which increases levels of the brain chemical dopamine and is used to treat Parkinson's disease. The treatment "awakened" many of Sacks' patients from their catatonia, hence the name of the film.

Brain-eating amoeba

One of the more miraculous medical recoveries in recent years have been from infections with the "brain-eating" amoeba Naegleria fowleri. The parasite, which lives in warm bodies of freshwater, enters through the nose and eats its way along the nerves to the brain, where it munches away at brain cells. The infection is almost always fatal, but a few people have survived. [Infographic: Brain-Eating Amoeba’s Life Cycle]

In August 2013, 12-year-old Kali Hardig of Arkansas became the third person to survive an infection of the brain-eating amoeba. Hardig contracted the parasite at a water park. Doctors gave her a cocktail of antifungal medications that were used to treat two other people successfully in 1978 and 2003, as well as an experimental drug developed for breast cancer. They also cooled down her body to prevent brain damage, a procedure sometimes used to treat traumatic brain injury. Hardig recovered, and is currently attending school.

As far as crucifixion is concerned, it may be possible to survive for a short period of time (indeed, some people take part in non-lethal crucifixion as a devotional practice.) But that's another story.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.