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Girl in coma

May 31, 2007 |  6:11 am



1957_0531_payette_pixMay 31, 1957
Long Beach

Suzanne was supposed to have a simple bit of surgery. Didn't everyone get their tonsils out? The 15-year-old went into St. Mary's Hospital in Long Beach on May 31, 1956, but during the operation, her heart stopped. Doctors opened her chest and massaged her heart. But it was too late. By the time her heart resumed beating, her brain had gone too long without oxygen and she suffered irreversible damage.

Days passed, and then weeks. The Times wrote about others who had fallen into comas. There was 12-year-old Herbie Gray of South Pasadena, who was riding his bicycle and got hit by a truck Nov. 28, 1955, and Mrs. William Wrigley, who suffered a stroke Dec. 23, 1947, and was kept alive by what was considered "a medical miracle."

Suzanne's mother said: "She seems to be trying to tell us something."

Her care was extremely costly and her father, Lyle, a furniture salesman, used up all the family's money. "I have borrowed from everyone we know," he said. "There is nowhere else to turn."

Suzanne's story touched the hearts of many people in Los Angeles and across the country. Anonymous benefactors donated money as well as football tickets for charity raffles. Schoolchildren raised $884 in nickels and dimes. Her parents brought a $1.5-million lawsuit ($10,747,925.65 USD 2006) against the hospital, the surgeon and the anesthesiologist, but The Times didn't cover the outcome of the suit. 

"People have been wonderful, but there's so far to go to meet the cost of Suzanne's bills," said her younger brother, Lyle Jr., 11. 

"Suzanne seems to be making progress," her father said after she had been in a coma for three months. "Physically, she appears fairly good. We think she recognizes us when we enter her room. She breaks out in a sweat and seems to get excited."

But after six months of hospital care, she was no better and her parents brought her home to 2728 Ostrom Ave., Long Beach, to be tended by her mother and father.  "At least we can give her 24-hour care and try to make her comfortable," her mother said. "We can do no more."

"Our insurance money is used up, our borrowings are gone and donations from kind people have been used up also," her father said.

1957_0531_payette_pix02 "My wife believes that occasionally Suzanne recognizes her for a moment," he said. "And at times she seems to have some expression in her face. She doesn't talk, but she will make sounds."

On May 31, 1957, the first anniversary of her operation, The Times offered no hope of her recovery.

The Payette family, which also included another daughter, Sally, apparently moved to Minnesota. Lyle and Isabelle Payette died in 1986. Judging by online genealogical records, Suzanne spent 20 years in a coma before dying in 1976.

Herbie Gray died March 3, 1957, without regaining consciousness. Ada Wrigley died Dec. 16, 1958, at the Wrigley mansion in Pasadena.

However, The Times also wrote about a "miracle man." His name was Melvin Eugene Hewitt and in 1951, he was revived after hitting his head on the sidewalk during a brawl outside an El Monte bar. He was considered dead on arrival at El Monte Medical Center, but two doctors cut open his chest and massaged his heart. After six weeks in a coma, Hewitt regained consciousness, although he suffered brain damage.

In 1957, his mother, Mabel Werrett, told The Times: "He is a religious man and he speaks with conviction. I place a lot of faith in his words."

She quoted him: "Someday soon, Mom, I will be completely cured and my mind will be as normal as when I had my accident."

Melvin Eugene Hewitt died Dec. 28, 1987, at the age of 63, 36 years after he was given up for dead.

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