A Woman Who Was Unresponsive for 20 Years Woke Up, Baffling Doctors

A woman who was catatonic for two decades suddenly woke up, leading many to wonder what happened to April Burrell and why she woke up.


Jun. 5 2023, Published 11:30 a.m. ET

An empty hospital bed at night.
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The story of a woman who woke up from a catatonic state after 20 years is baffling doctors and amazing everyone who hears it. April Burrell was catatonic for more than 20 years after suddenly becoming unresponsive at the age of 21.

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Now that she has woken up, many both inside and outside of the medical community want to better understand what happened to April, and whether her story is actually as strange as it sounds.

What happened to April Burrell?

In 1995, when April was studying to be an accountant at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, she suddenly became catatonic and wasn't able to wash or feed herself or recognize her loved ones. She was diagnosed with a severe form of schizophrenia and was then moved to a mental hospital in New York.

Catatonia has multiple disparate causes but generally involves being awake but seemingly unaware and unresponsive to your surroundings.

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A blood pressure measuring device.
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Sander Markx, director of precision psychiatry at Columbia University, first met April in 2000 when he was still a student. She was the first patient he ever saw, and to this day, he still believes her to be one of the sickest. In 2018, Dr. Markx discovered that, in addition to her schizophrenia diagnosis, April also had lupus, an autoimmune disorder that can attack the brain.

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After being treated for the illness and undergoing a series of cognitive tests, April quite suddenly woke up in 2020. Because she woke up during the height of COVID-19, April wasn't allowed to actually see her family until last year, but when she did, she seemed to recognize her brother and had distinct memories of their time together as children.

"She was hugging me, she was holding my hand. You might as well have thrown a parade because we were so happy, because we hadn't seen her like that in, like, forever," her brother Guy Burrell explained after visiting April with his wife and children.

"It was like she came home. We never thought that was possible."

“When she came in there, you would’ve thought she was a brand-new person,” he added. “She knew all of us, remembered different stuff from back when she was a child.”

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Dr. Markx hopes to help other patients.

April's story is not just a one-off for Dr. Markx, who has told The Washington Post that there are other catatonic patients who also have autoimmune conditions.

“The notion that people are gone in these mental institutes and that they come back still, that has always stuck with me,” Dr. Markx said. He has continued to look for patients who could be awakened.

"These are the forgotten souls," he added. "We're not just improving the lives of these people, but we're bringing them back from a place that I didn't think they could come back from."

As miraculous as April's story may seem, Dr. Markx is eager to replicate it in as many patients as possible, giving each of them a totally new lease on life.

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