Vancouver man out of coma, into new challenge

Luke Ashe applying dedication he used to lose weight before he became ill to his rehabilitation

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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photoLuke Ashe looks out the window at Pacific Specialty and Rehabilitative Care in Vancouver on Monday. Ashe was found in a coma Jan. 15. He woke up about seven weeks ago and has been working on his recovery since.

(/The Columbian)

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How to help

A donation account has been established in Luke Ashe's name at iQ Credit Union. Donations will go toward medical and living expenses.

For updates on Luke and information on upcoming fundraisers, visit the Support Luke Ashe Facebook page.

Luke Ashe's life suddenly became dark, surrounded by nothingness.

Then, just as abruptly as it left, the light came back.

"It was just black. It was a dark space," Luke said Monday. "Then one day, it came back to me. It got clear."

What the Vancouver man didn't know was months had passed during that time of darkness. While the 27-year-old felt like he had just awoken from a night's sleep, he'd actually been in an unexplained coma for months.

The darkness began in January. Nobody knows exactly when.

Luke's employer called his grandmother on the morning of Jan. 15 after he missed two days of work. Myrna Brown went to check on her grandson and found him lying in bed, breathing but unresponsive. He hadn't spoken to anyone since the evening of Jan. 13. Nobody knows when Luke slipped into the coma.

He spent three weeks at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center while doctors ran a litany of tests, trying to determine why the otherwise healthy 27-year-old was in a coma. Tests revealed Luke experienced several strokes and suffered from a lack of oxygen, but they never explained what caused the coma, said Gwenn Ashe, Luke's mother.

While still in a coma, Luke was transferred to a long-term acute care hospital in Portland, where he stayed for about two months. Then, about seven weeks ago, Luke was transferred again, this time to Pacific Specialty and Rehabilitative Care in Vancouver.

That's when the light returned to Luke.

Luke became more alert and responsive, watching people around him and nodding to questions. Then, unable to speak, he started mouthing words. With the help of a speech therapist, the mouthed words turned into a whisper. The whisper turned into full sentences in his normal tone.

"I was there when he initially started waking up," said Luke's friend Jeremy Brock. "You could tell he was aware and there, he just couldn't speak or move his arms. Slowly but surely, each day he'd say something, which always surprised me."

Luke has continued to improve every day since.

He spends an hour and a half every day in speech, physical and occupational therapy. The therapies work Luke's hands and arms. While his right arm functions normally, his left arm is stiff and doesn't like to bend, Luke said.

He pedals on a stationary bike to get his legs moving, and works with therapists to stand up and improve his balance. He's now able to stand on his own with only the help of a device to keep him stable.

"It's kinda hard, though," Luke said.

But "hard" isn't a new word for Luke.

In the year before the coma, Luke had transformed his life. He ditched junk food and a sedentary lifestyle for healthful foods, a gym membership and running. With the changes, Luke dropped 100 pounds.

"It's definitely been hard to go from running miles and miles a day to doing nothing," Luke said.

But he's harnessing the dedication it took to lose weight and applying it to his recovery. His goal: to be released from the rehab center in time for his friend's August wedding in Hawaii.

He's also relying on the support from the friends and family members who have been at his bedside for months.

They visit regularly and bring Luke food from the outside: hamburgers and milkshakes from Burgerville and Dairy Queen. They've raised money through auctions and "Inspired by Luke" shirt sales. And now they're planning a 5K run/walk in Luke's honor to help pay for therapies not covered by his state-provided medical insurance.

"It's been exciting," said Luke, who turns 28 on Friday. "Everyone cares for me, which is nice to hear."

While Luke has come a long way since January — when doctors didn't know if he would ever wake up — he still has work to do, more obstacles to overcome. It's still too early to know what limitations he may face in his recovery, but Luke said he's up for another challenge.

"That first hundred pounds wasn't easy; it took a lot out of me," Luke said. "But I accomplished it."

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health; http://facebook.com/reporterharshman; marissa.harshman@columbian.com.