A voice for Jesse: Edmonton family hosts brain science expert in search of answers

Tracy Lucas believes her son is locked inside his own body, still conscious and aware, but she wants to know for sure

'We're not giving up hope, miracles do happen,' says Tracy Lucas

Jesse Lucas and his niece Olive just months before a heart attack caused by bacterial pneumonia left him with permanent brain damage. (Supplied)

Tracy Lucas believes her son is locked inside his own body, still conscious and aware.

Now she hopes a world-renowned neuroscientist can help her know that for sure.

"Right now, he's in between worlds, we don't if he's there," Lucas said during a Monday morning interview on Edmonton AM.

"We're not giving up hope.  Miracles do happen."

Jesse Lucas is awake but can't move, eat or speak. For two years, a severe brain injury has left him largely immobile and unresponsive.

In February 2014, outside the security gates at the airport, Jesse hugged his mother goodbye for the last time.

He was set to take a flight from Edmonton to Vancouver but never made it to the plane.

An infection from bacterial pneumonia had poisoned his body and he went into cardiac arrest. His heart stopped, and by the time he was resuscitated, minutes later, his brain had suffered irreparable damage.

He was 37 at the time.

"For weeks, he was struggling for life, and they weren't sure he was going to make it, and thank god he did," his mother said.

Since then, he has only been able to clearly respond once.

"There was one day," Lucas said. "One day I could squeeze his hand and he would squeeze back. It was the best time ever. It was like a scene out of a movie."

But since that fleeting moment of connection, her son has shown few signs that he's conscious. 

From Edmonton AM, the mother and sister of an Edmonton man hope an Ontario neuroscientist could help with communication after brain damage has occurred. 4:32

He will sometimes laugh or cry, but his condition remains unchanged. Doctors have decided there's little more they can do.

But the Lucas family refused to accept the diagnosis. 

"As a family member, watching your brother lying there in a bed, you have to do something," said Spencer Brassard, who scoured the Internet for answers and said she found reason to hold out hope.

Research by Dr. Adrian Owen, a British neuroscientist who is currently at Western University in London, Ont., shows that communication with patients like Jesse is possible.  

According to his research, one out of every five patients diagnosed as "vegetative" is actually awake and aware.

Owen has developed groundbreaking technology, which allows some of these patients to communicate. By scanning their brain activity through detailed (FMRI) video imaging, patients can respond to simple 'yes' or 'no' questions.

"The brains light up. So you can communicate with these people in this way," said Lucas. "And eventually, it will mean Jesse having an opinion on the way his life is going."

The family has invited Owen to Edmonton for a panel discussion on his research. The free reception on Wednesday night is being hosted in partnership with the University of Alberta`s Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute.

The Lucas family hopes the lecture will raise awareness about patient care, and help bring the brain-imaging technology to Edmonton.

Brassard knows what questions she'll have for her big brother, if that ever happens.

"Have you been hearing our stories when we come and visit you? Do you hear us? Do you know what is going on with our family? That would be a big one. Family was so important to him."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.