Tech UPTechnologyThe case of the woman who slept 32 years

The case of the woman who slept 32 years

The Olsson family lived on Oknö, an island near the small coastal town of Mönsterås, in southeastern Sweden. This fishing family was to remember February 18, 1876 as the worst day of their lives. A neighbor had just brought home his 14-year-old daughter, Karolina, in his tartan, with a blow to the head and bleeding profusely. No one knew what had happened but everyone assumed that he must have slipped on the icy floor. The mother cleaned up her daughter’s blood with hot water and a clean cloth. Luckily, it had only been a scare. He was hungry and sat down with his parents and four other siblings to eat soup, herring and bread. The following days passed normally and the family quickly forgot about the blow. But on the afternoon of February 22 Karolina began to complain of a severe toothache and her parents, who shared the belief that if your teeth hurt it is because of witches, put her to bed. That would be the last time they would see their daughter awake.

Karolina’s father was a fisherman and did not earn enough to afford a doctor, so together with his wife they went to the village midwife and their closest friends for advice. The girl did not wake up but if they did not do something she would die from not eating ; her mother, very carefully, began to feed her giving her two glasses of sweetened milk a day. Time passed and the neighbors, saddened, decided to pay together for the doctor’s visit, who was unable to wake her up: neither shaking her, nor pricking her with pins on the back of her hands, nor putting salts up her nose… The girl, the doctor said, she was in a coma, and gave Mrs. Olsson a bottle of tonic so that the girl would not weaken. He refused payment for the visit and left.

For a whole year the doctor was visiting her to check her condition, which did not change, and they say that he brought her either a tonic or a broth for the girl. Something had to be done and he wrote to the editor of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine describing the case and asking for help. The response was almost immediate: a multitude of doctors paraded through the Olsson’s house, who were surprised to see that neither his hair nor his fingernails or toenails were growing . The family told them that sometimes he would sit up in bed with his eyes closed, muttering sentences he had learned in school.

Over the years the girl had become a woman but did not wake up. In 1892 she was visited by Johan Emil Almbladh, a surgeon who had just established that year in Mönsterås: he diagnosed her with hysteria. In July Karolina was hospitalized in the nearby town of Oskarshamn, where she underwent electroconvulsive therapy. With no success, he was discharged on August 2 with a diagnosis of paralytic dementia, a serious neuropsychiatric disorder associated with syphilis. It was clear that they did not know what was happening to that woman who had already been ‘asleep’ for 16 years.

No other doctor saw her again.

In 1904 his mother died. Her father was too old to worry about her, so the neighbors and a maid took care of her and gave her two glasses of milk every day. After the death of her brother in 1907, Karolina began to cry hysterically, but remained in that supposed coma. And on the night of April 3, 1908, 32 years and 42 days after falling asleep, she woke up . The maid found her crying and stamping on the floor. When the two brothers who were still alive arrived, he did not recognize them. She was very thin and pale, and for the first few days the light bothered her. She was weak and had difficulty speaking, although she could read and write, and she remembered everything she had learned before she fell ‘asleep’.

The news spread like wildfire and journalists from half the world went to Oknö to interview her. Those who visited her said that despite being 45 years old, she seemed in her early twenties. At the request of the government he underwent a series of psychiatric tests in Stockholm. The doctors ruled that he was in full possession of his mental faculties. She was “bright and cheerful” in her responses to the doctors’ questions, though only one issue seemed to concern her: When asked if she could remember any dreams from her time in a coma, she was morose and refused to answer.

In 1910 the psychiatrist Harald Frödeström met Karolina and two years later he published his case report, ‘Soverskan på Oknö’ (Oknö’s sleeper) where he ruled out that it was a case of hibernation. He suspected that she had suffered from some kind of psychosis triggered by a traumatic event , which pushed her to run away from the world. Frödeström ventured that her mother protected her and supported her in that decision. For the psychiatrist it was evident that something very serious had to happen to her that distant February 18, 1876.

Karolina died of a stroke in 1950, at the age of 88. People who knew her said that she was a hard worker and that she seemed content with her life.

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