Ko Niltasuwan: Road to recovery

Deng and Ko Niltasuwan a few days after he came out of his coma.

Varakit Niltasuwan

Deng and Ko Niltasuwan a few days after he came out of his coma.

Ken Sanabria

Jr. Ko Niltasuwan lay on his bed while complaining about a terrible headache. After attempting to rest and puking multiple times, he passed out. Two weeks passed and he woke up in a different city, 30 miles away. “Where am I?”

Niltasuwan was discharged from Mary Free Bed (MFB) in Grand Rapids on May 5, 2019 after suffering from a stroke caused by a blood clot in his brain. Due to the stroke he entered a two-week coma. From then, he had to experience months of physical therapy (PT) and isolation from friends and school.

The role of comas is prominent in entertainment. From Sleeping Beauty to Black Panther, a good amount of our favorite characters go through a similar experience. Entertainment sources often shape these experiences and allow them to seem like minor inconveniences. Niltasuwan’s story differs. The coma for him was life changing; his personality shifted.


Waking Up

“I was extremely confused when I woke up and realized that this isn’t my room or my bed,”  Niltasuwan said. He was playing with sensory toys while the doctors called his mother, Deng Niltasuwan, to let her know the good news.

Ko Niltasuwan participated in daily therapy as he recovered.

“I was super happy once he woke up. I was getting stuff from our house when I got the phone call saying that he was moving his right hand. I was so happy to see him moving even if it was just his hand,” said Deng Niltasuwan.

The first few days after coming out of his coma, Niltasuwan was unable to speak. “I communicated through thumbs up and thumbs down, but once I gained consciousness again I was able to communicate,” Niltasuwan said.


Adapting to Life 

Niltasuwan received his treatment at MFB. There, he completed difficult tasks to regain his physical strength and ability to walk until October of 2019. “While I was in the wheelchair they had me walk around with a cane and two handles until I was able to walk again. After that I slowly started to do other exercises like playing basketball or doing homemade obstacle courses like with steps,”  Niltasuwan said.

Despite the physical limitations paired with PT, Niltasuwan did not let himself give up. “My goal was trying to just get discharged (from the hospital) so I could get home and see my family again. What kept me going was my mom, since she stayed by my side and gave up so much of her time to stay with me,”  Niltasuwan said.

His hard work paid off. “I did see improvements throughout his PT. Before he was weak, but now he’s improved,” Deng Niltasuwan said. Without the support from MFB and his family his recovery would have been more mentally challenging.


Life as we know it

“My life changed a lot afterwards,” said  Niltasuwan. Not only did PT change him physically, but his mentality changed as well. “He’s a completely different person from before. He is more willing to socialize and is now spending time with family,” Deng Niltasuwan said. This time around he was more willing to create a social profile. Although his accident was life threatening,  Niltasuwan saw the greater parts of life and stepped outside of his comfort zone; he became more himself.

“When I met Ko in 2018 [before the illness] he kept to himself and wasn’t social. Now that he’s coming around the house more he’s willing to talk to me more,” friend Raul Sanabria said.

Niltasuwan poses with Angie Garcia Aquilera during her quinceanera (Everetta Cole)

“He practically talks to everyone now and has a ton of friends. Everywhere we go he sees another person he knows, which would be concerning for him if we were still in middle school,” friend Sarah WIlliams said. Niltasuwan’s family were not the only people who saw a change in his personality; his friends recognized the change too.

“The hardest situation I had to overcome was my memory. I would easily forget everything like names and stuff my mom would tell me to do. For example, if you told me to go get the mail I would easily forget,”  Niltasuwan said. His memory was majorly impaired at the beginning of his recovery but as he worked harder his memory returned. “I would have a memory journal with me everywhere. I would keep track of stuff I’ve done throughout the day and if I ever needed to recall something I would go through my journal.” said Niltasuwan. Writing his thoughts and actions helped him to gain a majority of his memory back; the hard work helped him achieve the mental strength he has today.

Niltasuwan is now a junior at West Ottawa. He is taking a full load of classes, and he has a weekend job at Boba Q where he makes drinks and works on register. Before the illness, he spent a lot of time in his room playing video games. “He’s a different person now. I like seeing him be himself,” WIlliams said.

Niltasuwan would not wish this experience on anyone, but he is proud of who he has become.