News

Mrs Rip van Winkle's love story finally ends

BY RON LAYTNER

Sunday, November 23, 2003    

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EVERYONE knows of Rip Van Winkle, the fabled Dutchman who fell asleep under a tree and awoke seven years later. The story of Anne Shapiro, though, is no fantasy. For, this Canadian woman slept in a coma for 30 years, but awakened to a strange, new and modern world that stunned her.

She was called 'Mrs Rip Van Winkle' because she accomplished what no other human ever had. But Anne Shapiro lived a life and enjoyed a love story like no other woman in recorded history.

Shapiro's amazing story began when she fell into a coma in 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. When she finally awoke in 1992, she was shocked to find she was a 79-year-old granny, devastated by her appearance and the dramatic way in which the world had changed.

"I was staring at a stranger," she told this reporter a few days later. "When I went to sleep I was a darn good looking woman. But it seemed when I awoke the very next day and looked into a mirror, I saw an old woman with bags under her eyes and gray hair."

She couldn't believe that her husband, Martin, was an old man; that her teenage son, Marshall, and 25-year-old daughter, Marilyn, were middle-aged.

And she was awe-struck to learn about cordless phones, colour TVs and the Apollo 11 space flight.

The talented businesswoman was preparing to go nationwide franchising apron shops like two she had in Hamilton, Ontario when she fell into her coma on November 22, 1963.

She was watching news reports of the shocking assassination of President Kennedy on her black and white television set when she suffered a massive stroke.

For two years, Shapiro was totally paralysed with her eyes wide open, a condition known as "Dolls Eyes". Her husband, Martin, then 51, put drops into her eyes every two hours around the clock to prevent them drying out, and went on to do it for the 30 years she slept.

Martin Shapiro, a steel foundry employee, dressed and fed her "like a totally helpless child," he said. "She couldn't walk or think." She couldn't move at all for two years. Finally, she could be held up and, with assistance on either side, was able to walk short distances. But she remained an unthinking 'rag doll'.

Martin Shapiro bathed and dressed her, and brushed her long hair.

At night, he lay next to his sleeping beauty in the darkness, praying she would come back. He consulted experts, even took her to the famed Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, but no one could help her.

As the years passed, the Shapiros' son and daughter married and each had children; and many of Anne's friends died.

The Vietnam War ended. Astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate Scandal. Communism collapsed and the world entered the computer age.

During her long sleep, Shapiro's body began breaking down. She had cataract surgery, a hysterectomy and a hip replacement operation.

But amazingly, on October 14, 1992, Anne Shapiro suddenly snapped out of her coma. Martin Shapiro, 81, who had retired and moved his wife to West Palm Beach, Florida, was flabbergasted. "I was laying beside her in bed," he recalled, "when she sat up and said, 'Turn on the television. I want to see I love Lucy'.

"It was like a dead person come to life."

Shapiro got her first shock when she realised the television shows were in colour and not black and white.

But she was really stunned by her husband's grandfatherly appearance and her own wrinkled face. "When she first looked in the mirror, she wanted to die," said Martin Shapiro.

"She hollered and asked God what she had done to deserve what had happened to her. Then she cried and cried over all those lost years."

Shapiro's first thoughts were of her son, Marshall. The day before her stroke, Martin Shapiro had kicked the 18-year-old Marshall out of the house because he had crashed the family car.

"She wanted me to bring Marshall home," said Martin Shapiro.

As he dialled their son's number, he told her that Martin was now 48 years old, married and the father of a son and daughter.

At first she was afraid to get on the line and talk to him because it was a cordless phone.

"The phone didn't have any wires attached to it," she recalled, "A voice was coming out of it and I thought it must be magic."

When she first spoke to her middle-aged son, she cruelly told him: "My son is a young fellow. I don't want to talk to you."

Then she asked to speak to her sister, Rose, only to be told by Martin that Rose and her husband were dead -- and that her three brothers had passed away too.

Shapiro's daughter, Marilyn Pomerantz, then 55, flew from Canada to Florida to help her mother adjust.

As the shock waves ebbed, Shapiro desperately tried to catch up on what had happened in the world. She stayed up around the clock for two days.

Dr Glenn Englander, who was treating Shapiro for high blood pressure the day she awakened from her coma, called her recovery a miracle.

"I gave her something to lower her blood pressure," said the West Palm Beach doctor. "If I did something unknowingly to help her, I'd like to find out so I can do it for other people."

The most touching part of the miracle was the renewed romance between Anne and her devoted Martin, who had cared for her all those years.

"We both could hardly walk but she wanted me to take her dancing," he told this reporter.

The couple appeared on several major television shows and studio audiences and viewers around the world wept with compassion when Martin explained why he hadn't put Anne into a nursing home and gone on with his life as many suggested.

"When I married," he said simply, "I pledged to be with Anne in sickness and in health and I stuck to my vow."

Sadly, Martin Shapiro died nine years ago. Their son, Marshall, soon followed. Anne Shapiro was placed in the Senior's Health Centre at Toronto's North York General Hospital.

Her biggest excitement in her last years was when a movie was made of her miraculous awakening. It starred singer Reba McEntire.

"That's me," laughed Anne Shapiro, the last time I spoke with her. "I can't wait to see it."

Anne Shapiro lived in the health centre for several years, talking to nurses when spoken to. But mostly, she looked out a window, drifting back and forth between 1963 -- the younger year she preferred -- and the violent world of today.

On the night of November 8, just 14 days before the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, she went into a coma. "Mrs Rip Van Winkle" went back into 1963 once more, and this time she didn't come back.

Anne Shapiro, the woman who entered a coma at 50 and woke up 30 years later, finally died at the age of 90.

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