Richard Coman was born in 1964. Until 2004, he lived with his parents, who were then in their seventies, in the village of Tunstead, near the city of Norwich, in south-eastern England.
Richard’s height and weight were normal for an adult. He weighed about 75 kilograms and he was about 170 centimeters tall. But although Richard looked like an adult, he behaved like a very young child. He enjoyed running and playing with toys. He liked going for car rides but he wasn’t allowed to play outside by himself because he didn’t understand that cars are dangerous. He could talk, but only in a child-like way. He couldn’t get dressed by himself; he couldn’t wash himself; and he had to wear diapers.
Richard behaved like a child because his brain had been damaged when he was born.
Joan Coman, Richard’s mother, had no problems while she was pregnant with Richard. But when the time came for him to be born, he didn’t arrive. When Joan was more than one week overdue, the doctors at the Norwich hospital gave her some medicine. They hoped this would induce birth, but it didn’t work. After giving Joan the medicine, they did nothing more for two weeks. Then, when Joan was three weeks overdue, they finally delivered Richard by ‘caesarian section’—an operation in which doctors deliver a baby by cutting open its mother’s uterus.
Richard was weak when he was born, but he soon got stronger and, Joan remembers, he was a beautiful baby when he was brought home from the hospital. At that time, Joan and Sidney thought that Richard was normal. The doctors in the hospital had told them nothing about why Richard’s birth was delayed for so long. Later though, Joan did remember overhearing one of the doctors ask another why Mrs Coman had not been operated on sooner. That was the only hint she had at the beginning that Richard might not be normal.
Soon however, Joan and Sidney realized that something was wrong. Their neighbours had a baby that was just two weeks older than Richard. A long time after that baby had begun to move around and do things, Richard was still lying quietly in his bed. He lay in bed for almost two years. Then, suddenly, Joan says, he got up and started to run around. He didn’t go through a period of crawling as most babies do.
When Richard was four years old his parents took him to a famous children’s hospital in London. By that time they felt quite certain that he was abnormal because he had been injured at birth but, still, they had not been told anything by the hospital in Norwich. The doctors in London confirmed their belief and told them there was nothing they could do to help Richard.
Later, Richard’s parents learned that during the final weeks of her pregnancy, Joan’s uterus had been dry. Usually a pregnant woman’s uterus is filled with a watery liquid called ‘amniotic fluid.’ Her unborn baby is suspended in this liquid. If this amniotic fluid drains away, but the baby stays in the uterus, then the baby is often injured.
For the first thirty-seven years of Richard’s life, his parents devoted themselves to looking after him. They received no help from the government. Richard did go to a special school for mentally handicapped children, but, still, taking care of him was an enormous job. Richard’s father, Sidney, continued with his job as an automobile mechanic. But because she had to spend so much time with Richard, Joan could only do part-time jobs of various kinds. Even when she was doing her housework, she had to interrupt herself constantly to make sure that Richard was all right. Of course most mother’s have to live like this when their children are very young, but Joan had to stay on the job for thirty-seven years. She says that during all that time she never had one full night’s sleep.
During all the years they had been looking after Richard, his parents never thought of trying to get money from the hospital in compensation for the doctors’ negligence. In 1994, when Richard was thirty, his parents happened to read a newspaper story about a twenty-eight year old man who had been damaged at birth and who had just been awarded money as the result of a law suit. They contacted the lawyers who had represented this man and were encouraged to take Richard’s case to court.
In January of 2002, they won their case. Richard was awarded over £3 million. The Comans used the money to buy a larger house and to hire caregivers to look after Richard. There was a bedroom where the caregivers could sleep and a room for Richard where he could play with his toys during the day. Joan and Sidney lived in the new house with Richard, but they kept their old house and they spent the weekends there so they could have some time to themselves. When she was not staying in the house with Richard, Joan always said good-night to him on the phone and then called again first thing in the morning.
Joan and Sidney were relieved that after winning the court case they didn’t have to worry about what would happen to Richard when they couldn’t look after him any more. And they felt that, despite everything, their lives had been better with Richard than they would have been without him. To them, he was still ‘a beautiful boy’—and one who, as Joan said, brought happiness and laughter into their lives.
- The Guardian, (London), 02.04.25, (Esther Addley); The Guardian, (London), 02.01.14, (Clare Dyer); What’s New Archive, (www.butterworths.co.uk)