It all begin in 1988. While growing up in South Africa, 12-year-old Martin Pistorius went home from school with a sore throat, and from that day on his health spiraled. His body weakened, he could not walk, talk, or eat on his own. Doctors told his mother he was permanently brain-dead, and that Martin now had the intelligence of a 3-month-old infant.

But what his parents didn’t know that was four years into his illness, Martin woke up. He was completely aware of everything around him, but his physical state did not change. He still could not move, walk, or talk. People would reveal their most intimate secrets right in front of him. Perhaps the most heartbreaking was the moment Martin heard his mother wish him dead.

“I said to him one day, ‘I hope you die,’ and I had no idea that he understood that,” the mother confessed to NBC. “And I am very, very sorry I said it.”

Martin understood that his mother just wanted him to be relieved of the eternal pain. Over a decade later, a physical therapist, Virna Van Der Walt, looked into his eyes and saw hope.

“He had a sparkle in his eye, I could see he was understanding me,” Van Der Walt told NBC News. After conducting cognitive tests for the first time, Martin got the help he needed. Today, he lives with his wife, has a successful career, and can even drive.

“Had it not been for her, I would probably either be dead or forgotten in a care home somewhere,” he said.

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