Ontario youngster in Campbellton hospital in coma, 'extreme scenic monotonia' cited as cause

Campbellton — Staff at Campbellton Regional Hospital are cautiously optimistic that a 6-year-old girl admitted Saturday in a comatose state will fully recover from what doctors are calling “extreme scenic monotonia,” a seasonal condition that can cause vision loss, panic attacks, coma and — in rare cases — even death.

The child, Jane Lifeson, had been vacationing with her New Brunswick-born parents and younger brother in southern New Brunswick. The family was driving north in a Grand Caravan from Saint John back home to Ontario on Saturday morning. After Lifeson’s parents tried unsuccessfully to wake the sleeping child at a gas station, they rushed her to the nearest hospital.

wintercoma“We’ve seen these cases before, sometimes during the winter season, but of course this winter is much worse,” said Dr. Michael Lee, a Saint John pediatrician in town for his monthly visit. “Children in the back seat driving through New Brunswick after this much snowfall … there’s nothing to look at but 12-foot snowbanks, and this is tragically the result.”

The child’s mother, Mona Peart, was beside herself. “We knew something was wrong on the Miramichi,” she said tearfully.

She and her husband, Neil Lifeson, had decided to take the scenic Rogersville road earlier in the day, and that’s when the trouble started. “Jane was very quiet all morning, just staring out her window. We stopped at McDonald’s on the Miramichi for lunch. She was eating enormous amounts of food, and she couldn’t stop crying. Her eyes were glassy and kind of crossed, and she looked very pale — almost snow-white. We thought it was the 4 vanilla milkshakes.”

Lee is not so sure. “I’d have to say it was the snowbanks, not the milkshakes,” he said. “These are classic symptoms that parents need to be aware of. Especially the crossing of the eyes; staring at these huge snowbanks whizzing by for that length of time is extremely trying for a 6-year-old. Parents also need to know that this condition is much more common here in the summer months, but then it’s brought on by having nothing to stare at out the window but trees.”

When the concerned parents had finally gotten her settled down after lunch and were back on the road, the crying started again. It was just past Bathurst that things became suddenly quiet. “‘Snow, nothing but snow!’ was the last thing she said just before she peacefully fell asleep,” Peart said, choking back tears. “Or so we thought.”

Roger Melanson, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, is aware of the issue. “New Brunswick is not the only province with lots of snow and trees, sure, but cases like these are on the rise here, no doubt about it. I blame the Irvings.”

Melanson says the province has been organizing an ad campaign to boost public awareness and make travellers more aware. The first in a new 12-part CBC Radio-produced series “Be Aware, Don’t Stare” is to debut next week, and it deals with the risks of staring at both snow and trees. “We want to make parents aware. Yes, you have to watch the road for moose, but you also have to watch the rear-view mirror to make sure the kids are not cross-eyed, too.”