Man conscious during 23-year ‘coma’

The case of a Belgian man who was diagnosed as comatose for 23 years but was, in fact, conscious the entire time illustrates the need to treat such patients with dignity, a pro-life bioethics specialist says.

A recently released scientific paper reported on Rom Houben, who was paralyzed in a car accident in 1983 and determined to be in a coma or persistent vegetative state (PVS), according to the Daily Mail Newspaper. A re-evaluation three years ago by neurological expert Steven Laureys found Houben was aware of what was happening around him but had no control of his body.

“Medical advances caught up with him,” Laureys said, the British Newspaper reported.

Houben, 46, said of his awareness coupled with his inability to communicate, I screamed, but there was nothing to hear.

“All that time I just literally dreamed of a better life,” Houben said. “Frustration is too small a word to describe what I felt.”

Although Houben may never leave the hospital, he is able to tap out messages on a computer and to read books while lying down, thanks to a special device over his bed.

“I shall never forget the day when they discovered what was truly wrong with me – it was my second birth,” he said, according to the Daily Mail. “I want to read, talk with my friends via the computer and enjoy my life now that people know I am not dead.”

Laureys, who led the use of high-tech imaging at the University of Liege to determine that Houben’s brain was still functioning, said there may be similar situations around the world. A university study of 44 patients who had been diagnosed as being in a vegetative state using normal procedures showed 18 were at least partly conscious. Four ultimately came out of their “comas,” according to Agence France Presse.

Pro-life bioethics expert Wesley Smith said on his weblog, “Houben is here today only because he wasn’t dehydrated to death. There is no doubt he went through a horrendous experience, but thanks to treating him as a fully equal human being by caring for him all those years and giving him tests late into his disability – explicitly refused to Terri Schiavo – he is here today to tell [his] tale and live the rest of his life.

“And for goodness’ sake, whatever you believe about these issues, don’t talk in the presence of PVS or other apparently unconscious patients as if they aren’t there,” Smith said. “Rather, always treat such people as if they can hear you, because sometimes they can.”

Schiavo was the 41-year-old Florida woman who received a PVS diagnosis and died in 2005 when food and water were withheld from her at the request of her husband, Michael, and over the opposition of her parents after a lengthy legal battle.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. >

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