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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Born Again -- After 23 Years In a Coma

 Dr. Steven Laureys, head of the Coma Science Group and Department of Neurology at Liege University Hospital, wrote about the astounding case of Rom Houben, a Belgian engineering student, who was thought to have slipped into a persistent vegetative state 23 years ago. Houben was injured in an auto accident in 1983 when he was 20. Doctors said he fell into a coma at first, then went into a vegetative state.

Houben, trapped in his paralyzed body the entire time, had no way of letting friends and family know he could hear every word they were saying. Houben described his real-life nightmare as he screamed to doctors that he could hear them - but could make no sound. "I screamed, but there was nothing to hear," said Mr. Houben, now 46, who doctors thought was in a persistent vegatative state. (Allan Hall,, November 23 2009)

During Houben's two lost decades, his eyesight was poor, but experts said he could hear doctors, nurses and visitors to his bedside, and feel the touch of a relative. Rom said that during that time, he heard his father had died, but he was unable to show any emotion. At first I was angry, then I learned to live with it," he tapped out on to a screen during an interview with the Belgian network, AP reported.

 Over the years, his faithful mother, who was skeptical of medical opinions, took him to the United States five times for tests. More searching got her in touch with Dr. Laureys, neurological expert, who put Houben through a PET scan, a specialized type of brain scan that was not available in the 1980s. (MSNBC, November 23, 2009) Houben's mother, Fina, never once gave a thought to letting him die. She was vindicated when the truth finally surfaced.

About three years ago, Dr. Laureys discovered the misdiagnosis of the vegetative state. (Sky News, November 23 2009) Raf Casert (, November 23, 2009) reported that it only recently came to light after publication of a study on the misdiagnosis of people with consciousness disorders led by Dr. Laureys. Houben's condition has since been diagnosed as a form of "locked-in syndrome," in which people are unable to speak or move but can think and reason.

The breakthrough came when it became clear that Houben could indicate yes and no with his foot. Released from his torture, Houben was found to have a brain that was functioning almost normally. "Medical advances caught up with him," said Dr Laureys, who believes there may be many similar cases of false comas around the world.

The 46-year-old can now tap out computerized messages and read books on a device above his hospital bed. "All that time I literally dreamed of a better life. 

Frustration is too small a word to describe what I felt," Houben said. "I shall never forget the day when they discovered what was truly wrong with me — it was my second birth. I want to read, talk with my friends via the computer and enjoy life now people know I am not dead." He also has developed some movement with the help of intense physiotherapy over the last three years. (Kate Connolly,, November 23 2009)

For twenty-three years, Rom survived an incredible existence. "I dreamed myself away," he added, tapping his tale out with the aid of a computer."I became the witness to my own suffering as doctors and nurses tried to speak to me and eventually gave up," he said.

Kate Connolly (, November 23 2009) reported that during his "dream time," Houben, who speaks four languages, said he coped with being effectively trapped in his own body by meditating. He told doctors he had "travelled with my thoughts into the past, or into another existence altogether." Sometimes, he said, "I was only my consciousness and nothing else."

The disclosure will renew the right-to-die debate over whether people in comas are truly unconscious.
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