“Coma” patient screamed for help – unheard – for 23 years


After 3 years of therapy, Rom Houben communicates via touchscreen – with 1 finger
Daylife/AP Photo used by permission

For 23 years Rom Houben was imprisoned in his own body. He saw his doctors and nurses as they visited him during their daily rounds; he listened to the conversations of his carers; he heard his mother deliver the news to him that his father had died. But he could do nothing. He was unable to communicate with his doctors or family. He could not move his head or weep, he could only listen.

Doctors presumed he was in a vegetative state following a near-fatal car crash in 1983. They believed he could feel nothing and hear nothing. For 23 years.

Then a neurologist, Steven Laureys, who decided to take a radical look at the state of diagnosed coma patients, released him from his torture. Using a state-of-the-art scanning system, Laureys found to his amazement that his brain was functioning almost normally.

Laureys…discovered that although Houben was completely paralysed, he was also completely conscious — it was just that he was unable to communicate the fact…

Houben realised when he came round after his accident, which had caused his heart to stop and his brain to be starved of oxygen for several minutes, that his body was paralysed. Although he could hear every word his doctors spoke, he could not communicate with them.

I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,” he said, via his keyboard…

Laureys concluded that coma patients are misdiagnosed “on a disturbingly regular basis”. He examined 44 patients believed to be in a vegetative state, and found that 18 of them responded to communication.

“Once someone is labelled as being without consciousness, it is very hard to get rid of that,” he told Der Spiegel.

Here is a medical instance where extra attention, additional testing over time, may produce dramatic results. Very different from care designed only to extend the process of dying.

The story is terrible – of course – 23 years trapped inside indifference because no one knew he was alive and conscious within a dysfunctional body. RTFA. And join the world of praise for Steven Laureys whose care and curiosity reopened the door to life for Rom Houben.

2 thoughts on ““Coma” patient screamed for help – unheard – for 23 years

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