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A Belgian man who stunned the world last year by apparently communicating after 23 years in a coma cannot in fact do so, researchers say.
The doctor who believed that Rom Houben was communicating through a facilitator now says the method does not work.
Dr Steven Laureys told the BBC: “The story of Rom is about the diagnosis of consciousness, not communication…”
Dr Laureys, a neurologist at Liege University Hospital in Belgium, had earlier established that Mr Houben, was more conscious than doctors had previously thought – and that is still thought to be the case.
But he also believed that his interaction with the speech therapist was genuine. Following further study, however, Dr Laureys says the method does not work.
He told the BBC that a series of tests on a group of coma patients, including Mr Houben, had concluded that the method was after all false…
“It’s like using an Ouija board,” Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, told Associated Press…
“I hope Rom and his family will stay as an example” of how hard it is to pick up the signs of consciousness, Dr Laureys told the Associated Press. “Even when we know that patients are conscious, we don’t know if there is pain or suffering or what they are feeling.”
First, credit Dr. Laurys for the integrity to challenge his initial conclusions. Introducing sophisticated testing proved his hopes incorrect – and he’s offered that updated information to the medical community and the world at large.
Second, don’t fault the therapist who thought she was simply a tool of communication for Rom Houben. She was motivated by a calling which in general is overworked and underpaid, relegated to the dedicated.
Finally, understand that science always demands reproducible, verifiable results before data is accepted as fact. There is significant difference between this process and the “political” skepticism in fashion among those usually one step removed from creationism in their anti-science ideology.