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Man in Coma for 23 Years Was Conscious


When Rom Houben, now 46, was paralyzed in a car accident in 1983, his doctors thought he was in a coma, a persistent vegetative state. But after 23 years, researchers used a new scanning technique and discovered the man was not in a coma, but had been conscious all along.

According to news reports from the Guardian and Timesonline, Mr. Houben, who is now able to communicate via a computer that has a special keyboard he can activate with his right hand, says he could hear everything that his doctors and others said, but he could not communicate with them. “All that time I just literally dreamt of a better life. Frustration is too small a word to describe what I felt.”

Three years ago, coma specialists at the University of Liege utilized new scanning techniques and discovered that Houben’s cerebral cortex was still active. With that knowledge, they were able to initiate rehabilitation and eventually trained him to use his right forefinger to tap out messages on a specially adapted keyboard. This has given the former engineering student and martial arts expert the ability to tell his story and communicate with his family, friends, and medical staff.

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Houben’s doctors have come forward after three years with the hope of drawing attention to the possibility that others may be in a similar coma state and have been misdiagnosed. Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Liege and head of the coma science group at Liege University hospital, published a scientific paper saying Houben could be just one of many coma patients who have been misdiagnosed around the world.

In October 2005, a man who had been placed in a coma for two years after he suffered an automobile accident woke up and told his doctors and family that he had heard and understood everything that had gone on around him, even though he was unable to communicate. The doctors had told everyone that he was not conscious. According to Lifenews.com, Salvatore Crisafulli described his case as a “miracle” and that he “cried in desperation” during the two years in the coma.

In the Guardian, Laureys is quoted as saying that coma patients are diagnosed falsely “on a disturbingly regular basis,” and that in about 40 percent of people who are diagnosed as vegetative, careful review shows that there is still some degree of consciousness. He noted that he had examined 44 patients believed to be in a vegetative state, and 18 responded to communication.

Approximately 20 percent of individuals who suffer head and brain injuries spend more than three weeks in a coma. Of those, 15 to 25 percent are technically still alive, but they remain in a persistent state of unconsciousness. Laureys says that patients like Houben who are not fully unconscious can often be treated and capable of making progress. Houben remains completely dependent on 24-hour care and resides in a nursing facility in his home country of Belgium.

Guardian.co.uk, Nov. 23, 2009
Lifenews.com, Oct. 5, 2005
Timesonline.com, Nov. 23, 2009