Update: Man in 23-year coma not communicating

Last fall, I (and the rest of the world) reported on the story of Rom Houben, a man who was thought to have been in a coma for 23 years before doctors discovered that he was actually conscious. Even more incredible was that Houben was reported to be communicating — even hoping to write a book about his experience — with the help of a special keyboard and his speech therapist.

Sadly, that last part now appears not to be the case:

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. The results of the study were presented in London on Friday.

Objects and words were shown to the patients in the absence of the facilitator who was then called back into the room. The patient was then asked to say what they had seen or heard.

“It’s easy to watch the video and say this method is not valid, but to prove that it is not true is actually very difficult,” Dr Laureys said. 

It’s encouraging that doctors aren’t questioning whether Houben is indeed more aware than previously thought — but utterly frustrating, I’m sure, that they still have no means of successfully communicating with him. Sadly, it appears that we have a long way to go before closing that gap.

 

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Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

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