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Thread: Man Diagnosed 'Comatose' For 23 Years Was Actually Conscious All Along

  1. #1 Man Diagnosed 'Comatose' For 23 Years Was Actually Conscious All Along 
    AI's Have More Fun Bad Robot's Avatar
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    While reading my online Popular Science Mag., I came across this very interesting and horrifying article. I've had nightmares about this situation happening to me. It's hard for me even to comprehend how anyone could remain sane being trapped in a non-functioning body and forgotten for over 20 years.

    What a unique perspective of reality that person must have, and to think there could be many more cases like this. I just cringe at the thought of this and I'm sure I'd rather be dead than stuck in this position. Anyway, I don't really have a question about this but would welcome comments about how others feel about this situation.

    In what can only be described as a harrowing instance of misdiagnosis, a Belgian man presumed comatose for 23 years after a near-fatal car crash was actually conscious and paralyzed the entire time. Rom Houben, whose real state was discovered three years ago but only now made public, could be one of many falsely diagnosed coma cases, raising serious questions about those diagnosed as "vegetative" and, even more frighteningly, the process by which vegetative people are removed from life support.

    Houben, now in a facility in Brussels and communicating via a computer controlled by his minimally functioning right hand, came around after his 1983 car accident. But while he could hear every word his doctors spoke, he could not speak to them, nor could he move his body to communicate with them in any way. For years researchers and doctors tried to coax a response from Houben, who all along was trapped within his own body, living a life of frustration with his inability to interact.

    "I screamed, but there was nothing to hear," he told the Guardian via his computer.

    For over two decades Houben remained in what doctors thought was an unconscious state, though he was fully conscious of the world going by around him. It wasn't until three years ago when doctors wanted to try a new state-of-the-art PET scanning system on Houben that they made a startling discovery: the "comatose" man's brain was functioning almost normally.

    For Houben, the discovery of his consciousness by the outside world has been like a "second birth," to put it in his own words. But for science, while the news of Houben's "discovery" is heartening, it will likely rehash the debate over when, if ever, a patient who by all indications of modern science is vegetative should be terminated.

    Belgian neurologist Steven Laureys has published a paper on Houben's ordeal suggesting that his case is not isolated. According to his study, as many as 40 percent of cases diagnosed as vegetative may indeed possess enough consciousness to not only communicate, but to actually make considerable progress with the right treatment. Of 44 "vegetative" patients Laureys analyzed, 18 ended up responding to communication.

    The idea of losing the ability to communicate with the outside world is terrifying enough, but to then be misdiagnosed and forgotten -- or deemed a lost cause and slotted for termination -- all while possessing fully functioning mental capacities is downright unthinkable. The question "how many times have we been wrong?" is one the medical community is likely loath to ask, but if Houben's case is any indication, it's one that needs to be addressed. If Laureys analysis is to be believed, there should be many more Houben's out there screaming in silence.

    Man Diagnosed 'Comatose' For 23 Years Was Actually Conscious All Along | Popular Science


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  3. #2  
    Malignant Pimple shlunka's Avatar
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    Time flies when you're having fun.


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  4. #3  
    Life-Size Nanoputian Flick Montana's Avatar
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    I got a chill thinking about being in his position.
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    "Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." -Calvin
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  5. #4  
    Moderator Moderator Cogito Ergo Sum's Avatar
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    It must be pure torture to be trapped inside your own body and I was not aware of this case (which is odd, as it happened in my country).

    I wish to note though, that the method by which Mr. Houben communicated, was subject to extensive criticism offered by James Randi, PZ Myers and other scientists.
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  6. #5  
    AI's Have More Fun Bad Robot's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by shlunka View Post
    Time flies when you're having fun.
    But now I have to wonder if there is any way to have fun in that situation?
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  7. #6  
    Malignant Pimple shlunka's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bad Robot View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by shlunka View Post
    Time flies when you're having fun.
    But now I have to wonder if there is any way to have fun in that situation?
    You can make fun of people in your head!
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  8. #7  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cogito Ergo Sum View Post
    It must be pure torture to be trapped inside your own body and I was not aware of this case (which is odd, as it happened in my country).

    I wish to note though, that the method by which Mr. Houben communicated, was subject to extensive criticism offered by James Randi, PZ Myers and other scientists.
    We've had PET scans for some time now, I find it hard to believe nobody thought to do one way before this, but now that they know, the communication methods can only improve.
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  9. #8  
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    Quote Originally Posted by shlunka View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Bad Robot View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by shlunka View Post
    Time flies when you're having fun.
    But now I have to wonder if there is any way to have fun in that situation?
    You can make fun of people in your head!
    I guess if you are grasping at straws, you might call that fun and wish you could laugh about it.
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  10. #9  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bad Robot View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by shlunka View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Bad Robot View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by shlunka View Post
    Time flies when you're having fun.
    But now I have to wonder if there is any way to have fun in that situation?
    You can make fun of people in your head!
    I guess if you are grasping at straws, you might call that fun and wish you could laugh about it.

    To me that seems more like a plot for a horror movie, it's kind of hard to imagine many more frightening than this that's for sure.
    Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it. - confucius
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  11. #10  
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    "I screamed, but there was nothing to hear," he told the Guardian via his computer.
    An under-appreciated problem these patients have, is that what little means they have of gesturing to the outside world provides no feedback to themselves that they've done it. A patient who depends on vocal commentary like, "Oh, I can see that you're twitching your hand. You're trying to communicate." is not receiving direct or even consistent feedback that would enable mastery. My uneducated guess is that simply providing a tone-emitting device (rather than we watch the hand twitch) would forge a much better link with the outside world, from the patient's perspective. If she can generate and hear for herself intelligent patterns she'll be hugely encouraged, and empowered because she has a direct, active effect in the world.

    I saw a documentary about experimental implants for such cases. Brain electrode fed to computer sort of thing. Bizarrely, the doctor had the signals on a screen so he could know them but the patient of course couldn't. He asked, "Think about raising your right hand." Then a period of silent chin scratching and a comment like "You're making progress."
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  12. #11  
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    This story just further demonstrates to me that our definition of 'intelligent life' is severely lacking. We regard the ability to communicate and to be ambulatory or mobile in some manner to be the leading indicators of being 'alive'. Twenty three years with none of the above yet very much aware and alive.

    Wow.

    Hard to wrap one's mind around such a fact.
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  14. #13  
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    The results obtained using "communication facilitators" has sparked much controversy.

    Apparently, the first record (although of a fictional nature) of locked-in syndrome (a similar situation) is suffered by the character Mssr. Noirtier de Villeforte in Dumas' novel The Count of Monte Cristo, written in 1844.

    Cerebrovascular disease in Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo

    A real-life case of locked-in syndrome is given in the autobiographical The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby — a definite must-read. Bauby was the French editor-in-chief of Elle magazine who suffered a massive stroke while chauffeured with his 8yo son in his Mercedes Benz limo. The onset of the stroke caused him to feel nauseous, and he told his driver to pull over so he could open the door and puke. Puking was basically the last thing he did. The driver had to put him back into the car, and rushed him to the hospital.
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  15. #14  
    Your Mama! GiantEvil's Avatar
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    FMRI and PET are fairly ubiquitous technologies now. Shouldn't they be used in any case of long term "unconsciousness"?
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  16. #15  
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    I find that really strange.

    When my husband had his heart attack/brain injury event last year, he must have had several brain images done - because the staff discussed the results with us several times (can't remember how many of those were in the ICU when he was in the induced coma, it's all a bit of a blur now, but there were certainly a couple done in that first week).

    I suppose 20+ years ago they didn't have such sophisticated techniques and they overlooked this patient when new equipment / procedures became available. Why someone didn't think of doing a scan to show trainees "this is what it looks like when nothing's happening" - and got this surprise a few years earlier - is a bit of a mystery to me.
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    AI's Have More Fun Bad Robot's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by adelady View Post
    I find that really strange.

    When my husband had his heart attack/brain injury event last year, he must have had several brain images done - because the staff discussed the results with us several times (can't remember how many of those were in the ICU when he was in the induced coma, it's all a bit of a blur now, but there were certainly a couple done in that first week).

    I suppose 20+ years ago they didn't have such sophisticated techniques and they overlooked this patient when new equipment / procedures became available. Why someone didn't think of doing a scan to show trainees "this is what it looks like when nothing's happening" - and got this surprise a few years earlier - is a bit of a mystery to me.
    I would like to think they will never do that anymore. But many places in the world don't have PET scans and if they do, they are not made available to everybody. But I would think if they couldn't make a PET scan available, they probably won't keep someone alive on machines indefinitely either.
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  18. #17  
    Forum Professor jrmonroe's Avatar
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    In the US at least, I understand that "coma" and "comatose" are no longer technical words, but that "responsive" and "unresponsive" are used to more accurately describe the state of the patient.
    Grief is the price we pay for love. (CM Parkes) Our postillion has been struck by lightning. (Unknown) War is always the choice of the chosen who will not have to fight. (Bono) The years tell much what the days never knew. (RW Emerson) Reality is not always probable, or likely. (JL Borges)
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  19. #18  
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bad Robot View Post
    I would like to think they will never do that anymore. But many places in the world don't have PET scans and if they do, they are not made available to everybody. But I would think if they couldn't make a PET scan available, they probably won't keep someone alive on machines indefinitely either.
    That's ethics so varies between countries, families, individuals. Where I am, if someone made a living will stating that regardless of brain activity they should not be kept alive in persistent coma or near-total enfeeblement, the patient's will would probably be respected.
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