Terrifying – Paralysed Belgian misdiagnosed as in coma for 23 years – was “awake” all the time

Posted: April 8, 2014 in Popular Culture et al
Tags: , , , , , ,

Not in coma, awake

A Belgian man who doctors thought was in a coma for 23 years was conscious all along, it has been revealed. A brain scan finally revealed Rom Houben was conscious

Medical staff believed Houben had sunk irretrievably into a coma after he was injured in a car crash in 1983.

The University of Liege doctor who discovered in 2006 that, although Mr Houben was paralysed, his brain was working, said the case was not unique.

Mr Houben said that at first he felt angry at his powerlessness, but eventually learned to live with it.

“Other people had an opinion of me,” Mr Houben, now 46, told the BBC.

“I knew what I could do and what I was capable of but other people had a rather pathetic image of me. I had to learn to be patient and now finally we are on an equal footing.”

‘He’s an optimist’

It was only in 2006 that a scan revealed Mr Houben’s brain was in fact almost entirely functioning.

He now communicates by using a special keyboard attached to his wheelchair.

His mother, Fina Houben, told the BBC that she always believed her son could communicate.

“He is not depressed, he is an optimist,” she said. “He wants to get out of life what he can.”

The case raises the issue of how many other people believed to be in comas are actually trapped inside their bodies, desperate to communicate. Mr Houben’s story was revealed in a paper written by Steven Laureys, a doctor at Liege University. In it, Mr Laureys said that in about 40% of cases in which people were classified as being in a vegetative state, closer inspection revealed signs of consciousness.

This is the just the latest of what seems like a stream of such cases. We can hardly imagine a more awful fate. Death would be a merciful release. We trust further studies will advance our knowledge of vegetative states so we can care better for those concerned, and their families.


  1. tulipels says:

    Did you watch the Australian Story of Sally & Sam


    • I hadn’t – and thank you. Inspiring. Having experienced a small stroke myself (many years back) and having seen how the brain can repair itself against all odds, I believe there is much about this topic we do not yet understand.


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