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Paralysis Misdiagnosed as Coma: Man Comes Alive

November 23, 2009

In Belgium, a man has been diagnosed as having been paralyzed rather than in a coma for over 23 years:

PET brain scan

Current brain-scanning techniques failed to detect Houben’s conscious state. Photograph: Getty Images

But then doctors used a state-of-the-art scanning system on the brain of the martial arts enthusiast, which showed it was functioning almost normally.

For 23 years Rom Houben was trapped in his own body, unable to communicate with his doctors or family. They presumed he was in a vegetative state following a near-fatal car crash in 1983.

Is this a rare case of “whoops” that doctors have only done every so often?  Well, no, actually.  This freakishly horrible story happens to more people than we might imagine.  It’s not some science fiction movie:

Belgian doctors used an internationally accepted scale to monitor Houben’s state over the years. Known as the Glasgow Coma Scale, it requires assessment of the eyes, verbal and motor responses. But they failed to assess him correctly and missed signs that his brain was still functioning.

Laureys, who is head of the coma science group and neurology department at Liège University hospital, concluded coma patients are diagnosed falsely “on a disturbingly regular basis”. In around 40% of cases diagnosed as vegetative, more careful examination shows there is still some level of consciousness. He examined 44 patients believed to be in a vegetative state, and found that 18 of them responded to communication.

So, almost half of those people who had been declared to be unable to communicate actually could and just remained trapped?  Great, this is the stuff nightmares are made of.

 

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