Astounding case of Rom Houben: 23 years in ‘coma’, but conscious all along!

London, Nov 23 ( A leading European neurologist has said many cases of brain injury around the world are wrongly diagnosed as ‘coma’ after discovering that a car-crash victim thought to have been in coma for the past 23 years was conscious all the time.

Steven Laureys, head of the Coma Science Group and Department of Neurology at Liege University Hospital, spoke after writing about the astounding case of Rom Houben, a Belgian who was thought to have slipped into a persistent vegetative state 23 years ago.

The paralysed Houben had no way of letting doctors know that he could hear every word they were saying.

“I dreamed myself away,” Houben, now 46 and able to tap out messages on a computer screen, told the Daily Telegraph. “I screamed, but there was nothing to hear.”

Doctors in Zolder, Belgium, routinely used the internationally-accepted Glasgow Coma Scale to assess his eye, verbal and motor responses to conclude that his consciousness was ‘extinct’.

But he was graded incorrectly each time – until three years ago a re-examination at the University of Liege using new hi-tech scans showed his brain was still functioning almost completely normally, the paper reported.

Houben, although physically paralysed, was fully aware of what was happening around him.

“Medical advances caught up with him,” said Laureys, whose recently account in a medical paper has brought the case to light.

Laureys plans to use the case to highlight what he considers may be similar examples around the world.

“In Germany alone each year some 100,000 people suffer from severe traumatic brain injury. About 20,000 are followed by a coma of three weeks or longer. Some of them die, others regain health.

“But an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people a year remain trapped in an intermediate stage – they go on living without ever coming back again.”

Although Houben is never likely to leave hospital, he now has a special device above his bed which lets him read books while lying down.

Houben told the Daily Telegraph: “I shall never forget the day when they discovered what was truly wrong with me – it was my second birth.

“I want to read, talk with my friends via the computer and enjoy my life now that people know I am not dead.

“All that time I just literally dreamed of a better life. Frustration is too small a word to describe what I felt.”