Stories tagged coma

Nov
23
2009

Sorry, Rom
Sorry, RomCourtesy Shira Golding
Consider the following, Buzzketeers: a man in Belgium spent the last twenty three years in a hospital, being treated like someone in a coma, when, in fact, he was conscious the whole time and unable to communicate because he was (and remains) paralyzed.

Whoooaa! Whooooaaaaaoooooaaa!

That’s some serious Johnny Got His Gun stuff. Ugh.

A coma is a persistent unconscious state. One can become comatose in lots of different ways—severe head trauma, brain injury, or a coma can be intentionally induced as part of the treatment for some conditions—but the underlying cause is always damage to the reticular formation, the part of the brain that regulates the awaking/sleeping cycle. So, basically, a person in a coma is asleep, usually for just a few days, but sometimes for the rest of their lives—“persistent vegetative states” can last for decades, until (if the person doesn’t come out of the coma) a secondary infection like pneumonia causes death. This guy, Rom Houbens, was in a coma for 23 years after a car accident.

Except, again, he wasn’t. After his accident, Rom was diagnosed using the Glasgow Coma Scale. This is a series of tests that evaluate a patient’s eye, verbal, and motor responses. Check it out. With a score of 8, at all points before noon last Saturday I would have been considered to be in a “severe coma.” I could be wrong though—apparently the evaluation is easy to mess up, because that’s what Rom’s doctors did on every part of the test, and he was declared comatose for the next 23 years. It wasn’t until three years ago, when Rom was reevaluated with high tech brain scanning equipment, that the doctors realized that, whoops, heh heh, he was actually paralyzed but totally conscious the whole time. (A paper on the new diagnosis was just published.)

Therapy has since allowed Houbens to “tap” out messages on a computer screen keyboard. I’m assuming this is accomplished through eye tracking technology—I saw a demonstration of some eye tracking equipment recently, and it was pretty impressive, but it still makes me surprised that his eye movement wasn’t caught before. He seems to have taken it pretty well though, saying, “I shall never forget the day when they discovered what was truly wrong with me – it was my second birth. All that time I just literally dreamed of a better life. Frustration is too small a word to describe what I felt.” I suppose he did have 23 YEARS to come to terms with things, although if anyone has a good excuse for becoming a supervillain, it’s probably Rom Houbens.

So, if you’re really grasping at straws for something to be thankful about on Thursday, maybe this could be a pretty solid fallback.

Neurologists used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to study the brain function of a woman who'd been in a coma for five months. To their surprise, when they asked her to respond to commands or imagine things, her brain "lit up" in the same way that the brains of healthy subjects did. The scientists caution that this is likely not the situation for many vegetative patients.