But the doctors were so sure … Pt. 2

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on December 13, 2009

Last month, I mentioned the case of Rom Houben who was believed to be in a persistent vegetative state for decades, but was in fact conscious for much of the time. One commenter noted that Houben was using “facilitated communication,” i.e. a therapist was helping Houben use a keyboard to communicate, and Houben's consciousness may not be genuine.

The Weekly Standard has an update on the Houben case – along with some other situations where the doctors were confident that the patient was brain dead but turned out to be wrong.

Another consequence of the new prevailing view is the controversy surrounding Houben's improved condition. Houben started communicating in a rudimentary way by answering yes or no questions with the movement of a foot. Now, after three years of therapy, he communicates with the help of a speech therapist who moves his finger over a computer keyboard, allowing him to contract his finger to type each letter. Some critics grouse that this "facilitated communication" is a scam, in which the actual communicator is the therapist rather than the patient.

That seems unlikely. Houben is in the care of an internationally respected doctor, Steven Laureys of the University of Liège, not a person one would expect to participate in such a subterfuge. Laureys reacted angrily to the criticism in the New Scientist, telling an interviewer, "I am a scientist. I am a skeptic, and I will not accept any communication device if it is not properly tested."

The Associated Press reported steps the doctor had taken to confirm the reliability of the facilitated communication:

One of the checks Laureys applied to verify Houben was really communicating was to send the speech therapist away before showing his patient different objects. When the aide came back and Houben was asked to say what he saw, that same hand held by the aide punched in the right information, he said.

Maybe the human mind is more resilient than doctors suspect. It’s very possible that Terry Schiavo brain dead, but it’s also possible that she found herself in the same situation Houben found himself in.

The tragedy is that the judicial system’s decision has made it so that we will never know.

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