“I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,” said Houben via a special keyboard that was made for him following the discovery. “[I] traveled with my thoughts into the past, or into another existence altogether. I was only my consciousness and nothing else,” added the former engineering student, who speaks four different languages, about how he coped with his vegetative life.
Recalling the day his caretakers first discovered that he had been fully conscious all those years, Houben says it felt like a “second birth,” as it quite obviously changed the course of his entire existence in a major way. All the anger, powerlessness and despair that Houben felt all those years, which he says he soothed away through meditation and other desperate means, was gone in an instant.
Not long after, the man credited with discovering the truth about Houben’s condition, neurologist Steven Laureys, conducted a follow-up study that aimed to find out how prevalent false coma diagnoses truly are. Much to his surprise, this expert from the University of Liege found that as many as 40 percent of all people currently diagnosed as being in a comatose or otherwise vegetative state are more than likely fully conscious but unable to communicate, just like Houben was.
Comatose patients are misdiagnosed “on a disturbingly regular basis,” Laureys is quoted as saying to Germany’s Der Spiegel news source. “Once someone is labeled as being without consciousness, it is very hard to get rid of that,” he added, noting that, of the 44 patients he examined that were believed to be in a vegetative state, only 26 of them actually were.
Laureys incredible findings, which were published in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Neurology, are a major game-changer with regards to how the medical profession makes coma diagnoses. It also raises new questions as to the morality of “pulling the plug” on those diagnosed as being hopelessly vegetative, as many of them, just like Houben, could be anything but.
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