Man Thought to Be in a 23-Year Coma Was Conscious the Whole Time

It's a nightmarish medical scenario: a man spent 23 years paralyzed but conscious while his doctors believed he was in a vegetative state. And his situation might be more common than we'd like to think.

When he was 20 years old, Rom Houben was involved in a car accident that left him completely paralyzed. The accident didn't place him in a coma, however, and he tried desperately to communicate with those around him, but to no avail. Dr. House may have recognized "locked-in" syndrome in a few minutes, but Houben's doctors spent 23 years believing their patient was a vegetable, leaving Houben to experience nothing outside the hospital soap operas playing out in his room (apparently, his nurses were frequent gossips).

How did this happen? Houben's doctors determined that he was in a coma using the Glasgow Coma Scale, a widely used system that evaluates eye movement and motor responses. The trouble is that while Houben's body was functioning like a coma patient, his cerebral cortex was still chugging along. It took a brain scan to reveal that Houben was still fully conscious, and he is currently able to communicate thanks to a keyboard that responds to the barest tremors he can coax from his right hand.

While one would hope Houben was the unlucky winner of a terrifying medical lottery, situations like his may not be rare. Neurologist Steven Laureys, who performed the revealing brain scan on Houben, says that in 40 percent of supposedly vegetative patients he examined, brain scans revealed some level of consciousness. Both Houben and Laureys are advocating that doctors lean less on the Glasgow Scale and look more toward brain scans.

Brain scan finds man was not in a coma—23 years later [CNET]