Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Houben story - things that are too good to be true

Too often, miracles aren't.

The Guardian - Nov 23, 2009 ...
Trapped in his own body for 23 years - the coma victim who screamed unheard | World news | The Guardian

For 23 years Rom Houben was imprisoned in his own body. He saw his doctors and nurses as they visited him during their daily rounds; he listened to the conversations of his carers; he heard his mother deliver the news to him that his father had died. But he could do nothing. He was unable to communicate with his doctors or family. He could not move his head or weep, he could only listen.

Doctors presumed he was in a vegetative state following a near-fatal car crash in 1983. They believed he could feel nothing and hear nothing. For 23 years...
The article refers to the results of a new brain scan that showed normal activity. Houben had been "locked in", but conscious. The story received international attention. It seemed plausible to me, though horrifying. The implications were obvious for the care of other persons in a vegetative state.

Except ... Looking at it on the original Guradian article one can see an aide holding Rom Houben's hand. It's the only clue that his communications were "facilitated". I never saw that picture. Had I seen it I'd have been very skeptical. Facilitated communication is a tragic deception.

Today, Feb 20, 2010, the Guardian reports ...
No miracle as brain-damaged patient proved unable to communicate | Science | The Guardian
It seemed to be a medical miracle: the car crash victim assumed for 23 years to be in a coma who was suddenly found to be conscious and able to communicate by tapping on a computer.

The sceptics said it was impossible – and it was. The story of Rom Houben of Belgium, which made headlines worldwide last November when he was shown to be "talking", was today revealed to have been nothing of the sort.

Dr Steven Laureys, one of the doctors treating him, acknowledged that his patient could not make himself understood after all. Facilitated communication, the technique said to have made Houben's apparent contact with the outside world possible, did not work, Laureys declared...
It's a terribly sad story for Rom Houben's loved ones and for all the families and friends of persons in vegetative states. Many hopes have been falsely raised.

Miracles, by their very nature, require skepticism. The Guardian should been far more cautious last November. They're an interesting news organization, but they're not the New York Times.

A Google Reader snapshot of the coverage is interesting (click for full size) ...

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