Misdiagnosis: Coma Patient Awake All Along

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A Belgian man who spent half his life in what doctor's thought was a vegetative state was fully conscious all along-- bringing light to medical errors and misdiangosis today.

For 23 years, doctors thought 46-year-old Rom Houben had no awareness of anything going on around him. But he was actually fully conscious, and unable to let anyone know.

"Frustration is too small a word to describe what I felt," Houben said using a keypad to spell out his words. "I screamed, but there was nothing to hear."

In 1983, Houben was paralyzed in a car wreck. Doctors tried to communicate with him, but got nothing in response and gave up.

CBN News spoke with Dr. Mark Mostert, director of Regent University's Institute for the Study of Disability & Bioethics, about Houben's misdiagnonis and the debate over euthanasia and the right to die.  Click play for his comments.

It wasn't until Dr. Steven Laureys of the Coma Science Group scanned his brain and discovered Houben was fully conscious.

"The big surprise was when we used this scanning machine that enables us to look into the brain and see the activity," Laureys said. "He had a normal brain. And so that changed everything."

The discovery took place three years ago, but only recently came to light, after publication of a study on the misdiagnosis of people with consciousness disorders.

"There are a lot of Roms in the sense that a mistake was made in the diagnosis of a vegetative state," Laureys explained. "Our research has shown that four times out of 10, if we are not careful and don't use the appropriate measures we can get it wrong."

"One can only try to imagine what he went through in all these long years," he added.

Patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state with no hope of recovery are sometimes allowed to die, which is what happened in 2005 to Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman at the center of the biggest "right to die" case in U.S. history.

Houben suffers what is called locked-in syndrome. His body is paralyzed, but his brain is alive.

"I want to enjoy my life now that people know I am not dead," he said.

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Dale Hurd

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A CBN News veteran, Dale Hurd has reported extensively from Western Europe, as well as China, Russia, and Central and South America.  Since 9/11, Dale has reported in depth on various aspects of the global war on terror in the United States and Europe.  Follow Dale on Twitter @HurdontheWeb and "like" him at Facebook.com/DaleHurdNews.