24 Nov 2009

Man 'in coma' for 20 years was conscious all the time

6:14 pm on 24 November 2009

A Belgian man wrongly thought to have been in a coma for 20 years has described his joy after doctors realised he was in fact conscious all that time.

For two decades it was believed that Rom Houben had been left in a vegetative state by a car crash, but new tests at the University of Liege three years ago found that his brain was still functioning.

Now, for the first time, using a special computer keyboard, he has been able to describe his ordeal.

The former engineering student and martial arts enthusiast, now 46, told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he meditated to pass the long years trapped in his own body.

"I would scream, but no sound would come out," he says.

'I dreamed of a better life all the time'

He could hear what was being said around him throughout, but was unable to respond.

"I became the witness to my own suffering as doctors and nurses tried to speak to me and eventually gave up," he says.

The worst moment came when his mother and sister told him his father had died and, though he wanted to weep, his body remained motionless.

Cut off from the world, he says, "I dreamed of a better life all the time. Frustration is too small a word to describe what I went through."

The day they finally discovered what was really wrong was his "second birth."

Mother says she never gave up hope

Mr Houben's story emerged following the publication of an article in a medical journal by neurologist Steven Laureys, who told Der Spiege that it was very difficult to change a coma diagnosis, once it had been decided.

"Every patient should be tested at least 10 times before they are diagnosed as being in a vegetative state," he says.

But Mr Houben's mother, Fina Houben, says she never gave up hope. "I always knew our son was still there," she says.

Mr Houben is still unable to move, but he can read thanks to a device set up over his bed, and he communicates through his keyboard.