to Dehydrate: Man Speaking After 23 Years in Locked-In State
We hear constantly that people diagnosed as being persistently
unconscious should be dehydrated to death because they are not
“persons,” or are actually “dead”–and so should be available for organ
harvesting. We hear that even if the family resists, futile care
theory should permit bioethics committees to impose unilateral
withdrawal. And we hear this even as repeated studies demonstrate
40 or more percent of patients diagnosed as PVS really aren’t.
But the dehydrating lobby merely reply, “That’s even more reason to do
it! Imagine the suffering!” Well, imagine you are in the locked in
state (awake and aware but unable to communicate) and hear doctors
telling your family to kill you. Now that is terror.
But there are abundant reasons to treat people with profound cognitive
disabilities as fully human beings. First and foremost, because
are us. Second, because we don’t know enough about how the brain works
to know that there won’t be some regeneration to permit eventual
restoration of some function. But also, because there is always
Case in point: We hear from time-to-time, for example, that a person in
PVS awakened. And now in Belgium [NOTE, this corrects original
that incorrectly stated this happened in the UK], a man
as unconscious for 23 years is now telling how he was fully aware all
along. From the story:
A car crash victim has spoken of the horror he endured for 23 years
after he was misdiagnosed as being in a coma when he was conscious the
whole time. Rom Houben, trapped in his paralysed body after a car
crash, described his real-life nightmare as he screamed to doctors that
he could hear them – but could make no sound. ‘I screamed, but there
was nothing to hear,’ said Mr Houben, now 46, who doctors thought was
in a persistent vegatative state. ‘I dreamed myself away,’ he added,
tapping his tale out with the aid of a computer.
Doctors used a range of coma tests before reluctantly concluding that
his consciousness was ‘extinct’. But three years ago, new hi-tech scans
showed his brain was still functioning almost completely normally. Mr
Houben described the moment as ‘my second birth’. Therapy has since
allowed him to tap out messages on a computer screen.
Houben is here today only because he wasn’t dehydrated to death.
is no doubt he went through a horrendous experience, but thanks to
treating him as a fully equal human being by caring for him all those
years and giving him tests late into his disability–explicitly refused
to Terri Schiavo–he is here today to tell tale and live the rest of his
And for goodness sake, whatever you believe about these issues, don’t
talk in the presence of PVS or other apparently unconscious patients as
if they aren’t there. Rather, always treat such people as if they can
hear you, because sometimes they can.
Contact: Wesley J.
November 25, 2009
to a friend.
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