May 20, 2024

False alarm: Belgian man in coma will not be writing a book

Facilitated communication proved false

Rom Houben and his therapistIt seemed too good to
be true: a brain-damaged Belgian man in a coma for 23 years began to
communicate – and even promised to write a book – after doctors discovered that
he was really conscious. The tragic case of 46-year-old Rom Houben was reported
around the world. Unfortunately it turns out that it wasn’t true – at least the
most dramatic aspects of the story.

The neurologist who
examined Mr Houben, Steven Laureys, now acknowledges that his cautious
endorsement of the miraculous story was wrong. It turns out that the dramatic
comments credited to Mr Houben had been filtered through a speech therapist
using a technique called facilitated communication. After more extensive tests,
it seems that she had unwittingly been projecting her own story and presenting
it as his.

Sceptics of Houben’s
incredible story feel vindicated. “It’s like using an Ouija board,”
said bioethicist Arthur Caplan, of the University of Pennsylvania. “It was
too good to be true, and we shouldn’t have believed it.”

However, that is not
the end of the story. What has been proved faulty is facilitated communication.
According to a long
article in Der Spiegel
, Houben may be capable of communication, but it is
very difficult to examine him because his body is constantly shaken by spasms.

“Researchers are fairly certain that Houben
is conscious — and they find themselves in the desperate position of a rescue
team trying to dig out a person from under the rubble…. ‘We’ll simply have to
find another way to him,’ Laureys says.” ~ Guardian,
Feb 19

Michael Cook
facilitated communication