Monday, 23 November 2009

Misdiagnosed 'coma' case challenges euthanasia mentality

The newly-revealed case of Rom Houben (pictured right) who was misdiagnosed for 23 years as being in a coma-like state, challenges the pro-euthanasia mentality which exists regarding severely incapacitated patients.

Mr Houben, a Belgian man, was paralysed by a car accident. Until three years ago, Mr Houben had been misdiagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS, more correctly termed PNS or persistent non-responsive state). Doctors assumed he was unconscious, when in fact he has near-normal brain function and can hear and understand his surroundings. Following new tests which revealed the misdiagnosis, Mr Houben has been provided with equipment to read and type.

Janet Thomas of No Less Human, a group within SPUC Pro-Life, told the media today:
"This case highlight the huge dangers in assessing profoundly disabled people as having lives not worth living. Surely, with all the medical resources at our disposal, a truly civilised society would be concentrating on saving and improving life, not terminating it. It is encouraging to hear that Rom Houben has not succumbed to despair but is setting out to enjoy the life he has. We should remember that we call ourselves human 'beings'. It is what we are, not what we can do, that makes us unique.

"Rom Houben is not the first example of a person diagnosed as being in PVS but in fact being aware of the world around him. Jean Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle, wrote the book 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' while only able to blink an eyelid. Marian Sallery [1] of north Wales spent 11 years unable to communicate although fully aware of the world around. She was not diagnosed with Locked-in Syndrome until after her death. Keith Andrews of the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability [2] found in 1996 that, of 40 people diagnosed as being in PVS, nearly half were completely misdiagnosed.

"According to some criteria, PVS is regarded as permanent after the first year. Following the 1992 Bland judgment, and under the Mental Capacity Act and related professional guidance, such patients are in danger of being dehydrated to death."

[1] Lilian Sallery, "Futile or Fruitful". Paper given at the conference "Implications of the Bland Judgment", organised by ALERT (Against Legalised Euthanasia - Research & Training), House of Lords, 25 May 1993.
[2] K. Andrews et al., "Misdiagnosis of the vegetative state: retrospective study in a rehabilitation unit." BMJ 1996; 313: 13-16

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