November 28, 2009

Rom Houben: Culture of Death Is Not Impressed

Filed under: General,Health Care,Life-Based News,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 12:24 am


It’s nice that the story of Rom Houben has recently made the news. I carried it as one of my own “Positivity” posts earlier this week.

A Google News Search on “Rom Houben Laureys” (not typed in quotes; Laureys is the last name of Houben’s principal doctor) at about 11:30 p.m. ET came back with 1,528 results relating to the word of his amazing recovery and ability to communicate after 23 years of being “comatose.” That same search also comes back with 197 results questioning the legitimacy of his recovery. That number appears likely to grow, as the core article leading those results was only 8 hours old when this post was prepared.

From Brussels, the Associated Press’s Raf Cassert gave voice to the doubters, while avoiding one of the real reasons why they’re engaged in their doubting:

Coma recovery case attracts doubters

Rom Houben’s mother remembers her son’s amazement when he finally started communicating again after spending 23 years locked in a paralyzed body that was misdiagnosed as vegetative.

“Early on, he was surprised that the words came out of his finger,” Fina Nicolaes said. “Now, he is busy writing a book.”

However, his communication, with the help of a speech therapist holding his hand punching a touch screen, is stirring controversy only days after the story of his comeback as a fully conscious man entombed in an immobile body captured the world’s imagination.

It has scholars questioning the technique of facilitated communication, bloggers denouncing it as a cruel farce, and millions asking as they watch the video of Houben’s hand being held as it quickly types into the screen — who is really doing the punching here?

Dr. Steven Laureys understands the questions and said he might ask the same if he did not know the patient. And he said there is only one way to address the doubters — science.

“For me, there are two questions: Is he conscious? Can he communicate? That is ‘yes’ twice,” he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

…. when news of Houben’s recovery and the video hit the world this week, some people immediately began raising doubts. Bioethics professor Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania was among the first — calling the practice of facilitated communication “Ouija board stuff.”

The British Psychological Society, through clinical neurologist Dr. Graham Powell echoed that view, arguing there is nothing in scientific literature to support using facilitated communication as it’s been used with Houben.

Caffert left out at least two important things:

  • That Laureys believes that roughly 4 in 10 patients believed to be in a persistent vegetative state really aren’t. This brings echoes of 2005′s Terri Schiavo situation, where doctors and the courts persisted in giving Terri’s husband Michael the permission to starve and dehydrate her to death based on his word alone that it’s what Terri would have wanted. Laureys’s position makes him a target.
  • That Penn professor Caplan is not an objective observer. In 2005, Caplan told CNN that he, in CNN’s words, “supports the Texas law giving the hospital the right to make life or death decisions eveen if the family disagrees. ‘There are occasions when family members just don’t get it right,’ he said. ‘No parent should have the right to cause suffering to a kid in a futile situation.’”

Cassert, as seen above, added another person who agreed with Caplan. He didn’t find any scientist who agreed with Laureys or who would comment positively on Houben’s progress. It’s hard to believe that finding one would have required a lot of effort.

In other words, Cassert’s coverage is not only not balanced, it is badly out of balance.

It’s quite interesting that the press is so willing to give the doubters their due in this instance, while those who doubt something that has, with the emergence of Climategate, apparently been subjected to far more manipulation than anything Laureys might have done to steer his patient in any given direction, get the back of the hand treatment from the media.

Cross-posted at


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