A Belgian man diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for 23 years after an automobile accident was found to be conscious the whole time. Rather he had a condition known as Locked-in Syndrome, in which a person is fully aware of all of their surroundings, but due to their cognitive disability are unable to respond.

After being re-diagnosed by neurological expert Dr Steven Laureys, Rom Houben was able to communicate his ordeal with the assistance of a computer. He said, “I screamed, but there was nothing to hear.” Laureys says there are many “cases of false comas around the world” and that “patients classed in a vegetative state are often misdiagnosed.”

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, said Houben’s story should serve as a cautionary note against diagnoses of PVS. He warns that such patients are treated as non-persons and that too many doctors look at them as sources of vital organ harvesting for transplants.

He said, “My experience is that medical professionals are too quick to give-up on the person in coma or cognitively disabled. Family members are often pressured into withdrawing medical treatment or pressured into removing food and fluids from the person in coma, even before they were given a reasonable opportunity for recovery.” He said a PVS diagnosis is often “treated like a death sentence” and that such patients are need of more protection and better care.