Recent Mistaken Diagnosis Proves Catholic Position “Ahead of the Curve”

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

A Catholic bioethicists says the newly revealed case of a paralyzed man who was misdiagnosed as comatose for 23 years and is communicating again proves the wisdom of Catholic teaching on the duty to provide sustenance to the comatose.

The case involves Rom Houben, 46, of Belgium, who was paralyzed in a 1983 car crash. According to London’s Daily Mail, doctors used the internationally accepted Glasgow Coma Scale to determine that he was no longer conscious. It was not until three years ago when new hi-tech scanning devices discovered that his brain function was almost completely normal.

Houben, who is now able to communicate via computer, described the horror of his 23 years of silence. “I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,” he said. “I dreamed myself away.”

But then came his day of liberation. “I shall never forget the day when they discovered what was truly wrong with me – it was my second birth.”

The man who discovered the mistake, Dr. Steven Laureys of the Coma Science Group and Department of Neurology at Liege University Hospital, just published a report of the case in a scientific paper. Dr. Laureys said his re-evaluation of Houben showed that the patient had lost control of his body but was still fully aware of what was happening.

Medical advances finally caught up with the patient, he said, and warns that there may be many similar cases of false coma around the world today.

John Haas, President of the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center told the Catholic News Agency (CNA) that Houben’s case was the perfect example of why artificial nutrition and hydration should be continued, Haas said.

He reported that the U.S. Catholic bishops last week passed a modified version of Directive 58 of the Ethical and Religious Directives (ERDs) for Catholic healthcare. This directive spoke of “the moral obligation to continue to provide hydration and nutrition to patients in a compromised state,” Haas said.

“This obligation extends to patients in chronic conditions (e.g. the ‘persistent vegetative state’) who can reasonably be expected to live indefinitely if given such care,” the ERD read.

“The bishops have always held to that position,” Haas said, even while admitting that many, including Catholics, disagreed with it. 

However, in 2004, Pope John Paul II set the record straight in an allocution in which he reiterated the necessity of providing hydration and nutrition as long as it is “achieving its end” of nurturing the body.

Houben’s case is particularly relevant to those with advanced medical directives who say they want artificial hydration and nutrition removed if they are unconscious and unlikely ever to wake.

Catholic teaching says hydration and nutrition cannot be removed if a person will die of dehydration and starvation.

Haas believes that Houben’s recovery seems to be “a case where the Church’s position was actually ahead of the curve.”

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