Home > health/safety, life > Cogito Ergo Sum, but No One Else Knows It

Cogito Ergo Sum, but No One Else Knows It

Tuesday, November 24, 2009, 22:00 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Last night, I watched the 1990 movie Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. One aspect of Swayze’s portrayal of Sam Wheat is that it captures the frustration of someone who wants desperately to communicate with others but can’t.

Imagine that frustration, magnified and amplified over almost a quarter century and you have the story of Belgian Rom Houben, who existed in a particular hell on earth for 23 years after a severe car accident in 1983. Using a special touchscreen computer, he can now offer a glimpse into those years.

He saw his doctors and nurses as they visited him during their daily rounds; he listened to the conversations of his carers; he heard his mother deliver the news to him that his father had died. But he could do nothing. He was unable to communicate with his doctors or family. He could not move his head or weep, he could only listen.

“I had dreamed myself away…”

Although he could hear every word his doctors spoke, he could not communicate with them.

“I screamed, but there was nothing to hear…”

The Belgian former engineering student, who speaks four languages, said he coped with being effectively trapped in his own body by meditating. He told doctors he had “travelled with my thoughts into the past, or into another existence altogether”. Sometimes, he said, “I was only my consciousness and nothing else”.

“Powerlessness. Utter powerlessness. At first I was angry, then I learned to live with it…”

Houben was released from his bondage three years ago, when neurologist Steven Laureys found a way to use new technology to examine the brain activity of coma patients. Laureys believes doctors make incorrect coma diagnoses “on a disturbingly regular basis” and has himself identified several such patients. Houben’s case appears to be the most extreme.

Remember this the next time you are tempted to make a value judgment about a person’s life based on what you think you know. Sometimes the only person who really knows is powerless to say so.

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Categories: health/safety, life
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