Jane St Clair
Author of Walk Me to Midnight
Rom Houben was only twenty-years old when he was involved in a terrible car crash. Once a handsome, athletic engineering student who loved martial arts, he fell into a coma after his 1983 accident. For the next 23 years, his doctors believed he was in a vegetative state, although his mother knew better.
In 2006, one of his doctors went out on a limb and decided to use a new technology to scan Rom Houben’s brain. This was an unusual thing to do. Rom Houben was what’s known as “back ward case” — someone who gets very little attention because there’s no medical way to help him recover.
The new test showed what his family suspected all along – Rom Houben was conscious of things around him. In fact, the latest research using new brain imaging techniques now shows that up to 40% of the people assumed to be in permanent vegetative states are misdiagnosed.
Under the new Senate bill, people like Rom Houben have no protection from well-meaning doctors and nurses who wrongly label them vegetables, not human beings. Under the new Senate bill, health care providers paid with government money could withhold food and water from vegetable-people, even though, as Rom Houben clearly teaches us, mistakes happen.
To give the Senators credit, their new bill is not nearly as rough on helpless and terminally ill people as the House bill was. The Senate bill contains specific language against the “promotion” of “assisted suicide” and euthanasia. In the spirit of the season, let’s give thanksgiving. We can be thankful that our representatives listened to the American people’s concerns about end-of-life issues. We can be thankful that under this new bill, the federal government is not going to “promote” euthanasia and mercy killings as health care treatments. So far that is only being done in two states – Oregon and Washington – where people whose medical bills are paid by state governments have been offered cheap “assisted suicides” instead of expensive cancer treatments.
However, the language in the Senate bill needs to be strengthened to protect people like Rom Houben and to make sure that “assisted suicide” does not spread as a medical treatment, especially one that could be offered through government-paid programs like Medicaid, Medicare, and the “government insurance exchanges” as created by the new Senate bill. Promising not to “promote” euthanasia and mercy killings is not the same as being against that. Also, there is nothing in the bill that specifically prohibits discrimination against patients who are elderly, disabled or terminally ill.
By the way, the term “assisted suicide” is a meaningless phrase because suicide is by definition something you do yourself. The accurate term is “medical homicide.”
It is hard to understand why so many people are calling for provisions in healthcare reform laws that would allow the removal of food and water tubes when we know so little about consciousness and vegetative states. The newest research indicates that 10% to 40% of people diagnosed in permanent vegetative states probably are not. Shouldn’t we be trying to find new means to communicate with them and to help them use what they have, instead of talking about removing their food and water? After doctors and politicians decide that people like Rom Houben and Terri Schiavo should not get food and water, who’s next on their list?