We all know that Ariel Sharon has been in a Coma for almost four years. hovering between life and death and as far as anyone knows, he has little or no awareness of the world around him.
There have been many jokes about what would happen if he woke up, and earlier this year there were (mistaken) reports that he was becoming more responsive, but I don’t think that anyone believes that Sharon will ever again be able to interact fully with the world around him.
On a related topic, in the US there has been a lot of talk about end of life care and how it will be effected if Obama’s health proposal is passed into law. People have been tossing around terms like ‘Death Panels” and “Right to Die”.
Judaism has always regarded human life as supremely important, and regards even life in a Vegetative State important enough to safeguard. We are obligated to break Shabbat if it would allow us to extend the life of comatose patient for even a few minutes.
Have you ever stopped to think about what it must be like on the “other side”. Imagine if you lost full control of your body, unable to move of communicate, but fully conscious and aware of everything going on around you. Can you imagine a worse fate than lying there fully conscious while everyone assumed you were brain dead.
That is the situation that is being reported about Rom Houben. According to reports, for 23 years doctors assumed that Mr Houben was comatose and effectively brain-dead when in fact he was fully conscious, just without any control over his body. The reports say that for 23 years hey lay there, wanting to scream out, but unable to move.
According to the report, today he is able to communicate through a computer, and they have given him books to read via a screen over his bed.
May Mr Houben live many more years now that he has been restored to the world of the living.
Post Script: After I wrote this post, I saw the story in today's Jerusalem Post about Deputy Health Minister Rabbi Ya'acov Litzman insisting that doctors at Schneider Children's Medical Center follow the wishes of a patient's family and treat a lower-brain-dead baby girl like an ordinary living patient and give her antibiotics and other treatment.
The hospital is angry at the Rabbi for interfering with medical decisions.
I am no expert on the Halachic or medical issues surrounding brain-dead patients. I have no idea how the diagnosis of "lower-brain-dead" compares to "vegetative State" which was the mis-diagnosis that Mr Houben suffered with for 23 years, however I would have though that it is the responsibility of the hospital to respect the end-of-life wishes of a family, and it shouldn't take interference from a Deputy Minister to see that the family's wishes are followed.