DOVER, Del. — Two dramatic end-of-life cases saw the love of parents and children dramatically change hearts.
The cases come in the wake of an upswing in physician-assisted suicide after Washington state voters approved killing terminally ill patients and a court in Montana approved the practice.
There have been dramatic turnarounds in at least two cases of brain-injured individuals whose lives had been threatened by right-to-die advocates.
In the case of 24-year-old Lauren Richardson of Dover, Del., the reconciliation between her divorced parents means that she will not have her food and water withdrawn. In the case of 14-year-old Haleigh Poutre of Boston, who nearly suffered death by starvation at the hands of a state social service agency, she has made dramatic improvements that stand in stark contrast to the dire prognostications of doctors who described her as “virtually brain dead.”
In August 2006, Richardson suffered brain damage as the result of a heroin overdose. She was three months pregnant at the time.
Doctors kept Richardson on life support throughout the duration of her pregnancy. In February 2007, she gave birth to a baby daughter. Shortly afterward, her estranged parents began feuding over whether she should continue to receive food and water.
Lauren’s mother, Edith Towers, wanted her daughter’s feeding tube removed. Lauren’s father, Randy Richardson, did not.
The parents reconciled and reached a settlement in November. Towers agreed to drop her court request to remove the feeding tube and water, and to work cooperatively with Richardson to provide care for their daughter at Richardson’s Maryland home.
“Lauren’s mother had an amazing change of heart,” said attorney Matt Bowman, who represented Randy Richardson. Bowman serves as legal counselor with the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Alliance Defense Fund, which takes on legal cases involving religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and traditional family values. “She began to realize the miracle of Lauren’s life.”
Bowman described the scene when Towers told Lauren that both she and her father were going to care for her.
“Lauren started crying,” said Bowman. “They held hands together and cried. Towers realized that her daughter’s life was valuable and deserved to be protected.”
‘Brain-Dead’ in Boston?
In the case of Haleigh Poutre, jurors in the trial of her stepfather, Jason Strickland, were able to watch the first public video of Poutre’s dramatic improvements since a near-fatal brain injury in the fall of 2005.
At the time, based on the physician’s diagnosis of Poutre as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), the Massachusetts Department of Public Social Services requested permission to remove Poutre’s respirator and feeding tube. The Massachusetts Supreme Court approved the request.
However, Poutre regained consciousness in January 2006 while at Baystate Medical Center. She was later transferred to Franciscan Hospital for Children.
The 26-minute video screened for jurors showed Poutre feeding herself, writing, using an alphabet board for communication, and putting music into a CD player.
Dr. Jeffrey Forman, director of rehabilitation at Franciscan, testified that Poutre’s progress has been dramatic. He added that she also has a limited ability to speak and walk.
“Haleigh Poutre was abandoned by everyone with the responsibility to care for her, starting with her adopted parents who abused her. But then, doctors quickly wrote her off as hopeless, after only 10 days, and when they urged she be denied respiratory support and be dehydrated to death, the state went along,” said Wesley Smith, an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.
“It took a few months to get it through the Massachusetts Supreme Court, just long enough for Haleigh to begin to show signs of responsiveness,” he said. “Imagine if they had acted a little more quickly. This little girl would be dead.”
“Both of these cases involve people changing their hearts because they recognize the miracle of life and the value of each human being amidst severe disability,” said the Alliance Defense Fund’s Bowman. “We have medical and legal industries that consider people less than human because of their disabilities. They are so enamored with death that they consider killing to be a benefit that unconscious people should not be deprived of. Therefore, they want to give the gift of death to those who cannot decide it on their own.”
In 2004, Pope John Paul II objected to the term “vegetative” being applied to human beings. He taught: “I feel the duty to reaffirm strongly that the intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being do not change, no matter what the concrete circumstances of his or her life. A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a ‘vegetable’ or an ‘animal.’”
He added, “The sick person in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or a natural end, still has the right to basic health care — nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.”
He continued: “The administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such, morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering.”
Alliance Defense Fund’s Bowman added that science is demonstrating that many patients who are diagnosed as being in a “persistent vegetative” state are neither. He cited research by doctors in England who found that patients diagnosed with persistent vegetative state can possess and/or exhibit consciousness.
Neuroscientist Adrian Owen of the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England, used a functional MRI scan to produce a 3-D image of patients’ brains. He discovered that patients who had been diagnosed as vegetative were able to respond to commands with their minds. The scans showed the same sort of brain activity in both a brain-injured patient as well as a healthy patient, demonstrating that brain-injured patients are not vegetative, but consciously aware.
In addition, over the past several years, a number of patients who have been in a persistent vegetative state for years have awakened after being given the sleeping medication Zolpidem. The medical journal NeuroRehabilitation published a paper on the phenomenon in 2006. CBS’ “60 Minutes” reported on it in 2007.
For example, George Melendez suffered a brain injury when he crashed his automobile into a pond and nearly drowned. Weeks after his accident, doctors told his mother that he would never get better.
“What you see lying there in the bed is as good as it gets,” said his mother, Pat Flores, telling CBS her memory of his diagnosis. “He’s never going to be able to do anything.”
Five years later, unable to sleep because of his moaning, Flores gave Melendez the sleeping pill Ambien. Rather than going to sleep, within minutes, Melendez awoke, began looking around and talking.
Clinical trials on the medication have been slow because brain-injured patients are scattered across the country in homes and nursing facilities. Dr. Nicholas Schiff, a neurologist at Weill Cornell Medical Center, told “60 Minutes” that as many as 40% of patients could be misdiagnosed with persistent vegetative state.
“Conscious and unconscious people have their food and water withdrawn in all 50 states due to quality-of-life judgments, and it is called medical ethics,” said Wesly Smith. “I hope that such examples of hope will help others to decide to give the benefit of the doubt to life rather than death.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
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