What would you do? (Part One)

by JHS, Esq.

In response to my post about Florence Wendland’s passing, a visitor wrote the following:

While reading about this case I would say that if that were my husband no one would stand in the way of letting me do what I felt was best. Your words over the tears in regards to this case and your beautiful memorial to his mother makes me question just what I would do in a similar situation.

I experienced a lot of amazing reactions from people because of my involvement in the Wendland case and even now — five years later (hard to believe) — still get some amazing responses when people learn of my involvement.

Sometimes the most extreme reactions come from surprising sources. For instance, one of my best friends — a person I have been close to for nearly 30 years — had a very emphatic, visceral reaction to my involvement. She was not supportive, thought I was nuts for representing Florence and her viewpoint, and told me enthusiastically that she would not want to be kept alive under any circumstances if she were in Robert Wendland’s condition.

The good news is that we decided, for the sake of our friendship, to agree to disagree.

At the other end of the spectrum . . . I received telephone calls and e-mails from people I had never heard of who just wanted to express their support for Florence, her family members — and me. I have been greeted warmly by complete strangers who, having read about the case or seen reports on the news, want me to know that they agreed with Florence’s stand and would do the same thing were it their loved one’s life at stake.

My friend’s comment, “if that were my husband no one would stand in the way of letting me do what I felt was best,” is certainly well-intended, but quite naive on a couple of levels.

First, there were a good number of people who felt that Robert Wendland’s wife should have had the right to make medical decisions on behalf of her husband without having those decisions questioned by anyone, including the courts. But our legal system just doesn’t work that way — and for good reason. No one is “above the law,” clothed with unfettered and unquestionable discretion to make decisions about another human being. A person who is appointed by the court to serve as the conservator (guardian) of another individual must understand that his/her actions will be subjected to scrutiny, especially when one word from the conservator could bring about the death of the conservatee (person on whose behalf the conservator is acting).

And a lot of people don’t understand that, under California law, “any interested person,” whether related to the conservatee or not, can ask the court to examine the actions taken by the conservator. Florence Wendland, Robert’s mother, was certainly “interested” in his welfare. So she had every right to challenge Rose Wendland’s assertion that Robert would have wanted to die by having his feeding tube removed.

And therein is the key: The son that Florence knew would never have wanted that. Like Terri’s Schindler-Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary, Florence was confident that her son would not want to be dehydrated and that the sparse statements Rose and a couple of other folks attributed to Robert did not rise to the level of informed consent to die in that fashion.

My friend mentioned what the spouse deems best. This is precisely where a lot of people missed the point of the Wendland case, as well as that of Terri Schindler-Schiavo. People told me “the wife should be in control” and “his mother has nothing to say about it,” actually quoting the Bible to me in support of their argument (“a man leaves his mother . . .” and all that). They felt that the spouse’s values and outlook should control the conservatee’s destiny.

But the whole point of a conservatorship is this: The court appoints the person to serve as conservator whom it believes will most likely carry out the wishes of the conservatee, at least to the extent that those wishes are known or can be ascertained.

Stated differently: The focus is on what the incapacitated person (the person who is no longer capable of expressing his/her wishes and making his/her own treatment decisions) would want and what directions that person would give to the healthcare provider(s) if he/she were still capable of expressing him/herself.

What the spouse wants is basically irrelevant.

So, in the Wendland case, as in the Schiavo matter, the focus of the court’s inquiry was this: If Robert could speak for himself, what would he tell the court he wanted to have happen in light of his present circumstances? Figuring that out is sometimes extremely difficult, i.e., when the conservatee has left no advance written directive nor discussed his/her wishes with the persons he/she was closest too. But it is the only important inquiry because, ultimately, it’s not about what the wife, the children, the mother, the father, the siblings or anyone else connected to the incapacitated person wants to see happen to him/her. It is ALL about the incapacitated individual’s wishes, goals, and desires.

Robert Wendland never executed a durable power for healthcare, living will, or any other written document that would have given everyone involved in the case a clear understanding of whether or not he would have wanted to continue living following his traumatic injury in light of the fact that he would never again be a full-bodied person. And the few statements that his wife, children and half-brother attributed to him were, unfortunately, cryptic, at best.

In Part Two of this entry, I will talk more about the few, brief comments attributed to him, why they could never have been legally sufficient to support bringing about his death, and the evidence of his wishes that the court never heard — and I have never publicly revealed until now.

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