Injured Man in Life Support Case Dies (2001)
Injured Man in Life Support Case Dies
Court: His wife and mother had battled for years over the right to end medical aid.
Los Angeles Times
July 18, 2001
By MAURA DOLAN, Times Legal Affairs Writer
SAN FRANCISCO — A severely disabled man who is the subject of a closely watched right-to-die case before the California Supreme Court died of pneumonia Tuesday, family lawyers and a hospital official said.
Robert Wendland, 49, who suffered brain damage in a car accident in 1993, died at 2:40 p.m. at Lodi Memorial Hospital, according to a hospital official.
Wendland’s mother, Florence Wendland, who had for years prevented his wife, Rose, from removing his feeding and hydration tube, was with him. Lawrence Nelson, an attorney for Wendland’s wife, said Wendland had been suffering from pneumonia for four to five weeks. Antibiotics were administered for a while, but they were not effective, Nelson said.
“He was given all appropriate medical treatment and care,” Nelson said.
Rose Wendland, 44, called her husband’s death “peaceful, dignified, and unmarred by pain or suffering.”
“Today his right to live free of tubes and medicines that could not really make him better has finally been made real,” she said in a statement. “But it had taken way too long for this to happen.”
The Wendland case has been watched nationally because it could expand the powers of conservators to allow loved ones to die. Previously, courts have permitted the removal of feeding tubes only from patients who were terminally ill or in a vegetative state.
Robert Wendland was different. Doctors had testified that he could have lived for decades as long as he survived lung and urinary tract infections that periodically plague patients in his condition.
During arguments in May, the California Supreme Court appeared reluctant to allow Rose Wendland to remove his feeding and hydration tube. The court was expected to issue its decision this summer.
The court now could either drop the case or rule on it anyway to clarify the law for families in similar circumstances.
At some point during his illness, Rose Wendland “made the decision that aggressive treatment was not in his interest, and he was kept comfortable,” Nelson said.
Robert Wendland died only minutes before a lawyer for his mother filed an emergency petition with the state high court asking that a doctor of her choice be allowed to examine him. Two lower courts had already rejected similar petitions.
Since 1995, Rose and Florence Wendland have been on opposing sides in courtroom battles over Robert. Rose, Robert’s legal conservator, and her three children said Robert would have wanted to die in his condition. Florence Wendland insisted that he would have opted for life.
Doctors considered Robert Wendland minimally conscious. He could not eat, drink, walk or talk, but he could respond to simple commands. He could not communicate his wishes, and no one knew for certain his level of awareness.
His wife and children said he never recognized them after the accident or communicated any ability to understand his surroundings. His mother said he would kiss her hand and cry during visits.
Janie Hickok Siess, who represents Wendland’s mother, complained that his wife had instructed hospital officials not to disclose Robert’s condition to his mother.
But Florence Wendland, 78, became alarmed when she noticed he was having trouble breathing during a visit. He became progressively worse, and she decided to go to court to ask that she be informed of his condition and that he be examined by a doctor of her choice.
A Superior Court in Stockton turned her down last week. Tuesday morning, the 3rd District Court of Appeal rejected her petition on the grounds that she should have filed it with the California Supreme Court.
Siess was in tears after learning that Wendland had died.
“I was filing papers with the court, but I wasn’t fast enough,” she said.
Siess said Florence Wendland described her son as breathing so hard during his last moments that his body shook. The lawyer also said Florence Wendland has requested an autopsy.
Florence Wendland had visited Robert regularly since his accident. Rose Wendland and her children had visited only sporadically since 1996.
Rose, her children and one of Robert’s brothers had long contended that Wendland had been estranged from his mother and wanted nothing to do with her.
In her statement Tuesday, Rose Wendland referred to her mother-in-law and other family members as “relatives he did not love and with whom he did not share any kind of meaningful personal relationship.”
“I think it is tragic, ridiculous and ultimately disgusting that the law permitted these strangers to interfere in a decision that naturally and morally belongs to his close family, the persons who knew him the best and lived with him when he was still with us: me, Katie, Kerrie and Robbie,” the Wendland children, she said.
She said she lost her husband and her children lost their father “that day in September 1993 when he was so terribly hurt in that accident.”
Though Wendland’s death was painful, Rose said she and her family were hurt “far more deeply” by the legal efforts to stop them from disconnecting her husband’s life-sustaining tube.
Rose Wendland praised Dr. Ronald Cranford, a Minnesota neurologist and bioethicist, for providing her with medical and moral advice during Robert’s final days. Cranford, a consultant in several high-profile right-to-die cases, did not personally treat Wendland but advised doctors on his care. His presence at the hospital enraged some pro-life activists, who fired off a statement Tuesday denouncing his involvement.
Nelson said Rose Wendland will decide soon whether to ask the California Supreme Court to drop the case or rule on it.
Siess said she expects that the court will issue a decision as a way to help others in similar situations. “We don’t know how many Robert Wendlands are out there,” she said.