Lodi News-Sentinel

July 18, 2001

Robert Wendland dies after 8 years on life support

By Julie Z. Giese/News-Sentinel staff writer

Robert Wendland, the focus of a national right-to-life case, died Tuesday at Lodi Memorial Hospital where he spent eight years hooked up to life support.

Wendland, 49, died of complications from pneumonia after becoming ill two weeks ago, officials said.

He suffered major brain damage from a 1993 accident when his truck rolled on an Interstate 5 onramp from Highway 12. The former auto parts dealer was left unable to speak or care for himself.

The Stockton man became the center of an six-year court battle over whether his wife and conservator, Rose Wendland, could remove his feeding tube and allow him to die.

Wendland’s mother, Florence Wendland, and sister, Rebekah Vinson, fought the removal of the feeding tube from local courts to the California Supreme Court, which heard arguments in May.

Wendland’s death prompted questions on whether the state justices will rule on the precedent-setting case.

The high court was expected to rule by next month on the issue of conservator rights to remove life support from paralyzed patients.

The justices are expected to accept arguments on whether the case is mooted by Wendland’s death, though they’re not required to rule on the case.

Lodi attorney Janie Hickok Siess, representing Wendland’s mother and sister, said the high court should settle the dispute over probate code.

“It’s a life-or-death question that they must decide,” Siess said.

Wendland’s deteriorating condition was being withheld from family, Siess said Monday.

Florence Wendland discovered last week her son was hooked up to additional tubes, felt clammy and appeared to have trouble breathing when she visited him in the hospital.

Siess filed an emergency petition Tuesday to have the state justices review a motion requesting information about Wendland’s medical condition, which was previously denied in San Joaquin County Superior Court.

The petition also requested that if Wendland died, an autopsy be performed before his body is cremated.

Rose Wendland declined to comment on her husband’s death, saying the family plans to hold a press conference today.

Siess, speaking on behalf of her clients, said the family was devastated by his death.

“His mother was at his bedside when he died,” she said. “It was how it should be since she was the one who had been visiting him all this time.”

Though the courts haven’t settled the dispute over a conservator’s right to remove life support, Siess said justice has been somewhat served in Wendland’s case.

“Rose Wendland never got to pull the feeding tube and let him die by dehydration and starvation,” she said.

Siess also thanked those who supported their fight to keep Wendland alive.

The debate isn’t the first such case before California’s justices. In 1993, the high court said mentally competent adults may refuse lifesaving medical treatment. That case came three years after the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in a Missouri case, said there was a constitutional right to withdraw life-sustaining medical treatment, but left it up to the states to devise the legal framework.

The Wendland case is centered around whether statements Wendland made to his wife before his near-fatal accident is proof enough to allow doctors to remove the feeding tube. He reportedly told his wife he didn’t want to live like a vegetable.

An appeals court said those statements, and doctors at a Lodi hospital agreeing with the decision, was all that is necessary to end Wendland’s life.

But Florence Wendland claimed her son was not a vegetable, saying he responded to her voice and squeezed her hand.

She’s also said he’d participated in adapted activities at the long-term care unit such as painting, bowling and golfing.

Lawrence Nelson, Rose Wendland’s attorney, has said Florence Wendland has grossly exaggerated her son’s abilities.

Doctors said Robert Wendland had some ability to think and to sometimes move in his hospital bed, but had no ability to communicate whether he wanted to live or die.

Wendland is survived by his wife, Rose, and three children.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.