Lodi News-Sentinel

July 19, 2001

 

Legal battle continues despite

Robert Wendland’s death

 

Rose Wendland, left, and her daughter, Katie Wendland, struggle with their emotions while attorney Lawrence Nelson answers questions during a press conference Wednesday in Stockton. (Jerry R. Tyson/News-Sentinel)

By Julie Z. Giese/News-Sentinel staff writer

A grieving Rose Wendland said Wednesday she lost both her husband and her children’s father when Robert Wendland was left with severe brain damage from a 1993 traffic accident.

However, he survived eight years in Lodi Memorial Hospital’s long-term care unit, hooked up to a feeding tube for nourishment.

Wendland, 49, died Tuesday from a bout with pneumonia.

The Stockton man became the focus of a national debate over whether conservators have the right to remove life support in a legal struggle fought all the way to the California Supreme Court.

Rose Wendland, along with her daughters Kerrie, 20, and Katie, 22, spoke to a room full of reporters Wednesday morning in an attorney’s office in Stockton.

She shared her six-year legal battle to have her husband’s feeding tube removed and allow him to die.

She occasionally peered down at a wooden table where a tissue box rested among several TV microphones while Katie Wendland read a prepared statement.

Rose Wendland criticized her husband’s mother, Florence Wendland, and other right-to-life supporters for refusing to let her honor what she claimed were Robert’s wishes.

“We remain as firmly convinced today as we were then that he would never have wanted to live in the neurologically deviated condition caused by his tragic accident,” the statement said. “Today his right to live free of tubes and medicines that could not really make him better has finally been made real.”

The former auto parts dealer, often called Rob, was left unable to speak, feed or care for himself from the accident. He was reportedly driving drunk and rolled his truck on the onramp to Interstate 5 from Highway 12 on Sept. 28, 1993, authorities said.

Wendland became ill about two weeks ago with pneumonia. Doctors gave him antibiotics to clear up the respiratory infection in both lungs, but it didn’t help, Rose Wendland said.

Physicians also tried to remove fluid from his chest, but managed to drain only about two tablespoons. He was given morphine to take away any pain, she said.

Rose Wendland and her children had just left Robert’s hospital room to talk with doctors when he died about 2:40 p.m. Tuesday. She called his death peaceful and dignified.

Rose Wendland claims her husband made comments about not wanting to live in a vegetative state prior to the accident.

She called Wendland’s mother and sister, Rebekah Vinson, strangers who didn’t know what kind of medical care her husband would have wanted.

Robert Wendland hadn’t been in contact with his mother for five years prior to the accident, Rose Wendland said.

“If Robert was close with his mother, then she would have known his wishes,” she said.

Lodi attorney Janie Hickok Siess, representing Wendland’s mother and sister, countered Rose Wendland’s portrayal of the relationship between Robert and Florence.

“They had a close relationship. He discussed everything with her,” she said.

The two sides have come to an agreement on one issue: They both want the state Supreme Court to rule on the precedent-setting case.

Wendland’s wife is pushing for the justices to clarify the state probate code on conservator rights which has been at issue.

She also said the high court should rule in the case “because it’s the right thing to do.”

Siess said her clients would also like to the issue settled.

The mother, who was unavailable for comment, has claimed her son was not a vegetable, saying he responded to her voice and squeezed her hand.

Florence Wendland also said previously that he participated in adapted activities at the long-term care unit such as painting, bowling and golfing.

Wendland’s wife said her family has been tortured by the distortions made about her husband’s abilities.

The family hasn’t really dealt with the grief from the accident or death because of the legal strife, she said.

Rose Wendland said she was thankful his suffering was over. “If everybody could put themselves in our shoes, then they would understand,” she said.

Her children also have been deeply affected by the long battle, she said.

“I will never have total peace in my life and it’s because of what we went through,” said Katie Wendland, struggling to slow a stream of tears.

Michael Hofer, Robert’s 46-year-old brother, said he was caught in the middle of a divided family.

Hofer said his mother fought to keep Robert alive out of love, but he still disagreed with the battle.

He told how he had cautioned his brother a week before the accident about his drinking problem and that someone could get hurt or end up a vegetable from a car accident.

That was when Robert Wendland professed his opposition to living on life support, he said.

Hofer, who saw his brother almost daily before the accident, said he’s still mourning the loss of his brother.

“His problems ended eight years ago,” Hofer said. “Our problems continue because we have to face living.”

Rose Wendland said she hoped others could learn from her family’s experience.

She encouraged people to talk with loved ones about medical care and put their wishes in writing by creating a health care directive or signing a durable power of attorney for health care.

“I would want him to be remember as a loving father, a good husband and a very good provider and hopefully this isn’t all in vain. Something good has to come out of it,” Rose Wendland said.

Florence Wendland has sought to have an independent autopsy performed in the event of his death. It’s unclear whether her emergency petition to the state Supreme Court will be honored.

Rose Wendland said she has no intentions of giving up the confidential medical information about her husband.

The wife and children will hold a private service for Wendland. The mother and sister are planning to hold a public memorial service, possibly in August, according to Siess.

However, final arrangements can only be handled after the San Joaquin County coroner’s office finishes examining the body since he was involved in a traffic accident.

Robert Wendland is survived by his wife, Rose; children, Katie, Kerrie and Robbie, 16; mother, Florence Wendland; five sisters and two brothers.