Originally Published Thursday, July 19, 2001

Wendland's widow wants court decision

By Linda
Hughes-Kirchubel

Record Staff Writer

The day following Robert Wendland's death, his widow and children emerged from seclusion, urging the California Supreme Court to make "the right decision" in the case that has sparked a national debate over a conservator's right to make life-and-death decisions for a loved one.

Flanked by her two daughters, her brother-in-law Michael Hofer and her attorney, Rose Wendland said in a Wednesday morning news conference that she wants the court to decide the case so that her family's efforts would not be in vain.

"I would hope that other families wouldn't have to go through what I've gone through," she said. "It's the right thing to do."

Robert Wendland died Tuesday of pneumonia at Lodi Memorial Hospital's Subacute Care Unit, nearly eight years after a car accident incapacitated him.

His death made local and national headlines Wednesday, splashed across the morning news shows and major newspapers and forced the grieving family into the spotlight once again.

"This should be a very private and very saddened time for us," Rose Wendland said.

She said hospital staffers called her about Robert Wendland's deteriorating condition July 1. Initially treated with antibiotics, Wendland failed to improve. X-rays taken Friday revealed both lungs were filled with fluid.

Rose Wendland and her children prepared to say goodbye. They had just left his side, she said, when her husband passed away.

In September 1993, Robert Wendland, his blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit for a motorist, drove off the Highway 12/Interstate 5 onramp and was thrown from his car. The accident left him first comatose, and then, 18 months later, hovering in an altered state of consciousness that experts found difficult to characterize.

Legally conscious -- but barely so -- Wendland lay in his hospital bed while his wife and mother the past five years fought a protracted battle over whether he had the right to live or die.

His mother, Florence Wendland, wanted him to remain on life support, while Rose sought to disconnect the feeding tube that sustained him.

Since he left no legal document clearly spelling out his wishes, the matter was up to the courts to decide when the two sides could not agree.

Reading a statement, daughter Katie Wendland, 22, urged members of the public to draft durable powers of attorney to ensure their wishes are followed in the event of incapacitation.

"Sign a durable power of attorney for health care and appoint someone you trust to make decisions for you, or sign an explicit health-care directive that tells everyone what you do or don't want," she said. "Let your loved ones know where you stand. And make them promise to honor your wishes."

Robert Wendland made those wishes clear, according to Rose Wendland and Robert Wendland's brother, Michael Hofer, barely a week before his accident, insisting he would not wish to live "as a vegetable" should he sustain a traumatic brain injury.

The California Probate Code remains unclear as to whether Wendland's wife, as his conservator, had the right to authorize the removal of a feeding tube which kept him alive.

Florence Wendland -- who had been estranged from her son for years until the accident -- and Robert's sister, Rebekah Vinson, obtained an order in 1995 to halt the withdrawal of nutrients to him. San Joaquin County Judge Bob McNatt ruled in their favor, but a California appellate court said McNatt erred in the ruling.

Florence Wendland's attorney said her clients "continued to be distraught."

"They're mourning the loss of their son and brother," said Janie Hickok Siess.

The matter was brought before the state Supreme Court in May, and Siess asked the court to declare unconstitutional the part of the code that governed such life-and-death matters.

A decision, due by Aug. 28, still could be forthcoming. The Supreme Court also could dismiss the case since Wendland has died. On Tuesday morning, court staffers asked Rose Wendland's attorney Lawrence Nelson to indicate his position on whether a ruling should be issued.

"We'll either get the opinion or they'll tell us, as far as they're concerned, it's over," Nelson said.

It's far from over for Siess, who is moving forward with a petition, filed yesterday with the Supreme Court, to compel Rose Wendland to release information on her husband's treatment and her husband's body for autopsy.

"I am giving the court a letter outlining what aspects of my emergency (petition) are or are not moot," Siess said.

She added she expected to have the papers filed by late Wednesday afternoon or early this morning.

While it was clear Rose Wendland wanted to hear a ruling from the Supreme Court, it was also clear neither she nor her daughters had any desire to mend fences with Florence Wendland.

Rose Wendland and her children want to keep memorial arrangements as private as possible, and said a service will be held at the home. Siess said her client is scheduling a more-public memorial service that she expects to take place in "a couple of weeks."

For Rose Wendland, the matter seems simple.

"Actually Robert died, like I said, seven-and-a-half years ago," she said. "I would want him to be remembered as a loving father, as a good husband and as a good provider, which he was. Hopefully, ... he will make a difference. And we have the power to make the difference."

* To reach reporter Linda Hughes-Kirchubel, phone 546-8297 or
e-mail lkirch@recordnet.com