International Task Force
on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

Attorney for Robert Wendland's Mother and Sister
Responds to
Good Morning America Broadcast


On Monday, January 22, 2001, ABC's Diane Sawyer interviewed Rose Wendland about her husband, Robert Wendland, on Good Morning America.  Rose is seeking to dehydrate her disabled husband to death. The following is a letter sent by Janie Hickok Siess to ABC after the broadcast.  Siess is the attorney for Robert's mother, Florence Wendland, and his sister, Rebekah Vinson.  Florence and Rebekah are seeking to protect Robert from death by dehydration.


Subject:
January 22, 2001 ABC's Good Morning America story about Robert Wendland

Date:
Tue, 23 Jan 2001 01:14:01 EST

From:
Janie Siess

To:
ABC - Good Morning America

Dear "Good Morning America":

Having now had a chance to watch the story you ran this morning a couple of times, I feel compelled, as Florence Wendland's counsel for the past 5 1/2 years, to respond.

I was dismayed that, once again, you allowed Rose Wendland the chance to speak with you live, rebutting my client's assertions, yet denying my client the chance to respond to Rose's commentary. Even more shocking, frankly, is the fact that you chose to spotlight the children of Robert Wendland without thoroughly researching and understanding the facts underlying this case.

I herein respond to the points which jumped out at me during your broadcast.

1. What is remarkable is that Rose Wendland persists in supplying photos to the media that only show Robert lying in bed, most of which are several years old.

She steadfastly refuses to show Robert as he is today. She also refuses to allow the media access to Robert so that they can see him interacting with his mother, Florence. Rather, she allows the media access only when she is able to orchestrate the situation so that Robert is seen not responding to her, not performing any tasks, not engaging in activities.

2. Robert is NOT in a "minimally conscious state"

There is no such thing as a "minimally conscious state." The undisputed evidence adduced at trial demonstrated that the term "minimally conscious state" was made up by a group of physicians, bioethicists, et. al. who convened in Aspen, Colorado for the purpose of discussing some of the issues this case presents.

Undisputed testimony from the experts called by Rose and Robert's court-appointed counsel showed that the term "minimally conscious" is neither accepted nor endorsed by the medical community, is not found in any medical journals or textbooks, is not a teaching term.

More importantly, when asked on cross-examination about the protocols, guidelines, and criteria for withdrawing food and fluids from patients in the purported "minimally conscious state," those experts admitted that no such protocols, guidelines or criteria exist. In fact, the one unpublished article they produced, discussing the "minimally conscious state," made clear that there was no consensus about withdrawing food and fluids from such patients and the issue required significantly more study because of the distinctions between patients they identified as "minimally conscious" and those who are in a persistent vegetative state or permanently unconscious.

The prime distinction is, of course, that patients such as Robert are conscious and can feel pain, unlike patients in a persistent vegetative state.

Indeed, the medical protocols cited in support of those experts' endorsement of Rose's proposed course of action, i.e., depriving Robert of food and fluids to the point of death, were for patients in a persistent vegetative state!

3. Robert does NOT have "minimal motion."

Robert has full motion on his left side, although he is partially paralyzed on his right side. For a long time, it was thought that he was fully paralyzed on his right side, but he has been observed using both his right arm and right leg recently.

4. The lower courts did NOT divide as to whether or not Rose could order the removal of the feeding tube.

On December 9, 1997, the San Joaquin County Superior Court, the Hon. Bob W. McNatt presiding, decided that Rose had not met her burden of establishing, by clear and convincing evidence, that it was commensurate with Robert's best interests to die and that he had expressed a wish to die under the circumstances in which he now finds himself.

The Third District Court of Appeal reviewed three issues in the case. It upheld Judge McNatt's ruling on 2 key points: That Rose bore the burden of proof and the appropriate evidentiary standard to be applied is that of clear and convincing evidence.

The Third District Court of Appeal did not decide that Rose could go ahead and order the removal of Robert's feeding tube.  Rather, it stated that Judge McNatt had formulated an incorrect standard by which to judge Rose's decision to bring about the end of Robert's life and then ordered us to return to the trial court to complete the trial which had been aborted on December 9 when Judge McNatt granted my clients' motion for judgment.

In layman's terms: I never put on my case. Opening argument for Florence (and her daughter Rebekah, who is also a party to this proceeding) was deferred. I never made that opening argument, I never called a witness.

I didn't have to, because Judge McNatt ruled that there was no necessity for it: He determined that Rose could not win, irrespective of the presentation of my case.

Thus, the Third District Court of Appeal ordered us to begin the trial with my opening argument and the presentation of my clients' case in chief.

It was from that decision that my clients appealed to the California Supreme Court.

5. The children "spent almost every day with [their] dad at the hospital."

Nobody disputes that, for the first 16 months following Robert's accident, Rose and the children kept vigil at the hospital.

I found it particularly telling, however, that Ms. Sawyer did not query the children about how often they have visited their father since then.

The reality is that the children stopped visiting their father altogether sometime in 1996. Katy Wendland testified at trial that, at that time, she had not seen her father for approximately a year and a half. The same was true of her siblings.

I am not in receipt of any information which leads me to believe that the children have resumed visiting their father. On the contrary, I am informed that they never resumed their visits. That means, for all practical purposes, that the children have not maintained a presence in their father's life since 1996.

6. Katy stated that she, her mother and siblings thought that Robert would come out of his coma and "just come alive."

This really demonstrates the tragedy of this case. And the tragedy relates not to any "decision" about what course of action is appropriate for Robert, but, rather, to the unrealistic expectations of Rose and her children. Why did no one at the hospital prepare Rose and the children for the fact that 42 year old adults who have been comatose for some 16 months do not simply "come alive" -- except perhaps in Hollywood?

Rose and her children were deeply disappointed when they learned that their husband and father was a changed man. Permanently changed. And because of their deep-seated prejudices and fear about living life in a disabled state, they would rather end Robert's life than accept him as the man he is now and the man he will always be.

Moreover, Katy and Rose both testified at trial that the children received no professional assistance with dealing with their grief about the change in their father. Rose did not see to it that they received grief counseling so that they could work through their anger about Robert's tragic accident and arrive at a place of peace and acceptance.

REMEMBER that Robert was DRUNK at the time of the accident. His blood alcohol was .16 --- twice the legal limit in California.

Even in the closest of families, such an event would result in profound anger, resentment and hurt being directed at the patient who, because of his own act of driving drunk, wreaked havoc upon the immediate family. Such emotions are not easily dealt with, although they are common and understandable. The family should have been enrolled in counseling in order to understand that their conflicting feelings were quite normal, expected, and could be dealt with in a constructive fashion.

7. Katy said: "After a year and a half . . .reality sets in . . ." You understand that "he's not going to wake up."

This statement boggles the mind, frankly.

Robert DID wake up, following a 16 month coma. Robert is CONSCIOUS, alert, interactive with his environment. He responds to commands. He enjoys participating in activities in the hospital's multipurpose room, including painting pictures and bowling. He is now learning to golf.

But I guess it really shouldn't come as a surprise, given that Rose told CNN's "Burden of Proof" one week ago that Robert is "brain dead." She also   testified at trial that, if Robert's feeding tube were pulled, he would immediately slip into a coma and just drift away peacefully in 3-4 days!!!

Comments such as these demonstrate not only the deep level of denial in which Rose and her children find themselves, but also a shocking and alarming lack of understanding of the consequences of the decision they embrace, i.e. to starve and dehydrate Robert.

At trial, Katy testified that she had no understanding of her father's capabilities. For instance, until she appeared to testify that day in November 1997, she was completely unaware that Robert operated a manual wheelchair by himself.

She only heard about that during testimony that same day which preceded her own.

I cross-examined Katy about why she hadn't educated herself about and kept abreast of her father's accomplishments. She stated that they didn't matter and were "nothing" because her father wouldn't want to live in his current state.

Upon further questioning about her lack of understanding, she lashed out, stating, "I don't care!"

8. Kerrie alleged that Robert pulled out his feeding tube.

Another interesting claim that seems to have been given new life today.

Initially, Rose claimed that Robert had deliberately dislodged his feeding tube on several occasions as a way of signaling his desire to die. Query: If Robert has sufficient cognitive function to express a desire to die, isn't he also competent to make his own decisions? Rose changed the story later, deleting the part about Robert trying to communicate his desires, but leaving in the allegation that Robert deliberately dislodged the tube.

The reality is that Robert was by himself in his room on each occasion when his feeding tube became dislodged. Robert may have accidentally removed it -- feeding tubes just come out on their own sometimes when a patient moves about. However, there is absolutely no evidence to substantiate an allegation that Robert dislodged the tube -- deliberately or accidentally.

9. "the whole family's wishes . . ."

Only part of Robert's family desire to bring about his death by dehydration and starvation: His wife, 3 children and 1 brother, Michael Hofer.

The remaining members of Robert's family vehemently oppose the idea of ending Robert's life. Those persons include his other siblings (a total of 6), his mother, his many nieces and nephews, brothers-in-law, etc.

10. Rose and the children claim that Robert doesn't recognize them.

That comes as no surprise.

It would be indeed remarkable if a brain-injured person such as Robert were able to recognize people who haven't visited him on a regular basis (if at all) since 1996.

Rose has openly told the media that she only goes to the hospital for the purpose of conducting interviews or meeting with Robert's physicians. And when she does go, she only stays for a few minutes.

In contrast, Florence Wendland rides the bus from Stockton to Lodi to visit with her son a minimum of 3 times per week, staying for several hours each time. Robert recognizes her, responds to her, and becomes agitated and upset when she leaves him.

Sometimes he cries when Florence tells him that it's time for their visit to end and she must go home. She calms him down by promising that she will be back to see him very soon and will spend time reading, singing, wheeling him around the hospital corridors (Rose refuses to allow Robert to go outside and get fresh air), etc.

The undisputed testimony at trial from Robert's physicians and caregivers was that Robert also recognized them because they were with him on a regular basis.

11. "I truly hope that he can't understand what's going on. . ." "It would make it 20 times worse . . ."

Florence contends that Robert certainly does know what is going on, based upon his responses to her. He responds to the commands of his nurses and caregivers. There is no reason to believe that he cannot comprehend language.

Why is it terrible, in the opinion of the children, to believe that Robert has become acclimated to and learned to accept his life as a disabled person? That may very well have happened, given that Robert is not in pain, requires no pain medication, and does not exhibit any signs of being miserable or unhappy.

12. The children contend that Robert would be mortified that he "couldn't take care of his children."

Robert has continued to take care of his children, despite his injuries. He has provided for them financially in the form of Social Security and other benefits. Those benefits most likely helped his 2 daughters attend college. Thus, any contention that Robert can't "take care of his children" is patently ridiculous.

More importantly, Robert is a disabled person. His adult daughters should be taking care of him in his disabled state.

13. "The issue is Robert's right, what he wanted . . ."

The trial court held that Rose did not produce sufficient evidence that Robert expressed a desire to die under the circumstances in which he finds himself presently.

More importantly, there was no evidence that Robert contemplated, much less consented to, a slow, painful, gruesome death by dehydration and starvation. There is no evidence that he ever understood that such a fate might await him.

Moreover, the conversations that Robert purportedly had with his wife and brother were after a night of hard drinking, when Robert was hung over and angry with them for arguing with him about his habit of drinking and driving.

His words were not found by the court to be deliberative, well-thought-out, or designed to be given the weight which Rose attempts to ascribe to them after the fact.

His brother allegedly told him --- one week before the accident --- that if he didn't quit drinking and driving, he would get into an accident and hurt himself or someone else, and perhaps be left as a "vegetable." Robert allegedly responded, "Mike, don't leave me like that."

Like what? A "vegetable"? He's not a "vegetable." (Vegetables don't bowl.)

He's not in a vegetative state. He's not unconscious. He's not "minimally conscious." And he's not "semi-conscious."

He's CONSCIOUS.

Statements such as those vague utterances attributed to Robert cannot, as a matter of law, be sufficient to justify starving and dehydrating a conscious, disabled individual.

14. "Such a decision to have thrust upon you . . ."

With all due respect to Ms. Sawyer, there is no decision to be made.

Bringing about the death of Robert Wendland by dehydration and starvation is not something that should even be contemplated. It is legally, ethically, morally and inherently WRONG.

 

And now, GMA, you are in possession of the FACTS of this matter. I certainly hope that your future coverage of this matter will not be the slanted, biased and clearly unfounded portrayal of the facts to which your viewers were subjected this morning.

Very truly yours,
Janie Hickok Siess
Attorney for Florence Wendland and Rebekah Vinson