March 26, 2001 Vol. 157 No. 12
When a Coma Isn't One
Robert Wendland isn't comatose. He's "minimally conscious." Still, his wife wants to let him die

 

Curled up on her living-room sofa, Rose Wendland speaks about her husband Robert in loving, admiring words--"very handsome, always well groomed." She describes the Stockton, Calif., auto-parts salesman as a self- taught mechanical whiz with an insatiable appetite for books. He was a devoted father, she says, who enjoyed nothing more than taking their three kids boating on the nearby Stockton delta.

Of course, that was more than seven years ago, before the night he got wildly drunk and flipped his Dodge Ram truck, bringing his seemingly sweet life to a crashing halt. Today Wendland, 48, lies in Lodi Memorial Hospital, kept alive only by a tube that delivers liquid nourishment to his broken body. Severely brain damaged and with his left side paralyzed, he cannot walk, talk, eat or communicate meaningful thoughts, if indeed he still has any. And though he is occasionally able to perform a simple, repeated command like a zombie--tossing a ball or placing a color-coded peg into a hole--he will never again be the husband, the father or the man he once was.

But he can still be a son. While Rose Wendland wants doctors to remove her husband's feeding tube and let him die, Robert's mother Florence, 78, is fighting to keep him alive. After several legal battles, the two will next face each other in California's Supreme Court, where the case could produce a landmark decision about whether the extremely incapacitated--some doctors use the term "minimally conscious"--can be denied medical care. Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a leading Los Angeles neurologist who examined Wendland, believes that the ruling could affect hundreds of thousands of brain- injured people who need feeding tubes to survive.

Robert's case would be simpler if he were in worse shape. Since the groundbreaking New Jersey ruling that in 1976 allowed the parents of coma victim Karen Ann Quinlan to shut off her respirator, California and other states have permitted families to remove life support from comatose or terminally ill patients. Wendland is neither. Given the precedent the Wendland case may set, right-to-life and disability-rights activists have lined up behind Florence, while bioethics professionals and the American Civil Liberties Union are supporting Rose. "This is a vital public-policy case," declares Wesley Smith, author of Culture of Death: The Assault on Medical Ethics in America. "We're talking about how far you can go in taking away food and water from someone just because they're cognitively disabled."

"I'm not trying to make decisions for other people. This was Robert's choice," responds Rose, who says her husband once remarked that he would rather die than be unable to care for his family. Meanwhile, despite his doctors' hopeless prognosis, Florence believes that with enough therapy and prayer, her son can eventually make progress. "The Lord could have taken him the night of the accident, but he didn't," she says. "He has a purpose for Robert--to help keep other people from having their tubes pulled." Counters Rose: "The good Lord did take him. We're keeping him alive artificially."

Bad blood between wife and mother-in-law is nothing new. But the rancor is highly public in this case. Rose and her children (ages 22, 20 and 16) complain that Florence suddenly reappeared after years of distance from Robert. Florence denies there was any estrangement and snipes in return that Robert stayed with his wife only for their children's sake.

Florence says she is prepared to take her case to the U.S. Supreme Court. "I've got more spunk in my finger than some young people have in their entire bodies," she says. Rose is equally resolute about defending what she believes Robert would want. Both sides agree on one thing, however: Had Robert kept a legal document outlining his specific wishes in the event of a catastrophic accident, it would have provided a much needed voice for the sad, crippled man who now lies silent.