Originally Published Sunday, February 11, 2001

Life-or-death decisions not solely court's

Before there were plugs to pull there weren't cases like Robert Wendland's.

Forces other than medical advances and courts decided life or death.

Now, while Wendland sits in a Lodi Memorial Hospital bed passing time, unable to speak or convincingly communicate because of a truck accident nearly 712 years ago, attorneys will argue his fate before the California Supreme Court and then, almost certainly, before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Judges will rule whether the Stockton man should starve to death by removing his feeding tube -- as his wife, Rose, said he would prefer to his current state -- or if Wendland's mother and sister should prevail in trying to prevent a mercy killing. The state Supreme Court hasn't yet scheduled a date for arguments to decide who gets to make the decision.

Advance directive

There wouldn't be any arguing, however, if Wendland had created a document such as an advance directive, or a living will, or had given his wife -- or someone -- durable power of attorney for health-care decisions that clearly stated his expectations for care if he became incapacitated.

Lodi Memorial Hospital is beginning a campaign to encourage more people to draft advance directives, so there aren't more patients in legal limbo like Wendland or Karen Ann Quinlan, the New Jersey woman who spent 10 years in a coma as her parents fought for her right to die.

The hospital's Web site, www.lodihealth.org will soon post a fill-in-the-blanks advance directive that anyone can print and sign with witnesses to create a binding document.

Although California passed the Natural Death Act in 1977 in the aftermath of the New Jersey Supreme Court's Quinlan decision, creating a way for people to put their wishes in writing, very few have done so.

Maureen Richter, director of admission and records at Lodi Memorial, said perhaps 3 percent of patients have advance directives.

"It's important for each of us to think, what would we want for our dignity?" Richter said. "That's the bottom line."

Unique case

The government spends up to
$1 million each year on Wendland's care, hospital spokeswoman Carol Farron said. He's been at Lodi Memorial's west wing for five years. His family suffers an unpriced toll.

What makes Wendland's case unique is he isn't comatose, which would make it easier for the courts to decide his fate. Nor is he really conscious.

Three months before his near-fatal crash in September 1993, as his family was pulling the plug on Rose Wendland's terminally ill father, Wendland supposedly told his wife he wouldn't want to be kept alive on tubes. But those thoughts weren't in writing.

Retired Lodi radiologist Jerry Dayton put his down in words in 1988 as part of his estate planning. He's had myriad health problems since, overcoming lung cancer, but he has oxygen tubes in his nose because of emphysema.

"If I should become an irreversible coma patient, I want someone to say, 'Turn this puppy off,' and nobody can say that unless they have a durable power of attorney," the 67-year-old Dayton said, adding that most every doctor he knows has such a document.

While someone could draft an advance directive that calls for caregivers to do what's necessary to prolong life, they're typically intended to bring about a painless, quick end in the event of irreversible unconsciousness or near the end of a terminal illness.

At least the patient's wishes are known.

"We're so close to the Robert Wendland case, if we can mitigate that from happening to anyone else, it's a step in the right direction," Farron said. "You hate to see what his family has gone through."

Jeff Hood is The Record's Lodi bureau chief. He may be reached at 101 W. Locust St., Lodi, CA 95240, or at 367-7427.