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Disabled California Man Saved from Starvation Death

By Liz Townsend

Robert Wendland, severely disabled since a 1993 car accident, will not be starved to death, a California judge has ruled. The case pitted Wendland's wife, who had asked the court to allow his feeding tube to be removed, against his mother and sister, who insisted he was conscious, responsive, and did not deserve to die.

"What has happened here is the prevention of a slow, grueling, and potentially excruciatingly painful death for a person who is conscious and can experience pain," Janie Hickok Siess, the attorney opposing Mrs. Wendland's starvation request, told the Sacramento Bee. Robert Wendland cannot walk or speak, but he is aware of his environment, breathes on his own, and has communicated nonverbally with other people.

The case is one of several recent court battles in which others have argued that patients who were severely disabled, though conscious and responsive, would be "better off dead" and have sought to withdraw basic care from them. "These cases represent the effort to expand the range of people with disabilities who could have treatment and care withdrawn, including food and fluids," said Thomas J. Marzen, general counsel of the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled. "So far, that effort has failed, but proponents are nothing if not determined."

Indeed, Wendland's safety may still be in jeopardy. In February, the same judge who refused to order his death last December allowed Wendland's wife to continue making decisions for him, even though she has insisted it is in his best interests to die.

Dana Cody of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, which is providing financial help to those seeking to save Wendland's life, told NRL News that he is not now receiving any significant physical therapy. Absent therapy, his chances of catching pneumonia or developing other complications are greatly enhanced.

Wendland went into a coma following a car accident in September 1993. He awoke from the coma 16 months later, partially paralyzed but responsive, according to syndicated columnist Wesley J. Smith.

He now breathes on his own, but needs a nasogastric feeding tube to provide nutrition and hydration. In July 1995, Wendland's wife Rose asked the hospital to remove his feeding tube, saying that Wendland told her he would not want to live if he couldn't "be a husband, father or a provider," Smith reported.

His doctors and an ethics committee at Lodi Memorial Hospital West, where he remains in residence, refused to remove his feeding tube. Wendland was scheduled to be transferred to a convalescent home where his tube would be removed, according to the Sacramento Bee. Wendland's mother, Florence, and his sister, Rebekah Vinson, strongly objected to Rose Wendland's starvation request and obtained a temporary restraining order to force the case into the courts before any action was taken to cause his death.

They insist Wendland can drive his electric wheelchair by himself, propel a manual wheelchair with his unparalyzed side, write some letters of his name, and answer yes or no questions using buttons, according to Smith's column. When he was asked, "Is your name Robert?" he answered yes; to "Is your name Michael?" he answered no. Doctors asked if he wanted to die, but he did not answer, Smith reported.

The case went to trial before Superior Court Judge Bob McNatt in October 1997 and lasted until December 9, when the judge dismissed the case. Judge McNatt concluded that he found "no basis in California law to terminate treatment for a person in Wendland's medical condition," the Bee reported. "If I have to choose life and death based on the evidence presented to me, I must err on the side of caution and choose life," McNatt said in court, according to the Associated Press.

Only Rose Wendland's lawyers and a public defender, assigned to protect Robert's interests but who agreed that he should die, presented their sides before the case was dismissed. McNatt is expected to issue a written decision in the case within the next few weeks.

After that, Rose Wendland's lawyers told the Bee they would decide whether to appeal to the California 3rd District Court of Appeals. Life Legal Defense Foundation's Cody said the opposing side would certainly cross-appeal and continue to fight to save Robert Wendland's life.

"It is an incredible indication of how dominant prejudice against people with disabilities has become in our society that courts could even seriously consider the starvation of a conscious person with no terminal illness - - because the person has a disability," said Burke Balch, director of NRLC's Department of Medical Ethics. "As the Wendland case shows, with America's acceptance of the 'quality of life' ethic, once you put a price on human life, the price goes down."