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Los Angeles Times

July 19, 2001  

Man's Widow Pursues Ruling

* Law: Subject of right-to-die battle succumbed before court could act.

Wife says she still wants decision that might help others.


STOCKTON -- The wife of a man whose life became the subject of a closely watched right-to-die case asked the California Supreme Court on Wednesday to issue a ruling despite her husband's death this week.

"I would hope that families wouldn't have to go through what we went through," Rose Wendland, Robert Wendland's legal conservator, said at a news conference in Stockton. The California Supreme Court had been expected to decide in several weeks whether Rose Wendland could remove a feeding and hydration tube that kept her husband alive. The man's mother adamantly opposed removing the tube.

With the tube still in place, Robert Wendland, 49, died Tuesday of pneumonia. Wendland suffered severe brain damage in a 1993 vehicle accident. He was conscious after the accident but could not communicate his wishes. No one knew for sure how much awareness he possessed.

His case, Conservatorship of Robert Wendland, S087265, has been widely watched because it could expand the ability of families to remove their loved ones from life support. Courts had allowed feeding tubes to be withdrawn only from patients who were in a vegetative state or terminally ill. Robert Wendland was neither.

Chief Justice Ronald M. George said Wednesday that the court has decided cases before that were technically moot "for the benefit of future parties."

George said that unless the court issues an order to dismiss the case, a ruling will be made this summer. Because the case is pending, George could not provide more details.

Florence Wendland, Robert's mother, who fought her daughter-in-law to keep her son alive, also wants the court to rule in the case, said Janie Hickok Siess, her lawyer.

The court heard arguments in May over what legal standard should be applied before relatives are permitted to remove life support from conscious patients who are not terminally ill. The court appeared to be siding with Robert's mother in the dispute.

Rose Wendland said she wants the court to decide the case so that her many years of legal battles will not have been "in vain."

The widow told reporters that she had just stepped out of Robert's hospital room when he died at 2:40 p.m. at Lodi Memorial Hospital. His mother was with him.

Rose Wendland said she first learned her husband possibly had an infection on July 2. By July 8, one of his lungs had collapsed, and doctors tried unsuccessfully to drain it.

Doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia that day and suspected he also had contracted another unidentified infection, said Lawrence Nelson, Rose Wendland's lawyer.

Doctors had given Robert antibiotics, but they were not effective, Nelson said. Rose Wendland "made the decision that aggressive treatment was not in his interest, and he was kept comfortable," Nelson said.

Siess said Florence Wendland wants to see Robert's medical records and has requested an autopsy. She said she wants to know what medication Robert was given and for how long.

"We are examining the circumstances of Robert's death and will take whatever action we deem to be appropriate," the mother's lawyer said.

Doran Berg, a court-appointed lawyer for Robert Wendland, said Wednesday that she had offered to disclose his medical information to Florence Wendland last week on the condition that it not be shared with other parties. She said Siess never responded.

Rose Wendland, asked about her mother-in-law's renewed demand for the medical records and an autopsy, told reporters: "As far as I am concerned, there will be no way. They have no right."

She said she hoped the public had learned from her case to tell loved ones in writing what sort of medical treatment to pursue in case of severe incapacitation.

"Let your loved ones know where you stand," she said. "And make them promise to honor your wishes."

James Braden, another court-appointed attorney for Robert Wendland, said Wednesday he was optimistic that Rose Wendland will win the case if the Supreme Court decides to rule on it.

He said the court appeared confused about the level of Robert Wendland's awareness. "The court did seem to be suggesting that he might be competent to answer questions, which is not true at all," Braden said.

Braden said he expects the state law giving conservators wide authority will be upheld.

Rose Wendland and her three children contended that Robert was estranged from his mother and would not have wanted to live in his state. His mother said he would never choose to die.

Doctors considered him minimally conscious. He could not talk, walk, eat, drink or use a bathroom but could respond to a few simple commands.

His wife and three children said he had not recognized them since the accident or communicated with them in any manner. His mother said he would kiss her hand during her visits and sometimes cry.

Kerrie Wendland, 20, Robert's middle child, said her family never had a relationship with her grandmother, and she was glad the conflict between the families was over.

"I am looking forward to peace and quiet," she said.