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Originally Published Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Life after death

Wendland legacy: California high court sets high standards for ending a life

The last eight years of his life, Robert Wendland was suspended in a netherworld all his own. Nobody knew what, if anything, he was thinking.

And that was the problem.

Less than a month after his death, the Lodi man's final journey took on new meaning for every Californian. In a near-comatose condition and dependent on life-support systems, he died from pneumonia complications at 49. Wendland speaks to all of us.

Are you prepared for the inevitable? Have you and other members of your family drawn up instructions for medical care in case you or a loved one are incapacitated? Have you appointed someone to make health-care decisions if you're unable?

The California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that if you haven't settled those crucial life-and-death matters, the state will establish the highest possible threshold before life-sustaining treatment can be discontinued.

Ruling in this high-profile, right-to-die case -- which has been a six-year tug of war between his wife, Rose, and mother, Florence -- the high court established criteria making it harder to pull the plug on vegetative patients unable to communicate their desires.

We appreciate the court's difficult ruling on two levels:

1. It establishes a reasonable standard for what to do about life-support in similarly rare and confusing cases. The kind of guesswork and emotional battle between Wendland's wife and mother will be less likely in the future.

2. It reaffirms the sanctity of human life. The Supreme Court established a high standard of proof when a legal conservator seeks to remove feeding and hydration tubes from an incompetent, but semiconscious, patient. Such life-sustaining equipment cannot be disconnected without "clear and convincing" evidence that it was the patient's wishes in cases where the patient failed to name a surrogate decision-maker.

Such was the sad state of affairs for Wendland, who never provided written, end-of-life instructions for his family. His brain was severely damaged in 1993 when he was in an alcohol-related accident on Highway 12. After succumbing to a coma for several months, Wendland regained some consciousness but was never able to talk, feed himself or recognize his family.

After eight years of anguish, he died July 17 at Lodi Memorial Hospital (West). Thankfully, the high court continued with the case. This ruling will be his legacy.

The vast majority of the state's when-to-end-treatment decisions will continue to be made privately between family members, doctors and hospital ethics committees. Agreements will be reached lovingly, privately.

But where well-meaning people can't agree, where there is no bond with attending physicians, this ruling ought to make hospitals more reluctant to pull the plug and end treatment.

Realizing how sticky decisions might later become, it may even create some reluctance to initiate such treatment.

The strongest message we all should hear is that there is no substitute for preparation.

Taking the necessary steps now, no matter how awkward, can save you and your family grief later. Death is the ultimate private matter and belongs in the confines of a family, not the courts.

Robert Wendland's life is over. It did not end the way he envisioned it; his final time on Earth was not productive. We'll never know what he would have wanted, given the ethical and moral dilemma.