A Matter of Life and Death (Newsletter 4-6)

A Matter of Life and Death

by Robert L. Rodenbush

I encourage everyone to resolve and plan for the Lord’s return, when each of us must face the inevitability of death. As seasons ends, we often reflect back on good times with family and friends. Though we do not like to dwell on the subject, at some point most of us have probably contemplated the possible future loss of a loved one, or even our own mortality.

In the spring of 2005 our nation was gripped by the plight of Terri Schiavo. Her case became one of the landmark legal battles of the year. In 1990, at the age
of twenty-seven, Terri Schiavo suffered a heart attack that resulted in the oxygen flow to her brain being cut off, causing permanent brain damage. As a result, she
lived in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state. A persistent vegetative state is not a coma or a state of sleep. Terri would have periods of apparent wakefulness and sleep but doctors diagnosed her as having no cognitive functions or awareness of what was going on around her even when she appeared to be awake and looking around.

For nearly fifteen years Terri lived in nursing homes, was fed and hydrated by a tube inserted into her stomach, and suffered numerous health problems.
During this time her brain deteriorated due to the lack of oxygen she suffered during her heart attack, and much of her cerebral cortex was replaced by spinal
fluid. Her health problems, however, were not the cause of her death.

In 1994 Terri’s husband, Michael, petitioned a Florida court to have his wife’s feeding tube removed. Terri’s parents opposed the removal, and for the last five
years of her life, Terri’s husband and her parents fought numerous legal battles over the issue, culminating in involvement by the Florida legislature and governor, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court. All of the attempts to keep Terri alive failed, and on March 31, 2005, Terri died of starvation and dehydration as a result of the court-ordered removal of her feeding tube on March 18,2005.

In 1990, the LlS. Supreme Court held in the case of Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health that a com­petent individual has the legal right to refuse medical
treatment and have artificial life-prolonging procedures discontinued if they have left “clear and convincing” evidence of their wishes. In that decision the U.S.
Supreme Court observed that “80% of all Americans who die in hospitals are likely to meet their end in a sedated or comatose state” and that “nearly every death
involves a decision whether to undertake some medical procedure that could prolong the process of dying.”

A living will or health care directive is a legal docu­ment that allows an individual to express his desires as to what life-prolonging procedures they do or do not
want implemented in certain circumstances. Expressing such wishes in advance is very important since it is highly unlikely that an individual will be
mentally or physically able to express his wishes at the critical time when the decision needs to be made. A liv­ing will should be distinguished from a durable power of attorney for health care, which allows individuals to designate someone else to make health care decisions in their stead if they are incapacitated. Living wills and durable powers of attorney for health care are recog­nized by law in most states as long as they are drafted, executed, and witnessed in accordance with state law.

We should all take the time to express our wishes about artificial life-prolonging procedures in a manner that will be legally recognized. Doing so will make sure
our wishes are followed and will relieve our loved ones of the heavy burden and conflict of such a decision.