In the Balance
06/04/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
She has come to the place she dreads so much, she can bear to visit it only a few times a year. Rose Wendland walks into a first-floor room at Lodi Memorial West Hospital near Stockton, Calif., and looks at her husband, Robert, curled up in his bed. Robert is asleep, his right hand twisted under his chin, his feet twitching, his face—once perpetually tanned—now white and waxy. On the television overhead a basketball game plays soundlessly. "He never watched ball games," says Wendland, 45, glancing at the TV. "He wasn't interested in sports. He was a reader and a thinker. This is not his life. This is not a life."
Wendland hopes to prove that very thing in court. For the past six years she has fought to have her 49-year-old husband—who suffered brain injuries in a 1993 car accident and is, his doctors say, minimally conscious—disconnected from the feeding tube that keeps him alive. Robert himself, says Rose, told her several times before the crash that he would never want to be dependent on life support. Robert's mother, Florence, however, wants her son kept alive and calls what Rose is trying to do cold-blooded murder. "She should just divorce him, not kill him," says Florence, 78. "I'll take care of him. She can get on with her life if she wants."
The two Mrs. Wendlands first squared off in a 1997 civil trial brought by Florence to stop Rose. The ruling, since appealed, left Rose in charge of Robert's medical treatment but barred her from removing his feeding tube. On May 30, backed by special-interest groups—right-to-life activists on Florence's side and bioethicists on Rose's—the women will meet again in California's supreme court. A central issue in the case is whether Rose, as her husband's conservator, has the right to decide what is best for him.
But what's at stake, both sides agree, is much more than a legal technicality or one man's life. "If we're saying you can disconnect life support for someone who is minimally conscious, the next step might be to do it for people who are mentally retarded or unable to walk," says Gerald Uelmen, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law who has taken no side on the case. "You could start to make some very tricky value judgments."
For 25 years courts have allowed guardians to remove the feeding tubes of patients who are terminally ill or comatose. But Robert Wendland is neither. He came out of his coma 16 months after the accident and can now feel pain, follow simple commands and possibly express some emotion—but no more, "It may not be what you'd choose for yourself, but it's the way he is," says Robert's sister Rebekah Vinson, 38, who joined in her mother's lawsuit against Rose. (A brother, Michael Hofer, has testified on Rose's behalf.)
Yet seeing Robert in such a diminished state "is why I don't encourage the kids to come," says Rose, whose children—Katie, 22, Kerrie, 20, and Robert, 16—rarely visit their father. "He's a man, and they've turned him into an infant." While Wendland is healthy enough to live for years, his doctors say it is highly unlikely his condition will improve. "He is walled up within himself," says Lawrence Nelson, Rose's attorney. "He is not just disabled. He has cognitive brain damage. He has no hopes, no dreams, no plans."
Married since 1979, Robert, an auto-parts salesman, and Rose, a home daycare operator, settled in Stockton to be near Rose's father, Art Salas. Robert, whose police officer father was killed in the line of duty when Robert was an infant, grew close to Salas and watched in despair when he was put on life support after a construction accident in 1993. Together the Wendlands chose to disconnect him and allow him to die. "Robert told me then that he wouldn't want to live like that," says Rose, a wish she claims he repeated to her and his brother just weeks before the accident.
Three months after Salas's death, at the end of a night of heavy drinking, Robert climbed into his Dodge Ram truck to pick up Rose's sister, who needed a ride home from work. Katie, then 14, watched as her father pulled out of the driveway. "I thought, 'One of these days will be the last time I see those taillights,' " she recalls, acknowledging his drinking problem. Minutes later, Robert tried to make a U-turn at an intersection and crashed into an embankment. His sister-in-law suffered internal injuries and a broken shoulder but recovered.
At first, Rose spent long hours in Robert's hospital room. "The kids and I just about lived here," she says. "We had a little table where we ate and did homework." The family held out hope that Robert would improve, even after he emerged from his coma with little responsiveness. "I never sold his boat," says Rose, referring to the motorboat the family used for waterskiing. "I remember getting up in the middle of the night and painting the bathroom, thinking he might come home soon."
Then one night in 1995, the hospital asked Rose for permission to operate on Robert to reinsert a feeding tube he kept pulling out (Rose sees that action as a sign he wanted to die, but Florence disagrees). Not long afterward, Rose asked the hospital to remove the tube. "I couldn't believe it when they told me," says Florence, who filed suit to keep Robert on life support. Since then, she claims, he has improved enough to enjoy basic tasks like painting with watercolors. "He can play this little game with me where he puts pegs in a hole," says Florence, who visits him three or four times a week. "It's like he's in a manhole and he's just climbing out. Let him have the chance to climb out."
No matter how the court finds, Robert's fate may have far-reaching implications. "If he is allowed to die, a precedent will be set so that other disabled people will be killed," says Dana Cody, executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation a right-to-life organization that has spent more than $200,000 supporting Florence's lawsuit. Jon Eisenberg, a California attorney who filed a brief supporting Rose on behalf of several dozen bioethicists, argues that a decision favoring Rose would not be a death knell for disabled people. He believes a key issue is the validity of Robert's informally stated wishes about his own care. "Normal people don't talk like lawyers," he says. "They speak in general terms, and that needs to be accepted."
Robert Wendland's loved ones aren't dwelling on such lofty legal matters. "Yes, this is bigger than any of us, but he's still my son," says Florence through tears. "Sometimes he will look at me like, 'Mama, don't go.' " Rose, who stands to collect Robert's modest life insurance, finally sold his boat to pay for Katie's tuition at Cal State University, Long Beach, and is focused on helping the family heal from the loss of the man they feel is already gone. "I think we should do what my dad said he wanted," says his son Robert. "And I think my dad would want to die."
Maureen Harrington in Stockton