Families Testify about Prolonging Life, Death: Life-Support Systems Complicate Dying

By Gibeau, Dawn | National Catholic Reporter, December 18, 1992 | Go to article overview

Families Testify about Prolonging Life, Death: Life-Support Systems Complicate Dying


Gibeau, Dawn, National Catholic Reporter


BLOOMINGTON, Minn. - Four hundred fifty doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers and ethicists repeatedly responded with tears during a precedent-setting conference here early this month at which they heard families relate the ordeals they experienced when medical technology impeded the deaths of their relatives.

The conference was "Managing Mortality," sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Center for Biomedical Ethics. Ethicists, lawyers and medical personnel spoke, but only in response to the focus on families.

Among speakers were Julia and Joseph Quinlan of New Jersey, parents of Karen Ann Quinlan; Joe Cruzan and Christy Cruzan White of Missouri, father and sister of Nancy Cruzan; Patricia Brophy of Massachusetts, widow of Paul Brophy; and Julie Chase Delio of New York, widow of Daniel Delio.

These families had fought the medical establishment, in some cases in court, to obtain the removal of life-support equipment from their loved ones as they lingered in a persistent vegetative state.

They castigated medical personnel for not communicating the true nature of their relatives' condition and for opposing their decision to discontinue a respirator or artificial nutrition and hydration. Cruzan blamed Missourri courts for making politically motivated decisions, as did Pete Busalacchi, father of Christine Busalacchi, who is still being kept alive with artificial nutrition and hydration by Missouri court choice.

Families related varied responses from their churches. Julia and Joe Quinlan lauded the constant support from their pastor, Monsignor Thomas Trapasso, and Julia said: "I cannot share my experiences without sharing my faith, for they have become one."

And Busalacchi said Catholic ethicists at St. Louis University - Dominican Father Kevin O'Rourke and Father Dennis Brodeur - have supported him against extreme right-to-life groups in the Mount Vernon, Mo., vicinity, where his daughter lies in the Missouri Rehabilitation Center. O'Rourke and Brodeur, he said, affirmed Catholic church support for stopping Christine's treatment if it is not benefiting her.

In contrast, Delio met Catholic church opposition when she wanted nutrition and hydration tubes removed from her husband, Daniel, as he lay in a persistent vegetative state. She was an assistant professor of medicine at the New York Medical College, which she said is part of the Westchester County Medical Center and "financially affiliated with the New York Catholic archdiocese."

New York Cardinal John O'Connor came to the campus to give a seminar against her position, she said, and she was subsequently fired. Delio also said that taking the case to court alienated her the medical profession.

These families and others at the conference who shared similar, tortuous experiences, begged that families be allowed to make the decisions they believe their helpless loved ones would make.

Arthur Caplan, director of the sponsoring Center for Biomedical Ethics, said the decision to withhold some form of medical treatment is not rare but one the majority of Americans can expect to face.

Today, 1.7 million of the 2.1 million annual U.S. deaths occur in hospitals, nursing homes and similar institutions. Seventy percent of those deaths in institutions "are preceded by a decision not to do something," he said.

A conference participant from a Midwestern Catholic hospital told NCR privately that decisions to withhold nutrition and hydration occur frequently where she works, and another Catholic who works in a public hospital bemoaned that many bishops will privately sanction discontinuation of artificial nutrition and hydration but remain silent in public. …

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