By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
The life of a 46 year old comatose woman has been spared after a judge ruled in favor of the family that wishes to keep alive rather than the court-appointed guardian who ordered her feeding tube removed.
Janet Rivera is at the center of a new battle over the ethics of withdrawing food and water from patients who are not otherwise dying. Rivera has been in a coma since she had a heart attack in February 2006. For more than two years, her husband, Jesus Rivera, made all of her medical decisions while she was in the care of a medical facility in Fresno, California.
However, after Rivera’s husband recently experienced medical problems, a court appointed the county coroner, David Hadden, as her Guardian.
In late June, Rivera’s health began to deteriorate and she was transferred into an intensive care unit at a local hospital. It was at this point that Hadden decided to have her feeding tube removed rather than continue to treat her.
Hadden issued a statement saying Rivera had an “untreatable and irreversible condition” and that life support was removed “to prevent any and all suffering that she may be enduring.”
Hadden claimed her family was in agreement with the decision, but this turned out not to be true. According to Rivera’s brother, Michael Dancoff, the family did not want her to be killed because she was not dying and he believes she is still conscious.
“She looked at me and her eyes were open,” he told the Fresno Bee. “She wasn’t dying. She wanted to live.”
But Hadden claims five doctors who evaluated Rivera concluded that she was suffering from painful muscle contractions and that life support should be removed. Hadden later admitted that when he visited Rivera, she “did not appear to be as bad as previously described.”
As a result, her feeding tube was removed and she was without food and water for eight days before the family was able to hire a lawyer and get a judge to reverse the order and have the tubes put back in pending a new hearing on Rivera’s condition.
That hearing took place on July 29 when Fresno County Probate Judge Debra Kazanjian removed the court appointed guardian and named a family member, Suzanne Emrich, to serve as temporary conservator of Rivera.
The Rivera case is of great importance because it allowed the decision of a court appointed guardian to take precedence over the family’s wishes. In a similar case, that of the case of the cognitively disabled Terri Schindler-Schiavo, the court ruled that the wishes of her husband/guardian should take precedence over other family members. However, in the Rivera case, the court overruled even the husband, which could have set a dangerous precedent.
“If the courts decide that the Public Guardian has the right to make medical decisions for Rivera, and that the Public Guardian can dehydrate Rivera to death against the wishes of the family, then everyone who does not have a legal advanced directive will be able to die by dehydration,” said Alex Schadenburg, Executive Director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition.
“Remember, Rivera is not otherwise dying; she is cognitively disabled and unlikely to return to a cognitive condition. If people who are cognitively disabled can be dehydrated to death, then the lives of many people with cognitive disabilities will be directly threatened when they experience significant health problems.”
Thus far, the Rivera case has had a much happier ending than that of Terri Schiavo, who died in 2005 after 14 days of starvation and dehydration.
“The sanctity of life was honored,” said Rivera family attorney, Brian Chavez-Ochoa, “and we thank the Lord for the wonderful outcome in this case.”
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