Paralyzed Man’s Will to Live Reignites Debate Over Living Wills

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

A 43 year-old British man who suffered a catastrophic brain injury in a motorcycle accident last year was only inches from death when he managed to communicate to doctors that he very much wanted to live.

According to London’s Daily Mail, a recent BBC documentary featured the story of Richard Rudd who was thrown 20 feet from his motorcycle when he was hit by a car last October while pulling out of a service station. The divorced father of two teenaged daughters suffered catastrophic spinal injuries that left him a paraplegic. Although he was initially able to talk and move his arms, a post-operative infection overwhelmed his body and left him in what appeared to be a deep coma.  

Rudd’s family was adamant that he would never want to live in his current condition. They claimed he once said as much when discussing a friend who had become a paraplegic, saying “If ever this happens to me, I don’t want to go on. I don’t want to be like him.”

However, doctors at the Neuro Critical Care Unit at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge urged the family to let nature take its course and it was during this time that an intensive care specialist named Professor David Menon discovered that his patient was able to blink.

According to the documentary, Professor Menon spent three weeks communicating with Richard to make sure he was able to understand his condition. Three times he asked Richard if he wanted to continue his treatment and three times he said “yes.”

One of his heart-wrenching pleas for life was captured in the documentary and is now raising serious questions about the use of living wills, which force people to declare in advance how they wish to be treated in the case of serious injury or illness and are unable to communicate. Cases such as Richard’s prove that people can and do change their minds after a catastrophic event occurs.

“When we are healthy and in good condition, it’s easy to say you would want to be switched off but when it actually happens it’s completely different,” said Richard’s father, also named Richard Rudd.

“Making a living will could be detrimental to your own health. Imagine if you changed your mind but couldn’t communicate it. There must have been a time when Richard could hear what was going on but wasn’t able to do anything about it. For my part, I’m glad he’s alive and didn’t make a living will. If he had, then we would never have known whether it was worth continuing with the treatment.”

As it turns out, Richard has a rare condition known as “locked-in syndrome” in which a patient can think, hear and feel but is too brain damaged to speak or move. Often, the only parts of the body that a victim can move is their eyes. The condition is very rare and usually occurs when the lower brain and brain stem are damaged, but the upper brain  –  with its higher mental functions  –  is left intact.

As the Daily Mail reports, the condition is the closest thing to being buried alive.

“I’m glad he’s been given the chance to survive and to have a say,” his father said. “Him being able to communicate a little bit the way he can has taken pressure off the family. . . . . It might not be the same Richard that we started out with but at least he’s still coping because he smiles when we talk about the past or when he sees his children.”

Cases such as this explain why the Church prefers the use of advance directives that give a friend or family member the authority to make health care decisions. By appointing an agent or giving someone durable power of attorney, the patient allows for unforeseen circumstances much like those that occurred in the case of Richard Rudd.

This site contains an example of an acceptable Advance Directive and Health Care Proxy, provided courtesy of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

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