U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said today he will issue a preliminary injunction to block the wife of a comatose Army veteran from taking him to Florida, where he could be allowed to die by removal of his feeding tubes.
"For the time being, I think I should preserve the status quo," Garbis said, noting that serious questions need to be resolved about the legal guardianship of former Army Private Ronald W. Mack, who has been in and out of comas for eight years.
The judge said he also wanted to tread carefully in the case.
"The ultimate decision on this man's life is very personal, and it has to be made by the proper authority," he said.
Court papers say the patient would die from starvation within three to 14 days if his feeding tubes were to be removed.
Attorney Gary I. Strausberg, who represents Mack's father and sister, said after court that he will file papers in Baltimore County Circuit Court to challenge the guardianship of Deanna V. Mack over the patient, her husband, in a related effort to block her attempt to take him to Florida.
Ronald W. Mack suffered serious brain and liver damage in a 1983 auto accident in California. He has been a patient in the Veterans' Administration Medical Center at Fort Howard for nearly eight years, where he is being kept alive by gastric feeding tubes.
Deanna Mack's local lawyer, C. Christopher Brown, said his client's guardianship gives her the right to remove her husband from the VA hospital here and take him to Florida, where she lives with the couple's two children. She obtained the guardianship in Baltimore County Circuit Court in 1984 and in Florida in 1985.
Deanna Mack, 28, of Dunnellon, Fla., also has petitioned a state court in Ocala, Fla., for permission to legally terminate her husband's life under Florida's right-to-die law if a judge there finds that he is hopelessly comatose and unlikely to recover.
She said today, however, that she would put her husband in a nursing home there, and seek better medical care for him than he is getting, if the Florida court denies her petition.
The patient's sister, Karen Mack Carson, and their father, Ronald E. Mack, both of the 400 block of Maryland Ave. in Essex, prompted today's hearing with a petition filed Saturday in response to Deanna Mack's Florida court action.
Garbis issued a temporary restraining order then that barred VA officials from releasing the patient pending further court orders.
VA lawyers told Garbis today that they would oppose Ronald W. Mack's removal from the hospital by anyone who intends to end his life. They have so far refused to let Deanna Mack remove her husband, or to grant her request for termination of his nourishment.
Dr. Edward Rusche, the hospital's medical chief, testified that the patient is not comatose and said Ronald W. Mack would surely die if his feeding tubes were removed.
"He is awake, he moves his eyes, moves his face in response to stimuli," Rusche said.
The doctor also acknowledged that he opposes removal of the patient's nourishment "on moral grounds."
Strausberg questioned the validity of Deanna Mack's guardianship, both in Maryland and in Florida.
The battle between Deanna Mack and her husband's family quickly became a bitter one today as Carson and her aunt, Mary Bell, charged that Deanna Mack has never come to see her husband since she moved to Florida years ago.
They also claimed that Deanna Mack would benefit financially by his death, from $2,600 a month in VA and Social Security benefits for her and her two children.
Deanna Mack hotly denied both of those claims and said her husband "told me he never wanted to live like this, like a vegetable."
"If I've never come to see him, how did our children's pictures get in his room?" she said.
She said her husband "has been unresponsive to all stimuli" since his accident, and that she should be allowed to terminate his life-support procedures.
She also said her children have come with her at times to see their father, and that her son, Ronald Timothy Mack, age 10, agrees with her that it might be better if her husband died.
"He told me, 'He'll be all right, God will take care of him,' " she said.
Reuben S. Williams 4th, who represents Deanna Mack in Florida, said yesterday that her Florida petition "is on hold" because a judge cannot grant her request unless Ronald W. Mack is physically in that state and is represented by legal counsel.
Under Florida law, a judge must also see the patient before determining whether to grant such a request, Williams said.
The Mack family's petition here says the patient is "persistently comatose" but that he "responds to various forms of stimuli" and is able to exhibit anger and fear.
Carson said that when she visits her brother, he squeezes her hand, cries at the sound of her voice and is able to answer questions using one or two blinks of his eyes for "yes" and "no."
"I want to see him left in Baltimore, where we can continue to be with him. I don't want to see her [Deanna Mack] have any more guardianship over him."
"He does have a lot of brain damage," said the patient's father. "But I'm not gonna give up. It would take an act of God to take my son's life.
"He does respond. Always."