Judge bars wife from moving brain-damaged veteran

May 15, 1991|By M. Dion Thompson

Eight years ago, Ronald W. Mack lost control of his life.

A 1983 auto wreck on a stretch of California highway sent Mr. Mack, then a private in the Army, crashing through the rear window of a 1967 Mustang, leaving him severely brain-damaged, almost comatose. Mr. Mack, 28, has spent most of the past eight years in a hospital bed at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fort Howard, kept alive by a feeding tube attached near his navel.

His fate now rests in the hands of others. His wife, Deanna, wants to take him to Florida, possibly to remove the feeding tube if doctors there decide he has no hope of improving. His father, his sister and his aunt want to keep him in Maryland and hope for a miracle that will enable him to recover.

"We always have hope," said Mary Bell, Mr. Mack's aunt. "We do believe in miracles, and maybe we'll get one. He is a living human being."

Yesterday, the U.S. District Court in Baltimore began the process of choosing between the two sides.

In a hearing attended by family members on both sides of the issue, as well as medical experts and lawyers for the veterans agency, Judge Marvin J. Garbis put on hold any plans to move Mr. Mack to Florida. He issued a preliminary injunction barring Mrs. Mack, 28, from moving her husband until another judge resolved the question of who would be

Mr. Mack's legal guardian.

"It's not for me to decide the medical issues," Judge Garbis said. "There is sufficient merit to allow Mr. Mack to live and remain in the custody" of the veterans agency.

Documents from Baltimore County Circuit Court in 1984 and from Florida in 1985 name Mrs. Mack as her husband's guardian. Mrs. Mack lives in Dunnellon, Fla., with the couple's two children; at the time of the accident, the Macks lived in Dundalk.

Mr. Mack's Maryland family -- his father, sister and aunt -- say the Baltimore County court order was invalidated when Mrs. Mack moved from Maryland to Florida. They also question whether a Florida resident can have guardianship over some one in Maryland.

Judge Garbis' preliminary injunction moves the issue of guardianship to the Baltimore County Circuit Court. Mr. Mack's father and sister live in Essex.

Mr. Mack's father, Ronald, said he found his daughter-in-law's request to have the right to remove his son's feeding tube "shocking and painful."

"Without the gastric tube, he will die," the father said.

"Not just die," added Mrs. Bell. "He will starve to death, and that's very painful."

Yesterday, Mrs. Mack said her intention was not to end her husband's life, although she has filed a petition in Florida courts asking permission to remove the tube that sustains him. Florida courts will not allow the tube to be removed until Mr. Mack is in Florida, is represented by a lawyer and has been seen by the presiding judge.

Mrs. Mack said she merely wanted to have her husband re-evaluated, after which she would decide whether to remove the tube or place him in a nursing home. Either way, she said, the decision should be hers.

"He told me: 'Deanna, if I ever get to the point where I can't take care of myself, I don't want to live,' " she said. "I'm his legal guardian. I have papers proving that."

Also at issue is Mr. Mack's medical condition. During yesterday's hearing, Dr. Edward Rusche, chief of medical services at Fort Howard, said that Mr. Mack was not coma

tose and that he did react to touch and could move his eyes.

"If you touch his face, he either moves away or to the hand," Dr. Rusche, who is against removing the feeding tube, told Judge Garbis.

Mrs. Mack said she didn't believe that her husband reacted.

Aside from the guardianship issue, Mr. Mack's relatives also are disputing his wife's statements that she has visited her husband and that she is not interested in any money that would come to her as a result of his death.

"If there was personal gain, why would I have waited till now?" asked Mrs. Mack, who lives on monthly VA and Social Security benefits of $2,600. "I would have done it years ago."

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