State's highest court rules comatose veteran must remain on life-support Wife will try to get custody of patient

February 03, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that the wife of a permanently comatose veteran cannot have life-sustaining feeding tubes withdrawn from him.

The divided Court of Appeals ruled, however, that Deanna Mack can try to gain custody over her husband, Ronald W. Mack, who has been unconscious for nine years. With that designation, she would be able to seek to have him removed to Florida, where life support could be withdrawn.

The court sent the case back to Baltimore County Circuit Court, which now must reconsider who should become guardian -- Mrs. Mack, who lives in Florida and once had custody, or Ronald E. Mack, the man's father.

That court granted guardianship to the father last year.

"I hope to get guardianship back," Mrs. Mack said yesterday in a brief telephone interview from her home in Dunnellon, Fla.

She moved to Florida with her two children in September 1984 after she met another man, and since has had a child from that relationship.

She said her quest to withdraw the feeding tube was based on what Mr. Mack would have wanted. She said he despised the thought of hospitals.

"If he could sit up himself and see how he was, he would rip the tubes out himself," Mrs. Mack said.

Her lawyer, Rachel A. Wohl, said she was glad that Mrs. Mack has a chance to regain custody. But the lawyer said she was disappointed that the court required more proof than she had provided to show that Ronald W. Mack would not have wanted to be attached to a feeding tube.

"I'm sad for all people who have not made definite statements about what they would desire under these circumstances," Ms. Wohl said.

The elder Mr. Mack could not be reached for comment. Gary I. Strausberg, his lawyer, said he was pleased that the court did not order the withdrawal of life support.

"My clients had felt that there was a death sentence hanging over their son and brother, and they wanted that to go away," said Mr. Strausberg, who is representing the elder Mr. Mack and his daughter.

He said, however, that he had hoped the appeals court would uphold the lower court's ruling on his client's guardianship.

Ronald W. Mack was enlisted in the Army and stationed in California in June 1983 when he suffered massive brain injuries from an auto accident.

He never regained consciousness and has remained in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state. Although not terminally ill, doctors say he has no chance of recovery. He could remain in that state for decades if kept alive by the feeding tube.

Mr. Mack has been a patient in the Fort Howard Veterans' Hospital in Baltimore County since September 1983. The Baltimore County Circuit Court appointed Deanna Mack guardian in May 1984.

Seventeen months later, she obtained guardianship under a Florida court and was discharged as guardian in Maryland.

The elder Mr. Mack won guardianship in Baltimore County Circuit Court after three days of testimony in November 1991. Judge John F. Fader said at the time that he was swayed by the state's interest in preserving life.

Deanna Mack appealed the case, which led to yesterday's ruling.

The 5-2 decision included a four-member majority opinion, two dissenting opinions and a separate opinion in which one judge partially concurred with the majority and partially dissented.

The court declined to establish standards for when life support can be withdrawn, saying that decision should be left to the General Assembly.

Two right-to-die bills are being prepared for introduction in the legislature this session.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge John Carroll Byrnes, who chaired a committee that is drafting one of those bills, said he was pleased that the court established Maryland common law on the right-to-die issue while leaving room for legislation on the matter.

Jack Schwartz, chief of opinions for the Maryland attorney general, said he was glad the court did not go farther and base a new state policy on the right-to-die issue on what he called a "rare" case.

He said it was not typical for family members to disagree in court over a permanently comatose person's fate.

In the majority opinion, written by Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky, the court ruled on three other issues:

* Florida's courts could not override a Maryland ruling on a guardianship matter involving a person here. Mrs. Mack had argued that she should have custody because of her appointment as guardian by the Florida court.

* Judge Fader should not have refused guardianship to Mrs. Mack on the basis of her intent to withdraw life support from her husband.

* Judge Fader correctly ruled that someone must show clear and convincing evidence that a person would want to be removed from life support if confined to a persistent vegetative state. Each side had given conflicting views on what Mr. Mack would have wanted.

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