Man sues over wife's 'wrongful life' Incurable: A California man is suing two doctors and a hospital for letting his incurably ill wife live -- in violation of her instructions.

Sun Journal

November 02, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- The woman who putters in the garden at the blue stucco house is bony and frail, with a soft handshake and wide blue eyes. She brings to mind a character from a Tennessee Williams play -- delicate, ethereal, immersed in a world of her own.

Linda Schneider's mind is slipping away; a rare genetic disorder is eating at her brain. Her conversation is like water rolling across a tabletop -- elusive, hard to grasp. Her memory dances in and out of reality.

Not so long ago, this 49-year-old woman was active and vibrant, a dental hygienist and part-time travel agent. Now she spends her days padding around the house, tending to her potted

petunias. She has little idea that she is helping to write a chapter in the annals of medical ethics and law.

Two years ago, Schneider lay dying in a sterile hospital room. Seizures wracked her body, already worn down by diabetes and pneumonia. Her brain was turning into jelly. She was comatose.

Lee Schneider was prepared to let his wife die. As his wife's "health proxy," he had legal responsibility for her care. Just keep her comfortable, he told her doctors. No extraordinary measures.

But Dr. Oscar Abeliuk, her neurologist, didn't quite trust Mr. Schneider. So he and a colleague at John Muir Medical Center took steps to spare Ms. Schneider from death. And now Mr. Schneider is suing them and their hospital -- for keeping his wife alive.

The case of Schneider vs. Abeliuk is unusual, but not unique. It is part of a new wave of lawsuits that illuminate a little-known

barrier in the quest by many Americans to control how they die. These suits accuse doctors of failing to follow the patients' "advance directives."

The common complaint: "Wrongful life."

According to the New York-based group Choice in Dying, about 20 percent of Americans -- and 50 percent of seriously ill hospital patients -- have completed advance directives. The documents come in two basic forms: a living will, in which patients outline their wishes in writing; and medical powers of attorney, in which relatives are legally designated as health proxies, as was Ms. Schneider's husband.

At 51, Mr. Schneider is a no-nonsense man, a former Internal Revenue Service auditor who retired on a disability pension with a bad back in 1982. Looking back, he can see the first clues of his wife's illness, although he failed to recognize them then.

There were small, unexplained changes in her behavior. At work, she was slowing down. At home, she might disappear for an hour or two, with vague explanations later. Sometimes, her reasoning seemed not to make sense.

Mr. Schneider was not particularly alarmed. He chalked it up to bad hearing; she had worn hearing aides for years. "I tend to be a pretty reserved person," he says. "I'm a brooder, slow to react."

That changed July 25, 1994. On that morning, after a bout with what she thought was the flu, Ms. Schneider fell apart. She had trouble talking and complained of buzzing in her ear. She was weak and could barely walk. She appeared to be having a stroke.

Mr. Schneider took his wife to the emergency room at John Muir Medical Center, where doctors drew a blood sample. "How long has your wife been diabetic?" they asked after checking her blood sugar. His reply: "We didn't know she was."

The doctors scanned her brain; her cerebellum -- which helps control movement and speech -- was shrinking. Later, there would be evidence that her cerebral cortex, which controls conscious thought and memory, had atrophied too.

Mr. Schneider remembers a doctor's grave counsel: "He took me outside. He said: 'I don't know what's wrong with your wife. In my opinion, it's more than diabetes. I have seen cases where people are perfectly normal and have just lost their minds. Let me tell you up front, these things don't usually have happy outcomes.' "

Six years earlier, at their lawyer's urging, the Schneiders had tried to plan for their final days.

Ms. Schneider had designated him as her health proxy. Her instructions: no life-sustaining treatment "if I am in a coma which my doctors have reasonably concluded is irreversible," or "if I have an incurable or terminal condition and no reasonable hope of long-term recovery or survival."

Nor was there to be treatment "if the burdens of the treatment outweigh the expected benefits. My attorney-in-fact is to consider the relief of suffering, the preservation or restoration of functioning and the quality as well as the extent of the possible extension of my life."

On Sept. 29, 1994, Ms. Schneider was admitted to John Muir for the fourth time in two months. So grave was her condition that Abeliuk told Mr. Schneider to bring the durable power of attorney to the hospital and place it in his wife's file.

Three days later, Dr. Lisa Hudson, a young endocrinologist, was filling in on weekend duty and recommended tube-feeding Ms. Schneider and putting her on antibiotics. She knew nothing, her lawyer now says, of any durable power of attorney.

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