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Remembering Robert Wendland
by Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
March 28, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA--In the spring and summer of 2001, the attention of the disability community was split between the case of Terri Schiavo and that of a California man who also experienced a brain injury.

Robert Wendland was a former auto-parts salesman who spent 17 months in a coma following a September 1993 roll-over accident.

As in Terri Schiavo's situation, medical experts disagreed over how aware Wendland was of his surroundings when he came out of his coma. Some doctors said he was "brain dead". Others said he was in a "minimally conscious state", that he drifted in and out of consciousness, and was able to catch a ball, put pegs in a board, and even bite a nurse. While he did not talk, he did communicate in other ways.

Like Terri, Wendland regulated his own bodily functions, such as breathing and blood pressure, but relied on a feeding tube for nutrition and hydration.

Like Terri's family, members of Wendland's family disagreed over what his wishes would have been. His wife and court-appointed conservator, Rose, petitioned a California court in July of 1995 to have Robert's feeding tube removed claiming that it was "what he would have wanted". His mother, Florence, disagreed and filed a lawsuit to keep the feeding tube in place so her son could continue living.

Several national disability organizations and one university affiliated program filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief showing support for Florence and her position that her son should be allowed to live.

In August, 2001, the California Supreme Court sided with Wendland's mother, ruling that a court-appointed conservator cannot order life-giving food and water to be withheld from a conscious patient, unless "clear and convincing evidence" proves that the patient wanted to die under those specific circumstances.

In its 6-0 decision the court found that while a conservator can make health-related decisions on behalf of an "incompetent" patient, those decisions must be based on the patient's best interests and wishes. Refusing life-sustaining treatment could not be considered to be in the patient's best interests and wishes, unless if the patient had specifically indicated those wishes in a formal manner while "competent".

The court made it clear, however, that the ruling only applied to conscious patients who were "not terminally ill, comatose, or in a persistent vegetative state", and only to persons who had not left formal instructions regarding their health care, or had not appointed a person to make health care decisions for them.

Unfortunately, the ruling did not come in time to help Robert Wendland. He died three weeks earlier from pneumonia.

"Robert Wendland" (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)

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