False compassion

First appeared in The Washington Times, available here.

This month the sad case of Lauren Richardson made headlines. The similarities between her situation and my sister Terri Schiavo’s are striking and deeply disturbing. Lauren suffered a profound brain injury in 2006, leaving her dependent on others for her care. Like Terri, she is not hooked up to machines, is not comatose and is unquestionably very much alive.

As in Terri’s case, a judge, based on hearsay evidence that this is Lauren’s wish, has decided to err on the side of death and starve and dehydrate this young woman until she dies. The judge is also convinced that Lauren is in the often wrongly diagnosed (and offensively named) condition known as “persistent vegetative state” (PVS). Unfortunately, some in the media have already begun their campaign to justify Lauren’s needless and heartless dehydration.For example, recently on the Fox News Channel program “Hannity & Colmes,” co-host Alan Colmes incorrectly referred to this brain-injured girl as being “brain dead” — a tactic often used by dehydration supporters in the mainstream media to dehumanize Terri throughout her ordeal.

As was the case with my sister, you will soon undoubtedly see the media drumbeat begin: “Just allow this woman to die,” in order to somehow convince the general public that it is “right” to “end this poor woman’s suffering.” (Never mind the statement’s inherent contradiction: if she is truly unconscious, she is not suffering.) However, Lauren is not dying, does not have a terminal disease and her brain injury is not killing her. Just like the estimated tens of thousands of persons in similar conditions, Lauren is only being sustained by the same thing we all need to live — food and water. And there is a loving father willing and wanting to care for his daughter.

Don’t expect the media to remind people of the growing number of persons diagnosed as being in “vegetative” conditions — people who doctors predicted would never regain consciousness — who have inexplicably awakened. A number of these patients regained awareness after being in a “PVS” or similar conditions far longer than Terri was. For example, Terry Wallis regained awareness after 19 years, Sarah Scantlin after 20 years and Patricia White Bull after 16 years.

And then you have stories like that of 36-year-old Jesse Ramirez, whose feeding tube was removed by his wife only 10 days after he suffered a severe head trauma in an automobile accident. At that time, doctors said that he would most likely end up living in a vegetativestate. Fortunately his parents questioned the doctors, found an attorney and were able to get a judge to have his feeding tube reinserted. Days later Jesse began to make noticeable improvement. Unbelievably, he recently walked out of a rehabilitation facility on his own two legs.

Haleigh Poutre’s story is disturbingly similar. After she was brutally beaten by her adoptive parents, doctors in Massachusetts gave her a “no hope for recovery” diagnosis and recommended that Haleigh’s feeding be stopped so that she would die. The Massachusetts Supreme Court actually agreed to dehydrate this helpless little girl. But just before the deed was to be done, Haleigh awakened and is now in rehabilitation.

Make no mistake: thousands of conscious and unconscious persons die by deliberate dehydration every year. We only hear of the cases in which there is family disagreement. Believe me when I tell you that death by dehydration is something that no family member should ever have to witness. It is cruel and barbaric and takes days and often weeks to play itself out, torturing not only the patient but all who love them as well.

I watched my own sister anguish through 13 days without food or water and there are no words that can properly describe this inhumanity. At the end, blood appeared in her eyes because her tissues were cracking from a loss of moisture.

Tragically, killing the cognitively disabled by taking away their food and water is about as common in our nation as it is for our politicians to abandon this issue. And for reasons I still struggle to understand, deliberately dehydrating persons with brain injuries really doesn’t seem to catch the ire of most Americans, certainly not those in the media. If you did the same thing to a dog, you would rightly join Michael Vick in jail for animal abuse.

Persons with disabilities, no matter how serious, are just that — persons.They should be treated as our most precious treasures reflecting who we should be as a nation — not as damaged goods to be discarded when they outlive their “usefulness” — which, sadly, says more about our growing moral bankruptcy than it does about their intrinsic value or human worth.