What about Ventilators and “Pulling the Plug”?


(Nancy Valko, RN ALNC) – When I first became a registered nurse in 1969, ICUs (intensive care units) were still new. The first one I worked was set up in the former visitors’ lounge and we learned how to read EKGs (heart tracings) by using a book.

By the early 1970s, I worked in a surgical/trauma ICU where we used sophisticated ventilators like the MA-1. We were able to get almost all our patients off ventilators by weaning, the process of gradually lowering ventilator support until the patient can breathe on his or her own.

But in 1976, I was shocked by the Karen Quinlan case that changed everything.

Karen was a 21 year old woman who suffered brain damage after apparently taking drugs at a party. She was hospitalized and placed on a ventilator. When she was thought to be in a “persistent vegetative state”, her adoptive parents asked that her ventilator be removed.

The doctors disagreed and they case eventually went to the New Jersey Supreme court that allowed the removal of the ventilator on the grounds of an individual’s right to privacy. Shortly afterward, California passed the first “living will” to refuse “life support” if or when the signer is incapacitated. CONTINUE