A Baby’s Death, A Town’s Pain
Monday, Jan. 12, unfolded for Dr. Eugene Turner as did most of his days. Between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., he saw a stream of patients at the Peninsula Children’s Clinic here on the northern edge of Olympic National Park. All left feeling safe and cared for. So did their parents. Turner, a pediatrician who’d practiced in Port Angeles for 27 years, had that effect.
With his tear-shaped eyes and white thinning hair and craggy features, the 62-year-old doctor conveyed boundless concern. Fifteen minutes alone with him left you feeling you were the only person in his world. He spoke in an animated but soft way. He was excitable but easygoing. He was passionate but didn’t roll over people like a freight train.
Above all, Turner talked directly to the kids, not at them, not over them, not through their parents. They trusted him. When grown, many returned with their own toddlers. Some put Turner on school consent forms as the person to call in emergencies. One wanted to list Turner as the person to decide when to pull the plug if he fell gravely ill.
Turner’s day at the clinic ended shortly before dark on Jan. 12. It was unusually cold. Ice had formed on one of the ponds at the local park. Turner, who served as “foster grandfather” to disadvantaged and disabled youths, had planned to take a 14-year-old boy ice-skating after work.
Snow had started to fall, though. It was Port Angeles’ first and only snowstorm of the year. Roads were slippery, cars were spinning out. Turner’s wife, Norma, called to say she thought ice-skating was probably not a good idea.
Turner reluctantly agreed. He came home instead. He was on call that evening--"second call,” actually, as backup for a pediatric resident--so he and Norma ate dinner at the house. They never went out on such evenings.
Near 8:30 p.m., the phone rang. It was an urgent summons to the Olympic Memorial Hospital’s emergency room--a 3-day-old infant had stopped breathing while nursing. Conor McInnerney, one of Turner’s own patients.
Turner put down the phone. The snowstorm had deepened now. Furious, wind-whipped flakes obscured the sky. Turner reached for his jacket and headed for the door.
What followed that night in Olympic Memorial Hospital’s emergency room is not a matter of much dispute. It’s what to make of those events that has so roiled and polarized this small, insular community.
Did Gene Turner, as always, do the best he could, the best for the baby, the best for everyone? Or did Turner make a mistake, as any man might, as any man has? Or did Turner intentionally hasten the death of Conor?
To answer such questions requires weighing intimately personal judgments, sorting through imprecise definitions of brain death, imagining another man’s intent and thoughts. Yet this much can be said with certainty: Near midnight, in a private treatment room in the hospital’s ER, Dr. Eugene Turner gently pinched Conor’s nose shut, covered his mouth, and stopped forever his faint gasping breath.
By this act, Turner has thrown the Port Angeles region into an anguished debate over the meaning of futility and the ethics of euthanasia. He has done even more: He has threatened the very assumptions by which his community lives.
One of those assumptions is that Turner is a good man, a saintly man, a man worthy of their trust and love. It is not an assumption many here are willing--or able--to relinquish. With each new revelation in the local newspaper, with each new menacing comment from the police or county prosecuting attorney, Turner’s supporters rally with greater fervor to his defense. They denounce the Peninsula Daily News for “sensationalism,” the prosecutor for a “political vendetta.”
There is no unanimity, though. A good number on the peninsula now condemn Turner with equal vigor, protesting the “elitism” and “arrogance” of one willing to “play God.” So a letter to the editor from one camp inevitably draws responses from the other. Lines have been drawn; neighbors across fences are either at odds or bound together in isolating certainty. The Port Angeles region--18,000 in the town, about 40,000 across the north peninsula--has fractured. The divisions promise to continue, as both a prosecutor and a state medical board struggle to assign their particular meaning to the events of Jan. 12.
To those who know Gene Turner, none of the arguments and judgments matters. Their stance reflects not a verdict on medical ethics but an unwavering demonstration of belief.
“None of us were there in the hospital ER,” says Patti Filion, who watched Turner care for her son during a losing seven-year battle with leukemia. “But whatever he did, I would trust the man’s judgment on anything. You must have faith in something.”
Paramedics Find Pulseless Newborn
It was just past 7:30 p.m. when Michelle McInnerney, holding her nursing infant to her chest, looked down and realized he had stopped breathing. Her husband, Marty, dialed 911. The paramedics, arriving within minutes, found a pulseless newborn. They inserted a breathing tube and performed CPR on Conor en route to the hospital, but when they reached Olympic Memorial, the baby still had no heartbeat. It was about 8 p.m.; Conor had been without breath or pulse for about 20 minutes. He was flaccid; his pupils were fixed and dilated. To one nurse then he looked “dead, blue, poor color.”
Yet efforts to revive Conor continued. A “full code” team assembled. An IV was inserted in Conor’s arm. Cardiac drugs were administered. Ten more pulseless minutes passed. Finally, 39 minutes after the initial call to 911, Conor’s heart began to beat.
The baby still could not breathe on his own. Conor remained on life support, being “bagged” constantly by a hand-squeezed manual respirator that forces air into the lungs. Yet he had a satisfactory level of oxygen in his blood; he was “pinking up.” He also had good blood pressure. Conor most likely was clinging to an uncertain, nearly incalculable edge of life that perplexes even the most experienced neonatologists.
At 8:50 p.m., Turner arrived in the ER. Conor was signed out to him.
Under normal circumstances, there would have been little for Turner to do. Because Olympic Memorial lacks the equipment and specialized personnel to handle extremely ill infants such as Conor, its protocol is to stabilize them, then airlift them to Children’s Hospital in Seattle. The snowstorm was still blowing though; all aircraft had been grounded.
So Conor remained in Turner’s care. It was hectic in the ER just then: Snowbound families were milling about; one patient was suffering a heart attack; a woman with an ectopic pregnancy had a Fallopian rupture. Turner’s presence in such a situation was greatly valued, both by the baby’s parents and hospital personnel.
Turner was a former chief of staff at the hospital. Others at Olympic Memorial regarded him as a steadying force. When Tom Stegbauer, the hospital’s administrator, pulled together a group to consider significant medical or ethical issues, Turner was always on it. Turner told them what was right to do.
There are neonatologists who would have gone through the motions, then quickly given up on a newborn who’d been without breath for 39 minutes. Yet Turner continued to labor over Conor, with help from the hospital staff. More than 40 minutes passed. They couldn’t get the baby to breathe on his own. Conor still was flaccid, still had fixed dilated pupils.
His parents met with Turner. At best, Conor has massive brain damage, they recall the doctor saying. At worst, he’s already gone.
By “gone,” Turner would have meant brain-dead, which is defined as the irreversible cessation of all brain function, including the brain stem. Yet there’s no certain, accepted, validated way of diagnosing brain death in infants under 7 days. The usual criteria and guidelines, including measuring brain waves with an electroencephalogram (EEG), which Olympic Memorial didn’t have, just don’t apply to babies that young. Even the most knowledgeable specialists find newborns difficult to evaluate after insults to the brain. They can find it hard simply to tell whether a 3-day-old is dead or alive. Turner’s bedside judgment would have derived not from an instrument reading or fixed criteria but from his general knowledge and experience.
Conor still had fairly good blood pressure and pulse. Some doctors might keep trying in such a situation, but others would, as one neonatologist put it, “let the baby go to heaven.” After all, even an anencephalic, born with nothing more than a primitive brain-stem, could have good pressure and pulse. Such signs do not by themselves reflect a viable being. After five minutes with no detectable pulse in a baby such as Conor, it’s known you have significant brain damage. After 20 minutes, chances of survival are virtually nil. Conor had been down for nearly twice that long.
It was 9:45 p.m. The situation, the McInnerneys recall Turner saying, was dismal. The part of Conor’s brain that controls respiration is no longer functioning. Conor can’t breathe on his own.
The parents sobbed. They were barely adults themselves. Michelle was 20, Marty 22. They’d met the previous March and married in August. She’d quit her job at a print shop before Conor was born; he was an unemployed construction worker with a bad knee and a GED degree. They lived on public assistance, about $400 a month.
Michelle stroked her baby’s feet. “Come on, Conor,” she begged. “Wake up, Conor. Open your eyes.”
Soon after, the parents agreed to cease advanced life-support measures. A chaplain was summoned; the baby was baptized. Then the hospital staff “called the code.” Taken off all life support, Conor appeared to have neither breath nor pulse.
Nurses wrapped the baby in a blanket and gave him to his parents. “We will miss you,” they cried. In their arms Conor was pronounced dead at 9:54 p.m. A nurse put the infant back on a warming cart, with the intent to later prepare the body for the morgue. The parents and medical staff left the room.
Minutes later, at 10:06, an Airlift Northwest dispatcher called Olympic Memorial. The weather had cleared, he reported. Did they still want that baby airlifted to Seattle?
No they didn’t, he was advised. The baby had died.
Had it, though?
Somewhere between 10:15 and 10:30, a nurse passing by Conor’s examining room heard noises. She discovered that Conor was breathing. It wasn’t normal breathing, just a few gasping respirations, soft little sighs at varying intervals. But it was breathing. The emergency room physician Bruce Rowan came to look. So did a nursing supervisor. Conor was pinking up.
At 10:45 p.m., the phone rang again at Turner’s home.
“Gasps or agonal respirations” was how some in the ER would later describe Conor’s breathing. Agonal breathing--a type of pre-death respiration, involving a primitive level of brain function--is often part of the dying process. It’s what Gene Turner says Conor McInnerney was doing late on the night of Jan. 12.
It went on and on, though. It didn’t stop.
Conor also had a heartbeat, albeit an abnormal one. He had nicely oxygenated blood coursing through his tissues and adequate blood pressure. Yet he was flaccid. He still had fixed, dilated eyes.
Certain cardiac drugs can affect eyes in that way. It’s possible they had in this case, but no one can say for sure. Nor can anyone say what the pulse and blood pressure meant. You can have, as one neonatologist put it, a pink baby whose “brain is still Swiss cheese.”
When does life end? What’s futility? How to let go? Such questions just don’t have clear answers.
“For all definitions, the child was dead when it arrived at the emergency room,” is what Turner would later say of Conor. By late that evening, “the infant had only some brain-stem functions, including near-death agonal breathing.”
That would have been around 11 p.m., when Turner returned to the ER for a second time. Death certainly can take its time, one nurse recalls Turner saying then.
This nurse, Vicki Gross, also recalls Turner saying: The parents are gone, they thought it was dead. I can’t call them back now. I can’t make them go through this again. How do you tell them their baby’s breathing? It would be too much for them to endure their child dying twice.
Turner’s assumption that Conor had no chance didn’t sit well with Gross. “It felt awful to us,” she later told her supervisor. “Like it was a done deal. I felt that he was hurrying this along. . . .”
Turner left the room, came back. Conor’s hiccupy gasps continued.
What is death? Apparently, Turner at this moment wasn’t sure. As Gross recalls it, he said: “Maybe we should bag the guy. Maybe we should intubate.”
Here is where Turner’s actions become most puzzling. If the baby were dead or dying, then why try to save him, why try to stick in another breathing tube? Why not just walk away?
There was no official hospital charting of this second round, just informal pencil notes. But resuscitation efforts did begin again. With no success: Repeatedly Turner and Rowan failed to re-insert the tube, for Conor’s anatomy was difficult. The nurses grew troubled. Things were getting “really gross,” one felt.
Turner asked for ice-cold cloths to wrap around the infant. The nurses also puzzled over this. It wasn’t normal procedure. Why are we doing this? one of them asked. Turner cited a study he recalled, something about cooling in order to revive infants.
Dr. Rowan came back into the room. He too was unfamiliar with the cold-pack treatment, and concerned. Turner was aggressively attempting a resuscitation effort, yet he’d called the code and declared the baby dead at 9:54. Rowan couldn’t fathom how this baby was being managed.
Rowan wasn’t a specialist though. He was an emergency room doctor, just 34. Turner was a pediatrician with almost three decades more experience.
Turner was more than that.
Ever since he and Norma settled here in 1970, fresh from a tour with the Peace Corps in Ecuador, they’d been leaving their mark. Stories abounded about the free treatment Turner provided those in need. For children with minor ailments, he left holiday dinners to open his clinic. For families in the remote western reach of the peninsula, he made biweekly pilgrimages in his orange Volkswagen Bug.
There were an equal number of stories about his volunteer work. He cut firewood for seniors and the indigent. He gave land to Habitat for Humanity. He donated truckloads of home-grown produce to food banks. He chaperoned middle-school youth activities, though his own four children were all grown. He hosted an annual picnic at his home for disabled children.
Kids without opportunities should have a chance, Turner believed. “It will do me very little good if I care just for my child and not yours,” he explained to Paul Smithson, the assistant pastor at his Lutheran church.
“The guy just has integrity oozing out of every pore,” says Smithson.
This is what Turner’s friends and patients and supporters know of him. What they don’t know--cannot know--is just what Turner thought and felt as he stared at a gasping Conor McInnerney.
“I know I did the right thing under the circumstances. . . . There were mitigating circumstances,” is all Turner was able to offer before his lawyers silenced him. The rest is informed speculation.
That Turner didn’t want the baby and the parents to suffer more pointless pain seems obvious to many. Others wonder whether he was physically tired, emotionally exhausted. There are those who think Turner made a mistake, misdiagnosed, then panicked. A few ask if Turner was simply in over his head.
Would a more experienced specialist have handled things differently? Why didn’t Turner let nature take its course? Was perhaps the baby not going to die? Did Turner act because he thought the baby instead was going to live a wretched life not worth living?
Even Gene Turner’s closest supporters struggle for answers.
“Gene is a person, a human being,” said assistant pastor Smithson. “He’s not above making mistakes. But what would your call be, after watching this baby for two hours, for four hours? It gets into gray areas. Bioethics, euthanasia, life, death. Where do you go in those nebulous four hours? Where do you go? It’s all subjective. You have to rely on faith-based common sense.”
“I’d like to think what occurred was appropriate,” said Olympic Memorial Administrator Tom Stegbauer. “It’s real hard for me to go anywhere else with it. We’re sitting here months later. We’re not looking the parents in the face, telling them their kid is dead, handing them their baby, seeing their tears, escorting them out of the ER. It’s not just a clinical matter; this is emotional. To look at the mom and say, you lost your baby. To go through all that, and the baby starts breathing again. What must have gone through Turner’s mind?”
At 11:40 p.m., a nurse entering the exam room saw Turner with his hand on top of the baby’s head, patting it.
At 11:50, Turner was alone with the baby. Conor still had a heartbeat.
The ER physician Bruce Rowan by now felt uneasy enough to act. At midnight, he picked up a phone and called Dr. Craig Jackson, a neonatologist at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. This is an essentially political call, Rowan began. Management of an acutely ill neonate is definitely not my field of expertise. But I’m not comfortable with the patient management being performed in our ER.
At about the same time Rowan was talking to Jackson, nurse Gross entered the examining room. She saw Turner holding his hand over Conor’s mouth, she saw him holding Conor’s nose. “I can’t stand it,” she heard Turner say. “I can’t have this go on anymore.”
Gross sensed that Turner was feeling great compassion for the infant, that Turner felt death was inevitable. Yet she still was shocked and numb. So was a second nurse, Laurie Boucher, who also saw what Turner was doing.
A moment later, Rowan approached Turner. I’m plainly not an expert, Rowan told Turner. I didn’t mean to be condescending. But I’ve called Dr. Jackson at Children’s. Will you talk to him?
Turner went to the phone; Jackson was no longer on the line. Turner walked back to Rowan. The ER physician thought Turner looked awfully sad and dejected. It’s a difficult situation, Rowan recalled Turner saying. He also recalled Turner saying: “The situation is over at this point.”
Rowan went to Conor’s room. The baby now was plainly dead--cyanotic, ashen, pulseless.
Nurse Laurie Boucher, blinking back tears, told Rowan what she’d seen Turner do. Standing by Conor’s body, the nurse and doctor briefly hugged.
Turner Never Obscured Actions
Gene Turner never tried to obscure what he had done. On Jan. 15, two days after Conor’s death, he called and asked the baby’s parents to his office. Conor was a real fighter, he told them. He tried to hang in after you left. He showed signs of life. We tried to resuscitate him. I worked on him, but nothing helped or changed. Around midnight, I felt enough was enough. I pinched his nose, covered his mouth, let him go.
On the phone, Conor’s grandmother, Diane Anderson, heard much the same from Turner. Like the parents, she responded graciously. She could tell he was hurting. This doctor was being so compassionate. He was also taking responsibility. She sat down and wrote Turner a thank-you note. She appreciated his effort, she told him; we can only do so much.
By all accounts, most on Olympic Memorial’s medical executive committee had similar sentiments. Yet the task before them involved more than simply forgiving a respected colleague.
The committee, notified by ER nurses about what had happened, convened in emergency session at 6:30 p.m. on Jan. 15. The chief of staff presided over a 14-member group that included various doctors, hospital administrator Stegbauer, the hospital’s attorney Donna Moniz, and a University of Washington ethicist, Thomas McCormick.
They sat around a U-shaped table beside a large picture window. Through that window they could see Port Angeles’ harbor and the now-shuttered Rayonier pulp mill. About 365 jobs evaporated directly when the 60-year-old mill closed early last year, and perhaps twice that number disappeared through ripple effects.
Port Angeles still looks like a logging town--smokestacks, piles of logs and mounds of wood chips ring the harbor--yet its boom days are past. Inside the arch of Ediz Hook sand spit, a battered fishing fleet offers evidence of the depleted salmon fishery. Fish pens in the bay now raise Atlantic salmon, because the local variety doesn’t do well on such farms. There was a move afoot for a while to unload Alaskan oil here and pump it by pipeline to the Midwest, but opponents--led by Turner’s wife, Norma--quashed that plan. Oil tankers still stop here, but only to wait in the protected bay until they can unload at refineries further down Puget Sound.
Port Angeles has been forced to recast itself ever since the timber industry plunged in the early 1980s. Sitting atop the Olympic Peninsula with Olympic National Park at its back, Juan de Fuca Strait at its shores and Victoria, Canada, just 17 miles across the sea, it relies on tourism now. The populace is a mix of conservative blue-collar millworkers; educated, affluent retirees; equity-rich urban refugees; and a hodgepodge of environmentally conscious “Earth muffins” and “granola heads,” some with money, some living in trailers.
The largest employer, by far, is Olympic Memorial Hospital, providing almost 1,000 jobs. Opened in 1948, the 126-bed hospital is a quasi-public enterprise funded by its own tax district. Elected commissioners provide oversight, but the medical executive committee directly runs the hospital. If there is an elite in Port Angeles, it includes these professionals.
By all accounts, their efforts on the evening of Jan. 15 to make sense of Turner’s conduct were tortured.
Stegbauer invited Tom McCormack to “facilitate.” The ethicist asked “what agenda items do we want to cover tonight?” Talk began about issues such as futility and brain death. Only gradually did those in the room, prodded in part by the non-physicians, face that this matter before them involved more than abstract medical matters.
According to minutes of the meeting, it was hospital attorney Moniz who finally “pointed out that under the child abuse reporting law, it is clear that health professionals have a duty to report injury . . . to the criminal authorities within 48 hours.” Yet some in the room that evening also recall hearing Moniz say that the rationale for reporting under this statute was unclear, that it was aimed at protecting children from abuse, that it didn’t apply here. The hospital, some recall hearing, could instead choose to report to the State Medical Quality Assurance Commission.
This option appealed to the committee. “The local community may not be able to cope” with a report to criminal authorities, some felt. No one would look at the complex gray issues. Everyone would see it as Turner smothering a baby. Matters of futility, questions about when this baby died--all would give way to cries of murder.
That Norma Turner was a political adversary of the county prosecuting attorney, David Bruneau, only further fueled concerns. She had, in fact, promoted the campaign of Bruneau’s opponent at the last election. Don’t let Dave Bruneau make a big case of this, one of the doctors in the room urged. Don’t let Bruneau make hay on this.
In the end, the executive committee reached a consensus: It was important to report the facts of the case immediately. They would report it to the Washington State Medical Quality Assurance Commission, though. They would not report it to the police.
They also wouldn’t impose restrictions on Turner’s hospital privileges. “Consensus was that the group did not want in any way to be perceived as punishing Dr. Turner. . . ,” the minutes read. “It was noted that this is a time to support one another and express collegial support to Dr. Turner to avoid emotional damage to all involved.”
After four hours, the meeting adjourned at 10:25 p.m. Dr. Eric Schreiber, a committee member and past chief of staff, reached his home minutes later. Because of this meeting, he’d missed his son’s opening night performance in “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream.” Now his family was asleep.
“Give me a hug,” he told his wife, Jessica, the next morning. About the meeting, he would say nothing.
Olympic Memorial’s effort to protect Turner, and hold off the police, succeeded for only eight days. Just after midnight on Jan. 20, a hospital orderly came home from his late night shift full of the stories circulating at work. He called his neighbor, a sheriff’s deputy. The deputy called the Port Angeles police. By 3 p.m., Stegbauer was sitting in the police chief’s office, the hospital’s attorney by his side, telling everything he knew.
As at the hospital, there were those in the Police Department who struggled with the story Stegbauer told. Turner is the pediatrician for several police officers’ children, including some assigned to his case. One had to be removed from the inquiry.
The investigation proceeded nonetheless.
Within days, Det. Sgt. Terry Gallagher, after filing an affidavit saying “there is probable cause to believe that the crime of murder . . . has been committed,” served a search warrant on Stegbauer at the hospital. Startled, but obliged by the mandates of criminal law, the administrator responded quickly, handing over a thick three-ring binder. Gallagher returned with a second warrant, accusing the hospital of holding back various documents. Stegbauer had no choice but to provide more. Normally protected hospital information, ranging from ER nurses’ statements to executive board’s minutes, now were in the hands of county authorities.
On Sunday, Feb. 1, a police press release, without providing names, announced an “investigation into the death of an infant.” The next morning, the local Peninsula Daily News ran its first story about the matter, on the top of Page One. It didn’t have many details, but it identified the doctor as Eugene Turner.
Dozens of Port Angeles citizens promptly erupted with anger and dismay--not at Turner or the hospital, but at the newspaper. How could the Daily News identify Turner when no charges had been filed, they demanded to know in letters to the editor. How could the Daily News tarnish such a man with no solid evidence?
Rick and Tami Bradley, whose 20-month-old daughter Turner saved from a near fatal case of pneumococcal meningitis, were “terribly disturbed and saddened” after reading the article. “We cannot imagine the pain it has caused Dr. Turner. It is the ultimate stab in the back.”
Debbie Fredson thought it was the “worst example of responsible [sic] journalism for a small-town newspaper that I could imagine.” Jessica Johnson considered it “heartbreaking to devote your whole life to preserving the life of children only to be accused of taking it away.” Susan Chadd was “pained to see Dr. Eugene Turner under attack with so little real information available.”
The next day, the Daily News ran three more articles. One told how the hospital had suspended the whistle-blowing orderly for spreading “rumors and gossip” and “violating patient confidentiality.” Another had the dead infant’s grandmother reporting that Turner told her he’d “pinched Conor’s nose and placed his hand over his mouth and suffocated him.”
Such revelations served only to stir Turner’s admirers further. Their insistent voices fueled a story of its own-- “Turner Beloved By Many . . . Pediatrician Investigated in Newborn’s Death Has Strong Support"--in which Turner offered thanks. “We are grateful for, and in awe of, this community,” he said. “The showering of unconditional love and support has overwhelmed and carried us through this time.”
Someone in law enforcement apparently had heard enough. On the very afternoon the laudatory Turner piece ran, the Daily News’ police reporter got “ticklers” about certain subpoenaed hospital documents sitting in the local courthouse. The paper’s editors requested they be unsealed, and prosecutor Bruneau found no reason to deny them. All the documents entered the public domain and, on Sunday, Feb. 8, the Daily News.
Port Angeles citizens now had much more of the story, but none of it mattered to Turner’s supporters. Their anger at the Daily News flared higher still.
Jessica Schreiber, a lawyer whose husband sits on the hospital’s executive committee, called the newspaper’s managing editor to berate him for relying on unofficial and unreviewed minutes rather than talking to the doctors involved. Jim Cammack, owner of Jim’s Pharmacy--and father of a diabetic treated for years by Turner--stormed into the newspaper office, threatening to pull his advertising and lead a wider citywide boycott. Assistant pastor Smithson confronted Daily News City Editor Steve Powell with mounting reports of public ire.
Smithson is a tall man with an open, earnest expression, yet his words sounded threatening to Powell, who is also a member of Trinity Lutheran. A flood of people are coming past my door, Smithson told the city editor. Shell-shocked people. People full of unqualified support for Turner. People with an incredible amount of anger. People are really ticked at the paper. You’re hurting the hospital. You’re hurting the newspaper.
On Feb. 17, about 70 Port Angeles citizens showed up to demonstrate outside the newspaper’s building in support of Turner. They held up red heart-shaped balloons, they grilled Publisher John Brewer, they talked of what Turner meant to them. Robin Cox, whose daughter Turner nurtured during her losing battle with brain cancer, told how the doctor attended family functions, wrapping everyone in his arms. Susan Smith, whose daughter Turner treated for a fatal autoimmune disease, told how the doctor cared for her family’s other children when the parents were at the hospital.
“My daughter trusted him completely,” said Susan Smith. “It was all OK when she was with Gene. I am so thankful for him every day for being who he was to her.”
“Thank you, Dr. Turner,” the crowd shouted over and over in unison. “Thank you, Dr. Turner.”
Backlash Against Turner
The backlash against Turner and his supporters didn’t take long to set in. By late February, letters to the editor endorsing Turner were competing for space with those censuring him.
“Don’t people realize that just because a person has a good reputation and status in the community doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of doing something wrong?”
“I’m not understanding . . . reactions to this story. I was curious if the doctor’s supporters are aware that he has admitted to smothering the life out of that baby.”
“This was murder. . . . I urge this community to . . . prove to the world that we won’t let a popular local figure get away with murder.”
Although pointedly avoiding words such as “murder,” Conor’s parents and grandmother by then were offering similar views. Once supportive of Turner, they turned against him--and hired a lawyer--after the police opened the criminal investigation.
Dr. Turner should have called us back to the hospital, Anderson began declaring publicly. If we’d been called, Conor might be alive. It was a sign of God when Conor renewed life that night. There was a miracle that night. . . .
Those authorities with the power to punish Turner also stirred. Bruneau received the criminal case three days after the newspaper demonstration, and soon after let it be known that he “doesn’t shrink from difficult decisions” and that “life is held dearer by me than our law.” The state Medical Quality Assurance Commission on Feb. 23 charged Turner with “unprofessional conduct” and, in an interim action pending a full hearing, temporarily restricted his practice, ordering him not to make life-and-death resuscitation decisions.
“These are very serious allegations,” said commission Executive Director Bonnie King. “Based on our investigation, the commission felt that an immediate restriction on Dr. Turner’s license was necessary to protect the public.”
In the face of all this, “denial” soon became a word mentioned with some frequency in Port Angeles. Those Turner has touched over the years, it was argued, simply can’t believe he might have made a mistake. Those he has touched certainly can’t accept that he might have intentionally done something wrong. “I think someone is greatly trivializing the death of an infant,” declared Det. Sgt. Gallagher.
The reality, in fact, was more complex. If Turner’s supporters in the early going had sometimes simplified the issues involved in the death of Conor, now much the same could be said about Turner’s detractors. As time went by, only occasionally did the public debate reflect the true difficulty in judging Turner’s conduct. Instead, rhetoric and posturing filled the air.
At a press conference, Turner’s lawyer first denounced “misinformation and sensationalism” surrounding the case, then declared without equivocation that Conor was “brain-dead” from the moment paramedics arrived at the McInnerney home.
To a reporter, Conor’s grandmother Diane Anderson expressed dismay that Turner had diagnosed brain death without an EEG reading--though it would have been irrelevant. She also explained: “The police are doing all the footwork for us. Our lawyer is waiting on the prosecuting attorney. Michelle and Marty will come out of this with $20 million. Marty says he’s going to own that hospital.”
Hints that Turner had a “possible pattern” of espousing active euthanasia floated about in some quarters. So too did claims that Bruneau was especially motivated to prosecute Turner because the doctor’s wife had accused him of laxly enforcing child protection laws. Questions rose as to just why Conor stopped breathing in the first place, a highly unusual event for a 3-day-old. Regrets were expressed that no specialized forensic autopsy had been conducted and that the infant’s body had been cremated.
By the time Bruneau convened a “special inquiry proceeding,” which allows him to compel testimony before a judge by immunized witnesses, each hospital committee member was scrambling to hire his own lawyer.
“It’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ now,” one close to the committee told a reporter. “People are running scared. You can’t talk to anyone. I’m even afraid to talk to you. I’m afraid this phone call might be tapped. This is so painful, so awful.”
Strident Claims, Countercharges
Despite all the strident claims and countercharges, the matter of Conor’s death remains now, as it has always, a consummate portrait of ambiguity--and one not easily resolvable by the law. In 1980, the Washington state Supreme Court defined death as the “irreversible cessation of breathing and circulation or irreversible cessation of all brain function.” At the same time, though, the court said it was up to the attending physician to decide when this has happened. It was up to the physician, who the judges knew relied on specific, established brain-death criteria.
Except, that is, when it comes to newborns: That no such criteria exist for infants under 7 days of age leaves those concerned with the Turner case gazing through prisms of their own choice. What to make of Turner’s conduct finally becomes not an absolute legal question but a personal struggle both for the doctor’s supporters and detractors.
Bruneau, the product of Catholic private schools and the Marines, doesn’t hesitate to ask the criminal legal system to judge Turner: “We have no choice. If not the law, then who? Do you leave it to the elites? Personally, I don’t like God-playing. When someone starts making decisions about another person’s life, that’s the worst sort of overblown arrogance.”
Yet when it comes actually to putting a name to Turner’s actions--murder with premeditation? Murder with intent to kill? Criminally negligent homicide? Reckless homicide?--Bruneau has hesitated for six months to file a criminal complaint. He wonders whether it was reasonable for Turner to consider Conor brain-dead. He wonders about willfulness, and malice, and gradients of culpability. He wonders also about how others view the matter.
Nowhere are doctors allowed unilaterally to pinch off breath by covering a patient’s mouth and nose; neither the physician’s motive nor the patient’s condition are considered relevant in a courtroom. Such factors do matter in people’s hearts and minds, though. Bruneau has had trouble lining up medical experts to testify against Turner. Bruneau will have similar trouble lining up 12 jurors willing to convict the doctor.
“I’m damned if I prosecute and damned if I don’t,” Bruneau says. “There is no way to win here. There will be people unhappy if Dr. Turner goes on trial and people unhappy if he doesn’t.”
In their way, Turner’s supporters also grapple with a sense of perplexity. They at times defend the doctor’s conduct: “Dr. Turner knew there was absolutely no chance for that baby. . . . They say we can’t play God, but we play God every time we save someone who otherwise would die.” Yet many, when questioned, are also willing to acknowledge that the doctor may have made a bad mistake, may even have broken the law.
We don’t think this matter should be ignored, they say over and over. We just don’t think it should be treated as a criminal act. Let the state medical commission handle this. Don’t make gray issues into black-and-white ones. Don’t shred a good person over something so incalculable.
In the end, Turner’s supporters aren’t really passing judgment at all on what happened in Olympic Memorial’s emergency room one snowy January night. They are defending the man, not his conduct. Some of them aren’t even certain what that conduct involves.
“I wasn’t there,” the pharmacist Cammack said. “I don’t know what happened.”
“I never asked the doctor what he did,” said Susan Smith. “That’s his business.”
“If you know Gene, you know it doesn’t matter,” said Patti Filion.
Yet it does matter. In some ways, Port Angeles has been cut adrift from its moorings by the enigma of Turner’s conduct. Says assistant pastor Smithson: “It’s hard for people here, for me, to hold both in our minds--Gene and what’s happened. If Gene did wrong, he must face it. Still, Gene is one of the most humble, easygoing, saintly persons. The idea that a good person did wrong is so difficult. But did he do wrong? People are struggling with their feelings. They don’t know how to feel.”
So the citizens of Port Angeles instead trade reports of recent Gene Turner sightings, as if they might yield an answer.
On the way to his lawyer’s office one day, Turner spent two hours picking up litter on his clinic’s portion of the Adopt-A-Highway program. Another day, he called Jessica Schreiber to offer his customary home garden “walk-through” as a symphony fund-raiser. In early April, he and Norma took two disadvantaged 14-year-old boys to Maui as part of their unofficial “foster grandparent” program. One Friday he spent the night at a Lutheran middle school sleep-in, then was found by Pastor Smithson at 7:30 the next morning, vacuuming the church carpet.
These sightings, however telling, finally provide answers no more sure than those available in the worlds of law and medicine. On the day Jessica Schreiber brought her children to Turner for routine exams, she could see only that the man looked tired. Events had taken their toll; Gene had lost his exuberance.
“We don’t know what happened,” Schreiber said one evening soon after that visit. “I wish Gene could talk. I wish he could explain.”