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Man in Key Right-to-Die Case May Be Failing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Wendland, the subject of a pivotal right-to-die case before the California Supreme Court, is near death, a lawyer for his mother said Monday.

Florence Wendland, Robert’s mother, filed an emergency petition Monday before the 3rd District Court of Appeal to allow a doctor of her choice to examine her son. She has fought her daughter-in-law in court for six years to keep Robert, who is brain-damaged but conscious, alive.

She said in the court petition that Wendland’s wife, Rose, has forbidden Robert’s doctors and nurses from discussing his medical condition with her. During recent visits, Robert Wendland, 49, was clammy, breathing only with great effort and receiving morphine, the mother said.

“It seems clear that Robert is very near death,” said Janie Hickok Siess, Florence Wendland’s lawyer.

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She emphasized, however, that she had no confirmation of his condition from doctors.

The state high court is expected to decide within weeks whether Wendland’s wife can remove a feeding and hydration tube that has kept him alive for eight years in a Lodi hospital.

Wendland’s case has been considered a potential landmark because no state high court has allowed family members to remove a feeding tube from a conscious patient.

During a hearing in May, the California Supreme Court seemed inclined to rule against the wife’s request. The court could decide the case to provide guidance for other families even if Wendland dies before the ruling.

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Robert Wendland has been ill for several weeks but continues to receive food and water from a tube, according to Lawrence Nelson, his wife’s lawyer.

About 60% of brain-damaged patients like Wendland die of lung or urinary tract infections, Nelson said. He noted that Rose Wendland is legally entitled to refuse medical treatment, such as antibiotics, for Robert.

Rose and her children have asked that no details of Robert’s condition be disclosed. “Rose considers this matter private at this point,” Nelson said.

Robert, severely injured in a car accident in September 1993, is considered minimally conscious. He cannot eat, drink, talk, use a bathroom or communicate.

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His level of awareness is believed to be slight, although he can respond to simple commands. Rose Wendland, 43, and their three children say that Robert would never have wanted to live in such a condition.

They have rarely visited him during the last few years, but have been with him in recent days as his illness progressed.

Rose Wendland, who lives in the home she shared with Robert in Stockton, said they consider the man in the hospital bed a shell of himself.

She and her children also contend that Robert was estranged from his mother for years before his injury and would not have wanted her making decisions for him.

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Florence Wendland, 78, who has visited her son regularly since the accident, said he recognizes her and kisses her hand.

She insists that he wants to live.

Nelson said Monday that he was consulting with other lawyers to decide whether to ask the court to drop the case if Robert should die.

Without acknowledging that Wendland was gravely ill, Nelson said he is being cared for by Dr. Ronald E. Cranford, a neurologist and bioethicist who has assisted families in several right-to-die cases.

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Cranford has supported Rose Wendland in her legal battle. He is caring for Robert because he knows “the standard of medical care with respect to palliative treatment,” Nelson said.

Florence Wendland said in her petition Monday that she has been “distraught and sick with worry” over her son.

“I love him, and I do not want any harm to come to him,” she said. “As his mother, and a party to this lawsuit, I feel that I have a right to know what is happening to him.”

She tried unsuccessfully last week to persuade a Superior Court judge in Stockton to intervene in the case, Conservatorship of Wendland, S087265.

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Siess said Florence Wendland will ask for an autopsy if her son dies.

She said that Rose Wendland, Robert’s legal conservator, has refused to allow Robert’s sister, Rebekah Vinson, to see her brother or accompany their mother to his hospital room.

“What’s wrong with letting Rebekah sit at his bedside and have the comfort of knowing she saw him, she spoke to him and she told him she loved him” before he died, Siess said.

After extensive media coverage of the Supreme Court’s arguments in May, Rose Wendland stopped allowing Florence to push Robert around the hospital in his wheelchair, Siess said. Instead, Florence was told she could visit with him only in his room.

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Nelson said only Rose, the children, Robert’s brother and his family and Florence Wendland have been allowed to visit Robert in recent days.

“This family has been fractured for years and years and years,” he said.


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