A family tragedy that unfolded in a Texas hospital during the fall of 1988 was a private ordeal -- without judges, emergency sessions of Congress or the debate raging outside Terri Schiavo’s Florida hospice.
The patient then was a 65-year-old drilling contractor, badly injured in a freak accident at his home. Among the family members keeping vigil at Brooke Army Medical Center was a grieving junior congressman -- Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
More than 16 years ago, far from the political passions that have defined the Schiavo controversy, the DeLay family endured its own wrenching end-of-life crisis. The man in a coma, kept alive by intravenous lines and oxygen equipment, was DeLay’s father, Charles Ray DeLay.
Then, freshly reelected to a third term in the House, the 41-year-old DeLay waited, all but helpless, for the verdict of doctors.
Today, as House Majority Leader, DeLay has teamed with his Senate counterpart, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), to champion political intervention in the Schiavo case. They pushed emergency legislation through Congress to shift the legal case from Florida state courts to the federal judiciary.
And DeLay is among the strongest advocates of keeping the woman, who doctors say has been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, connected to her feeding tube. DeLay has denounced Schiavo’s husband, as well as judges, for committing what he calls “an act of barbarism” in removing the tube.
In 1988, however, there was no such fiery rhetoric as the congressman quietly joined the sad family consensus to let his father die.
“There was no point to even really talking about it,” Maxine DeLay, the congressman’s 81-year-old widowed mother, recalled in an interview last week. “There was no way [Charles] wanted to live like that. Tom knew -- we all knew -- his father wouldn’t have wanted to live that way.”
Doctors advised that he would “basically be a vegetable,” said the congressman’s aunt, JoAnne DeLay.
When his father’s kidneys failed, the DeLay family decided against connecting him to a dialysis machine. “Extraordinary measures to prolong life were not initiated,” said his medical report, citing “agreement with the family’s wishes.” His bedside chart carried the instruction: “Do not resuscitate.”
On Dec. 14, 1988, the DeLay patriarch “expired with his family in attendance.”
“The situation faced by the congressman’s family was entirely different than Terri Schiavo’s,” said a spokesman for the majority leader, who declined requests for an interview.
“The only thing keeping her alive is the food and water we all need to survive. His father was on a ventilator and other machines to sustain him,” said Dan Allen, DeLay’s press aide.
There were also these similarities: Both stricken patients were severely brain-damaged. Both were incapable of surviving without medical assistance. Both were said to have expressed a desire to be spared from being kept alive by artificial means. And neither of them had a living will.
This previously unpublished account of the majority leader’s personal brush with life-ending decisions was assembled from court files, medical records and interviews with family members.
It was a pleasant late afternoon in the Hill Country of Texas on Nov. 17, 1988.
At Charles and Maxine DeLay’s home, set on a limestone bluff of cedars and live oaks, it also was a moment of triumph. Charles and his brother, Jerry DeLay, two avid tinkerers, had just finished work on a new backyard tram -- an elevator-like device that would carry family and friends down a 200-foot slope to the blue-green waters of Canyon Lake.
The two men called for their wives to hop aboard. Charles pushed the button and the maiden run began. Within seconds, a horrific screeching noise echoed across the still lake -- “a sickening sound,” said a neighbor. The tram was in trouble.
Maxine, seated up front in the four-passenger trolley, said her husband repeatedly tried to engage the emergency brake, but the rail car kept picking up speed. Halfway down the bank, it was free-wheeling, according to accident investigators.
Moments later, it jumped the track and slammed into a tree, scattering passengers and debris in all directions.
“It was awful, just awful,” recalled Karl Braddick, now 86, the DeLays’ neighbor at the time. “I came running over, and it was a terrible sight.”
He called for emergency help. Rescue workers had trouble bringing the injured victims up the steep terrain. Jerry’s wife, JoAnne, suffered broken bones and a shattered elbow. Charles, who had been thrown head-first into a tree, was in grave condition.
“He was all but gone,” said Braddick, gesturing at the spot of the accident as he offered a visitor a ride down to the lake in his own tram. “He would have been better off if he’d died right there and then.”
But Charles DeLay hung on. In the ambulance on his way to a hospital in New Braunfels 15 miles away, he tried to speak.
“He wasn’t making any sense; it was mainly just cuss words,” recalled Maxine with a faint, fond smile.
Four hours later, he was airlifted by helicopter to the Brooke Army Medical Center at Ft. Sam Houston. Admission records show he arrived with multiple injuries, including broken ribs and a brain hemorrhage.
Tom DeLay flew to his father’s bedside, where, along with his two brothers and a sister, they joined their mother. In the weeks that followed, the congressman made repeated trips back from Washington, his family said. Maxine seldom left her husband’s side.
“Mama stayed at the hospital with him all the time. Oh, it was terrible for everyone,” said Alvina “Vi” Skogen, a former sister-in-law of the congressman. Neighbor Braddick visited the hospital and said it seemed very clear to everyone that there was little prospect of recovery.
“He had no consciousness that I could see,” Braddick said. “He did a bit of moaning and groaning, I guess, but you could see there was no way he was coming back.”
Maxine DeLay agreed that she was never aware of any consciousness on her husband’s part during the long days of her bedside vigil -- with one possible exception.
“Whenever Randy walked into the room, his heart, his pulse rate, would go up a little bit,” she said of their son, Randall, the congressman’s younger brother, who lives near Houston.
Doctors conducted a series of tests, including scans of his head, face, neck and abdomen. They checked for lung damage and performed a tracheostomy to assist his breathing. But they could not prevent steady deterioration.
Then, infections complicated the senior DeLay’s fight for life. Finally, his organs began to fail. His family and physicians confronted the dreaded choice so many other Americans have faced: to make heroic efforts or to let the end come.
“Daddy did not want to be a vegetable,” said Skogen, one of his daughters-in-law at the time. “There was no decision for the family to make. He made it for them.”
The preliminary decision to withhold dialysis and other treatments fell to Maxine along with Randall and her daughter Tena -- and “Tom went along.” He raised no objection, said the congressman’s mother.
Family members said they prayed.
Jerry DeLay “felt terribly about the accident” that injured his brother, said his wife, JoAnne. “He prayed that, if [Charles] couldn’t have quality of life, that God would take him -- and that is exactly what he did.”
Charles Ray DeLay died at 3:17 a.m., according to his death certificate, 27 days after plummeting down the hillside.
The family then turned to lawyers.
In 1990, the DeLays filed suit against Midcap Bearing Corp. of San Antonio and Lovejoy Inc. of Illinois, the distributor and maker of a coupling that the family said had failed and caused the tram to hurtle out of control.
The family’s wrongful death lawsuit accused the companies of negligence and sought actual and punitive damages. Lawyers for the companies denied the allegations and countersued the surviving designer of the tram system, Jerry DeLay.
The case thrust Rep. DeLay into unfamiliar territory -- the front page of a civil complaint as a plaintiff. He is an outspoken defender of business against what he calls the crippling effects of “predatory, self-serving litigation.”
The DeLay family litigation sought unspecified compensation for, among other things, the dead father’s “physical pain and suffering, mental anguish and trauma,” and the mother’s grief, sorrow and loss of companionship.
Their lawsuit also alleged violations of the Texas product liability law.
The DeLay case moved slowly through the Texas judicial system, accumulating more than 500 pages of motions, affidavits and disclosures over nearly three years. Among the affidavits was one filed by the congressman, but family members said he had little direct involvement in the lawsuit, leaving that to his brother Randall, an attorney.
Rep. DeLay, who since has taken a leading role promoting tort reform, wants to rein in trial lawyers to protect American businesses from what he calls “frivolous, parasitic lawsuits” that raise insurance premiums and “kill jobs.”
Last September, he expressed less than warm sentiment for attorneys when he took the floor of the House to condemn trial lawyers who, he said, “get fat off the pain” of plaintiffs and off “the hard work” of defendants.
Aides for DeLay defended his role as a plaintiff in the family lawsuit, saying he did not follow the legal case and was not aware of its final outcome.
The case was resolved in 1993 with payment of an undisclosed sum, said to be about $250,000, according to sources familiar with the out-of-court settlement. DeLay signed over his share of any proceeds to his mother, said his aides.
Three years later, DeLay cosponsored a bill specifically designed to override state laws on product liability such as the one cited in his family’s lawsuit. The legislation provided sweeping exemptions for product sellers.
The 1996 bill was vetoed by President Clinton, who said he objected to the DeLay-backed measure because it “tilts against American families and would deprive them of the ability to recover fully when they are injured by a defective product.”
After her husband’s death, Maxine DeLay scrapped the mangled tram at the bottom of the hill and sold the family’s lake house.
Today, she lives alone in a Houston senior citizen residence. Like much of the country, she is following news developments in the Schiavo case and her son’s prominent role.
She acknowledged questions comparing her family’s decision in 1988 to the Schiavo conflict with a slight smile. “It’s certainly interesting, isn’t it?”
She had a new hairdo for Easter and puffed on a cigarette outside her assisted-living residence as she sat back comparing the cases.
Like her son, she believed there might be hope for Terri Schiavo’s recovery. That’s what made her family’s experience different, she said. Charles had no hope.
“There was no chance he was ever coming back,” she said.
Verhovek reported from Canyon Lake, Texas; Roche reported from Washington. Also contributing to this report were Times researchers Lianne Hart in San Antonio and Nona Yates in Los Angeles.