Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 15, 2006
Protest halts death sentence
Texas hospital retreats from plan to turn off incapaciated woman's respirator
My Glass is Half Full
By MARK PICKUP
The case of Andrea Clarke came to my attention April 26. She was a 54-year-old woman at St. Luke's Episcopalian Hospital in Houston. Andrea was on life support after heart surgery this past winter and subsequent bleeding in her brain.
Clarke was totally incapacitated but not comatose. She desperately wanted to live and her family wanted her to live. Despite this, the hospital ethics committee decided her case was medically futile and announced to her family they would turn off her respirator on April 30. It would surely result in her death.
Do hospitals have that authority?
Futile care law
In Texas they do, thanks to a futile care law passed in 1999. If a doctor disagrees with a patient's decision for life-sustaining treatment, all they need to do is take the matter to the hospital ethics committee.
After hearing from all parties concerned, the ethics committee meets behind closed doors to decide. Thumbs up, the patient lives, thumbs down and life-sustaining treatment is withdrawn. Ethics committees are required to give families 10 days written notice before withdrawing treatment.
In Andrea's case, the problem was not that the treatment wasn't working. It was working and that was the problem. Andrea was a very sick woman. There were no guarantees for her recovery. But her recovery would be long, arduous and expensive.
Apparently the hospital felt Andrea was not worth the effort. It was not a case of Andrea's treatment being futile - Andrea was! Houston hospitals participate in a city-wide medical futility protocol whereby a hospital will not accept patients another facility declares medically futile. All doors slammed shut on Andrea Clarke.
Pro-lifers into action
That's when the Edmonton based organization HumanLifeMatters (HLM) got involved. I contacted Andrea's sister Melanie and brother, Robert, to offer help finding another hospital to take her. We put out an appeal across North America on the Internet.
Other pro-life organizations picked up the plea and distributed it to their memberships. The Catholic Spirit Daily put word out for people to contact HLM. People from across America contacted HumanLifeMatters. We told them to call their state pro-life organizations to explore hospitals willing to take Andrea. We even received a few calls offering to pay for medical flight costs.
The American Life League, based in Stafford, Va., issued a special edition of its widely distributed Communique. It instructed readers how to contact St. Luke's. The hospital's public affairs office was inundated by calls from people asking that Andrea's life be spared.
On May 2 St. Luke's caved to public pressure and agreed to continue care for Andrea Clarke. Her life was spared because of the collective actions of concerned Christians across North America.
The outpouring of support stunned Andrea's family. Her sister Melanie said she was "in absolute awe of the power that the right to life people generate." She commented, "Pro-life people stepped forward and just absolutely ground St. Luke's into submission." Andrea's sister concluded: "Without the pro-life/right to life people stepping in from the very first of this fight for Andrea, we would have lost. I have never in my life seen such a centred, focused and energized group of people."
Power of protest
Ordinary people can change things. A cynic reading this story might quip that we can't change the world. Maybe not, but we changed Andrea Clarke's world. In the span of six days the fate of one disabled woman was turned around and she was given another chance at life - to make the best of her reality.
Isn't it the same for the lives of everybody? We are together in this thing called life. Far be it from anybody to stand in judgment of the futility of another person's life.
Andrea Clarke was totally incapacitated. She couldn't move. She communicated by mouthing words and blinking her eyes. It may not seem like much of a life to Dr. Hoity-Toity in the ivory towers of academe or bioethical circles, but it's the only life Andrea Clarke had and nobody had a right to take it from her.
Sadly, Andrea died of natural causes (heart failure) on May 7. She was not in pain and she was surrounded by loved ones. She died a natural death, not an imposed one.
My own future may not be much different. The thought of being encased in an unresponsive body is terrifying. But it does not mean I'm better off dead. My prayer is that God might spare that bitter cup from me. Then my prayer stops mid-sentence and I realize my Saviour Jesus asked that a far worse cup be taken from him but then said, "but not what I will but what you will" (Mark 14:36).
I must be content with the assurance that he will abide with me, even in a body as immobile as a corpse. My challenge is this: If I'm in that state, will I still praise God or curse him? Will my life still bring glory to God? I must not focus on what lies here but what is to come.
Waiting for glory
When it is over, glory awaits. If we are to share in Christ's glory we must not be afraid to share in his sufferings. Jesus asked James and John, "Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?" They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will indeed drink my cup" (Mark 10:38-39).
Although James and John would not suffer the spiritual anguish of Jesus, James would later be martyred by Herod (Acts 12:1-2). John would be persecuted, die in exile, having witnessed the deaths of more early Christians than any other apostle. We are each called to faithfulness to Christ in whatever state or station in life we find ourselves and to help others in theirs.
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