It was the summer of 1975, and the first girl, 21 years old, was on her own.
She had graduated high school, found a job, and moved out of her parents’ house to live with two friends in an apartment. Life was good.
Her biggest problem at the moment was this dress she had bought. She was going to have to diet if she wanted to wear it.
Which she started to do, drastically.Like the night she headed out to a bar to celebrate a friend’s birthday. She hadn’t eaten in two days.
At the party, she had a couple of drinks and some Quaaludes. And when she felt faint, her roommates took her home and put her to bed.
They went to check up on her a few minutes later. She wasn’t breathing.
She was taken to a hospital, but it was too late. She was brain dead.
They tried all sorts of treatments and therapies for months, but she deteriorated further.
Finally, her parents asked the hospital to turn off her respirator, so she could die in peace. And the hospital was considering the parents’ wishes, until the local county prosecutor said he’d charge them all with homicide if they did that.
They ended up in the New Jersey Supreme Court. And for the first time anywhere in the U.S., the court ruled that the girl could be disconnected if her parents were expressing what their daughter would have wanted.
Suddenly, there was a new area of law.
The second girl was 23. She lived in Missouri. She was found face-down in a ditch, having been thrown 35 feet from her motorcycle. The paramedics who came to the scene restored her heartbeat, but the part of her brain which dealt with awareness and thought was destroyed; she would never regain higher brain function. Ultimately, her parents sought a court order to remove the feeding tube.
Her case wended it way through the courts. It took five years to get to the Missouri Supreme Court, and then two more years for the U.S. Supreme Court. The Justices ruled that a competent person had a constitutionally-protected right to refuse life-prolonging treatment. But each state could pass a law concerning what was “clear and convincing” proof of a person’s preferences.
It was then back to the Missouri Probate Court, who determined that yes, the evidence here indicated that the girl would not want to be kept alive under these circumstances.
And so one month short of nine years after the accident, the girl’s presumed wishes were allowed, and she died.
It was getting easier, right? No. The third girl was 26. She had a heart attack and suffered massive brain damage. She was given all sorts of treatment and therapies but nothing pulled her from her persistent vegetative state. Finally, her husband thought it best to let her die. Her parents, however, were sure she was still conscious.
Their dispute led to nineteen (!) court cases, plus the involvement of the Florida legislature, the Governor, the U.S. President and Congress.
The three girls: Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan and Terri Schiavo.
Now there are two morals to these stories.
First, you don’t have to be old to need an Advance Directive for Healthcare (Georgia’s latest replacement of – and vast improvement over — the “living will”).
In fact, we recommend that if someone’s old enough for a driver’s license, he or she needs to have an ADH signed.
Second, the last set of statistics report that only 26% of all adults have advance directives of one kind or another. That’s regardless of age.
So ask your adult children, and your driving children and grandchildren if they’ve completed one yet. And ask yourself.