OKEECHOBEE — Karen Weber's descent into limbo began on Florida's Turnpike in November. She and her husband of 34 years, Raymond, had driven to Orlando International Airport to pick up her mother.
On the way home to Okeechobee, happy talk about Gracie, the new baby in the family, ended suddenly when Karen had a seizure. Her husband drove quickly to a hospital.
That seizure and a second one led to a paralyzing stroke and now, seven months later, Karen, 57, lies in a nursing home as family members battle over whether to remove the feeding tube that keeps her alive, a circumstance similar to the Terri Schiavo case of 2005.
Weber is paralyzed on her left side and cannot speak, but she breathes on her own.
Raymond Weber believes she is in a vegetative state and wants the feeding tube removed and his wife transferred to hospice care, where she probably would die.
But her mother, Martha Tatro, and other family members say she is alert and responsive.
An Okeechobee County circuit judge has issued an injunction, which husband and mother agreed to, blocking removal of the tube until he decides whether she is capable of deciding herself.
The judge also appointed a guardian for her and a committee of two psychologists and a neurologist to give their opinions. Karen had no living will or other health-care directive.
"Mr. Weber is of the opinion that Karen does not want to live as a vegetable and that she would prefer the body to take its natural course," said his attorney, Colin Cameron.
Raymond doesn't want to discuss the case, Cameron said. "He's doing everything he can to keep this a private family matter," he said.
"I don't want this to become a media event," Raymond told The Associated Press two weeks ago.
Karen's mother said there is no doubt she is aware of what's going on. "She blinks for yes or no. She shakes her head. She waves goodbye and she can laugh at jokes," Tatro said. "She likes for us to get on each side of the bed and tell her funny stuff. She likes to be in the center of the conversation."
Weber's sister, Joyce Tatro-Manes, said, "In my opinion, it's higher-level thinking."
Tatro-Manes, who is studying for a doctorate in education and has visited twice from her home in Toledo, said, "It's not 'Look at that tree' and she laughs. She's laughing at specific things that she can relate to."
John Cook, Karen's court-appointed attorney, recently visited her for 45 minutes. "I saw some improvement. In my first visit, she was having some medical issues," he said.
Tatro spends at least seven hours a day at her daughter's bedside. Raymond often was there with her. But the atmosphere has become awkward and tense, she said, and they sometimes take turns.
Karen is the oldest of Tatro's three children. She grew up in Cleveland, then moved to Toledo with the family. She worked as a telephone operator for Hudson's department store.
She met Raymond Weber at a party. They married and moved to Reno, Nev., where she worked as a switchboard supervisor at the MGM Grand Casino. Her husband and two partners ran an underground cable contracting company.
Later they moved to Valencia, Calif., where she spent 20 years raising her family of two sons and a daughter. Raymond sold his interest in the company six years ago and the couple moved in with Tatro in Okeechobee, she said.
Tatro, a retired deputy municipal clerk in Toledo, and her two younger sisters followed an older sister to Okeechobee.
"I gave them (the Webers) the master bedroom. I treated him like a son," she said.
Tatro said she and Raymond had discussed her daughter's quality of life but she was stunned when he sought an order to move her to hospice care and remove the feeding tube.
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "Karen was not that disabled."
She looked for a lawyer. "No attorney here would take the case, so I filed myself," she said.
Her two-paragraph petition read, in part, "Karen has made the nurses and others aware of her wishes to stay at the (Okeechobee Health and) Rehabilitation Center and is aware that when she goes to the Hospice Center that is her death sentence."
Tatro-Manes, Karen's sister, contacted several right-to-life organizations to find a lawyer. The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund agreed to take her case.
Like Schiavo, Karen has no living will. But unlike Schiavo, Weber has not been found to be incompetent to handle her affairs. Schiavo was found to be in a persistent vegetative state.
"She's able to make this decision and even if she wasn't, she's expressed through conversations that she was on Terri's side and she wouldn't want to die," said Tatro's attorney, Joseph Rodowicz.
The Schiavo case gathered national attention when her husband sought to have her feeding tube removed against the wishes of her parents. President Bush and Congress became involved, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law, allowing her husband to prevail. She died March 31, 2005, nearly two weeks after a final appeal and a circuit judge ordered her tube removed.
If the judge finds Karen incompetent to handle her own affairs, he probably will appoint a guardian, which could be her husband or her mother.
Meanwhile, Tatro is fearful that her daughter's body will become less responsive unless physical therapy resumes. Therapy has stopped twice, once when she was hospitalized for an infection and another time when she developed pneumonia.
Tatro bought her daughter a $5,000 bed that moves her periodically so that fluid doesn't build up in her lungs. "I could take her home tomorrow if she could get rid of the medical problems. Stroke problems, I can handle those," she said.
The family has a Web site, www.prayforkaren.com, to encourage prayers and support for her.
"This has to turn out well for her because I just couldn't bear anything else," Tatro said.
Killing ain't killing, if they shout it long and loud.
Sam Golubchuk update... .......................................................................................
Some time in mid-September a Manitoba judge will make what is likely to be a life or death decision in the Samuel Golubchuk case.
Mr. Golubchuk is a frail, elderly man whose condition while in hospital deteriorated to the point doctors felt there was no hope of recovery. He was placed on life support last November and his family subsequently took the hospital to court when it sought to withdraw those measures.
Mr. Golubchuk's family was granted a temporary injunction last December preventing the hospital from removing him from artificial life support.
The case involving Mr. Golubchuk's care had originally been slated to begin in December however last week Court of Queens Bench Justice Marc Monnin agreed with an application by the Grace Hospital to move up the trial date. The Grace says caring for Mr. Golubchuk is taking a toll on staff and already one intensive care specialist has stopped working rotations at the hospital in protest.
At the heart of this matter is the type of emotional end-of-life decision faced by hundreds of Manitoba families every year. Have we done enough for our loved one? Should we let them go?
In order to ensure all reasonable attempts at treatment are considered, dying patients are often artificially kept alive when their own systems fail. As well as a duty of care it is also a kindness to families giving them a chance to prepare for what will likely happen when artificial supports are withdrawn. In a hospital situation, indefinite life support really isn't considered a long-term option. That type of care places tremendous demands on staff and resources and may well be unfair to others.
In December of 2007 Arthur Schafer director of the University of Manitoba ethics centre, was asked to comment on the case.
Appearing on Canada AM Schafer said "families must realize that with a shortage of hospital beds, one person's provision is another person's deprivation." Schafer also noted that while bodies can be kept alive through artificial means, "the person you are can't be kept alive... I don't think that's a sensible use of resources and I don't think that the hospitals can accommodate such wishes"
The Golubchuk family, not surprisingly disagrees.
On their Save Samuel Golubchuk web page his daughter Miriam states he is currently receiving "basic care" at the hospital which includes being given food and water and assistance in breathing through the use of a ventilator. She further says "rather than giving up the hospital is continuing to fight us for the right to kill our father."
The family has started a petition seeking to demand the hospital cease its case against them and "continue providing treatment for Sam according to their wishes and instructions."
Whether the removal of extraordinary artificial measures of life support constitutes "killing" someone is a matter of semantics and better left for the courts to decide. Make no mistake however; it's a decision sure to have wide reaching significance.
Most families, my own included have been or will be faced with this type of heart-wrenching decision.
Equating it with killing a loved one just seems wrong.