Yesterday I read a heart wrenching story about a hunter from Indiana who fell while hunting for deer over the weekend. The 16 feet fall from a tree paralyzed Tim Bowers from the shoulders down. Doctors also thought he would never breathe on his own again. The Bower family then asked the doctors at Fort Wayne Lutheran Hospital if they could bring Tim out of sedation so he could decide if he wanted to live or die.
The doctors obliged.
Tim chose death.
“We just asked him, ‘Do you want this?’ And he shook his head emphatically no,” his sister, Jenny Shultz, said of her brother, who was also often found hunting, camping or helping his father on his northeastern Indiana farm.
Courts have long upheld the right of patients to refuse life support. The American Medical Association says competent adults can craft directives stating if or when they want such systems withdrawn or withheld should injuries or illness leave them unable to make those decisions.
But it’s rare after a devastating injury that a patient would get to make such a decision for himself. The heart-wrenching call to remove life support is more often left to surrogates who must speak for those patients. Even when a patient has outlined his wishes for end-of-life care, the decision can tear families apart.
Shultz, of Las Vegas, has seen it happen in her job. But her medical training also meant she understood the severity of her 32-year-old brother’s injuries. His C3, C4 and C5 vertebrae were crushed. Though his brain was not injured, his body was irreparably broken. Surgery could fuse the vertebrae, but that would only allow Bowers to sit up. He would never walk or hold his baby. He might live the rest of his life in a rehabilitation hospital, relying on a machine to help him breathe. He’d never return to those outdoor activities that gave him such peace.
Shultz said her brother — the youngest of four siblings — wanted to talk but couldn’t because the ventilator tube was still in place. She told him that if the tube was removed, they weren’t sure how long he would live. But when she asked if he wanted the tube reinserted if he was struggling, he shook his head no.
Doctors asked Bowers the same questions and got the same responses. The tube came out Sunday.
Bowers not only had a successful business but was recently married and had a baby on the way. Shultz said that he previously told his wife that he would never want to live his life in a wheelchair.
In the battle of ethics, there have been many times when courts have upheld the rights to decide on ending a life, but there have also been times when patients have changed their minds. Would I have made a similar decision, knowing a birth of a child was happening soon? Probably not, but everyone’s different.