Health Care Providers Sued for Unwanted Treatment

JUNE 3, 1996 VOLUME 3, NUMBER 49

Brenda Young had a history of seizures and severe migraine headaches. The Michigan woman’s doctors told her that her condition would undoubtedly worsen, and that she was likely to have a seizure severe enough to render her totally disabled. To prevent aggressive treatment in such a circumstance, Ms. Young visited an attorney and signed a health care power of attorney making her mother, Ramona Osgood, responsible for her medical decisions.

In February, 1992, Ms. Osgood found Ms. Young in the middle of a seizure and called the ambulance. Ms. Young was transported to Genesys St. Joseph Hospital.

At various points in the life-saving procedures that followed, doctors left the emergency room to seek Ms. Osgood’s permission for the work they were doing. First they asked for authorization to place Ms. Young on a ventilator. According to the family attorney, Ms. Osgood replied “That ain’t life support, is it? She doesn’t want life support.” Assured that the ventilator was not “life support,” Ms. Osgood consented. Later, she agreed to dialysis, dopamine and blood transfusions when assured that all were for Ms. Young’s comfort.

Ms. Young, now 38, never recovered from that seizure. Today, she is bedridden and requires total care in her mother’s home. Both her father and her daughter have left the home, unable to cope with her condition. Though she does not appear to respond to most external stimuli, she constantly thrashes and screams, occasionally managing to form complete words: “Water!” or “Bury me!”

Ms. Osgood filed a civil suit against Genesys St. Joseph both on her own behalf and in her daughter’s name. Earlier this year in a Michigan courtroom, mother and daughter were awarded $16.5 million.

Although Ms. Osgood admitted she had given permission for each step of the treatment, she alleged that, with her fifth-grade education, she was not adequately informed of the nature of the proposed treatments. The hospital also argued that they were just trying to help Ms. Young with a life-threatening illness, and that there was no way of predicting the final outcome.

Ms. Young’s case is one of several actions currently pending in courtrooms across the country in which the argument is being made that a facility wrongfully treated a patient. Among the others:

  • An Arkansas woman whose husband suffered from end-stage heart disease. When he collapsed and was sent to the hospital, she protested the treatment and tried to stop it, citing her health care power of attorney. She was forcibly removed from his hospital room.
  • A California man whose dying wife was admitted to the hospital with the understanding that only comfort measures would be provided. Two days later and over his objections, the hospital inserted a feeding tube, strapped her to the bed and injected antibiotics to treat pneumonia. She is still alive and requires full-time nursing care.
  • An Indiana woman who was left in a persistent vegetative state by a massive stroke. Her son, who held her power of attorney, authorized removal of her feeding tube and transportation to a local nursing home, where she was to receive only intravenous fluids. Two weeks later the nursing home, on its own initiative, inserted a feeding tube into her stomach. She lived another five months.
  • An Ohio man who had cared for his wife during her final illness. After witnessing her suffering, he told his family and doctor that he would not want treatment. Still, when he became ill, he was treated with exactly the same course of care his wife had suffered through. He lived another year.
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