November/December, 1998 Volume XIII Number 3
Reporter makes news in dying
By Cathy Ramey
Springfield, VA.- In 1994 Hugh Finn made his living by reporting on the celebrity of others. He was a TV news anchor in the Louisville, Kentucky area where he and his wife and two daughters lived.
In 1998 Hugh Finn made headlines of his own after a court ruled that he could be made to die.
A native of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Finn started his early broadcast career at radio stations near his home. He later broke into television as a weatherman at WBRE-TV in Wilkes-Barre.
In 1981 Finn was hired by WAVE-TV in Louisville. He worked there until 1994 when he was forced out in what his wife Michele describes as a shakeup.
No longer host of a morning show and noon news program, Finn was suddenly free to start his own business and set his own hours. With a partner he established an Internet sports news service.
Then in March of 1995 Finn himself became the subject of news for the first time. While driving his two daughters to school one morning, the family car was involved in an accident. Another driver lost control of his vehicle and slammed into Finn injuring all three people in the car.
The girls eventually recovered from their injuries, but their 44-year-old father's condition was critical. In the force of the accident Hugh Finn's aorta had ruptured depriving his brain of oxygen and leaving him unable to eat or care for himself.
From that point on, according to duty-to-die supporters, Hugh Finn was "tethered to feeding tubes, unable to decide his own fate." He was in need of a guardian to make decisions for him.
As legal next of kin, Michele Finn was suddenly placed in the position of deciding not only how to raise her daughters as a single parent, but what care would be in Hugh Finn's best interest.
Fate bound with Cruzan
Hugh Finn's fate was actually sealed in Mt. Vernon, Missouri when a woman in similar circumstances grabbed the attention of the nation. Nancy Beth Cruzan was also an accident victim whose injuries left her in a state of intense dependency.
Labeled a "vegetable," Nancy had lost the ability to speak and direct her own affairs. Even chewing food was a problem that took staff time and involved the risk of choking as aids hurried with the job. So, as part of her rehabilitation a feeding tube was inserted in order to deliver adequate nutrition.
Almost immediately Nancy Cruzan's parents became pawns in the hands of duty-to-die lobbyists who highlighted her dependency and a presumed deathwish after the accident. With strong political backing, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Cruzan fought for the right to stop Nancy from being fed.
After four years of battle the US Supreme Court finally ruled based on casual comments a young Nancy had made. Death would be her preference. Life as a brain-injured, dependent woman, they imagined, would be unbearable. The intended result of the ruling was to "allow" her to die, a process that was guaranteed when medical personnel were finally ordered to shut off her feeding tube. Food and fluids could be withheld.
The decision was a landmark ruling that outstripped the much earlier Karen Ann Quinlin case. In that instance a woman was weaned off of a ventilator that was said to be artificially prolonging her life. Instead of dying though Karen Quinlin lived eight more years.
On the other hand, ten days after being deprived of nutrition Nancy Beth Cruzan died. The date was December 26, 1990. (Sadly, Joe Cruzan later took his own life as a result of the remorse he felt over Nancy's death.)
Only days after Nancy Cruzan's death another parent, Peter Bussalachi, would obtain an order to stop his own daughter's food intake. Christine Bussalachi was bedridden and brain-injured as well and living in the same Mt. Vernon rehab facility.
No doubt, Hugh Finn reported the death of Nancy Cruzan. Several months later, when food was finally withheld, Christine Bussalachi barely made the back page of most newspapers, too insignificant for the majority of TV news programming.
Moving in the liberal celebrity stream of TV personalities, Hugh Finn may have endorsed the killing of both women. We don't know. What is certain is that the Cruzan and Bussalachi killings would have a profound impact on his life after the 1995 car accident.
Family torn over decision
Some time after being injured, Hugh Finn was moved to Manassas, Virginia to begin life in a nursing home that was specially equipped to care for chronic and severely injured patients. There doctors assured Michele Finn that her husband had little to no chance of ever getting better.
At the Annaburg nursing home, his savings depleted, Hugh Finn was placed on public assistance. His care would be covered by the state but his wife could become liable for paying back a portion of the coverage if her income and assets put her over the qualifying line. In sickness Hugh Finn was now more than a husband, he was a liability.
In June of 1998 Michele Finn announced to the family that she wanted to remove her husband's feeding tube. After over three years she recalled a conversation in which, allegedly, her husband had told her that he would not wish to live in such a condition. This end to life, she informed them, was exactly what Hugh Finn would want.
Wasting no time, John Finn, brother of Hugh, launched a lawsuit against Michele Finn to prevent her from having his brother's feeding tube removed. The case went to trial in July and became a bitter contest between passionate opponents.
Michele Finn brought in three physicians, all of whom were willing to testify that Hugh Finn was in a "persistent vegetative state."
On the other side witnesses were equally adamant in countering the testimony.
Mary Margaret Keely, Mrs. Finn's own mother, claimed Hugh could communicate and should be kept alive. At Christmas time he had thanked her for a gift she brought to the nursing home.
Seven months later in July he cried when she questioned him about his wife's plan to disconnect his feeding tube. Mrs. Keely reported that he was in distress when asked if he was upset with his wife.
"You just can't euthanize the man,'' Mrs. Keely told the court. "`Where does it go if we allow this to happen?''
Elaine Glazer, Michele Finn's sister, testified that her broth-in-law was able to speak up until March of this year. At that time a drug was withdrawn and mysteriously he experienced a relapse that left him speechless.
Mrs. Glazer went so far as to petition Virginia Governor James Gilmore seeking to prevent her brother-in-law from being killed.
"I believe my job as governor, my role is to protect those people who are most frail in society and cannot necessarily protect themselves,'' Gilmore said at a news conference.
"I think Hugh's in there. He's locked in. I went to the last place I could,'' Glazier is reported to have said about soliciting Gilmore's assistance.
In fact, her mother and sister felt so strongly that Michele Finn was wrong and that Hugh Finn should be kept alive that they eventually stopped visiting or speaking to her.
She was determined that her husband should die.
For their part, it seemed impossible to pretend that what Michele was doing was right.
Falling victim to a new ethic
In a sense, as a result of the tragic 1995 accident, the Finn family and Gov. Jim Gilmore were all to become enmeshed in the web of a new system of medicine. That system began changing with, among other catalysts, the introduction of health-care coverage on a broad scale and the notion of "patient autonomy."
While medicine functioned for most of two millennia under the premise that a physician's oath bound him to always act with the patient's best interests at heart, the introduction of new payment systems created a problem. It became apparent that some physicians would offer no end of services as long as an insurance premium guaranteed reimbursement.
Patients, for their part, suddenly caught up in the idea that anything could be done expected more. After all, monetary limitations no longer needed to be considered. Now the patient was a consumer who, for $75-$125 a month, could demand all that medical technology had to offer.
At the same time, a strong sodality was embracing the practice of abortion, one that subtly shifted all of society's view of the physician as "healer." Now it was evident that not all physicians would make even rudimentary life-death decisions based upon a sincere concern for the well being of all patients. Some, pregnant mothers, were guaranteed "choice" which sealed a right to choose short-term pregnancy over long-term pregnancy. And in the process one patient, the child, was expendable.
All of these changes worked together to mold a new ethic for medicine.
Under the new ethic "consumer choice" superseded the theoretical benevolent judgment of the physician. Patients became clients. And as with the Finn case, family members with little understanding of the ethical system they were drawn into suddenly became arbiters of life and death.
Giving permission to kill
As noted, despondent about her husband's health and existence, Michele Finn determined to put an end to what she saw as an extraordinarily long and painful process of dying. Over family objections she pursued a plan to stop food and hydration from being given to her husband.
Later, dismissing John Finn's lawsuit, Prince William Circuit Judge Frank Hoss Jr. ruled on August 31 that Michele Finn could withdraw the feeding tube after an appeal deadline of September 30.
Hugh Finn's advocates had only a month to gain an appeal court decision to reverse the order.
The state responds
Complicating Michele Finn's decision, after her sister's appeal to Governor Gilmore, the state of Virginia stepped in to assure that Hugh Finn was properly represented.
State nurse Marie Saul visited Finn and swore in an affidavit that Finn told her "Hi." He then reached up and smoothed his own hair.
In fact, far from claims that he was "vegetative" and unaware, Hugh Finn was conscious of his environment. He appeared to feel concern for his appearance in light of having a new visitor in the room.
In Marie Saul's view Michele Finn and the circle of lawyers and physicians working with her were unfairly characterizing Hugh Finn. If anyone had a political agenda, it seemed that this group did.
"We believe there are facts out there that have not been fully brought to the fore that requires us to step in and ensure his rights,'' said state Health and Human Resources Secretary Claude Allen.
Immediately Michele Finn objected to the state's involvement and filed a motion in Prince William County Circuit Court to bar state agencies from interfering.
She moved past seeing her sister and mother as opponents to claiming that state intrusion was part of a powerful, behind-the-scenes agenda. There were unnamed, unidentified "others with their own political agenda and purposes," she testified. These were ultimately the force behind any family objections.
Judge Hoss reviewed Ms. Saul's affidavit at a hearing but decided it provided no new information to warrant changing his August 31 ruling.
Appeals and protests
Into September the pace quickened with as many as 300 protesters flocking to the Annaburg nursing home on a single day. Many of them carried signs reading, "Don't let Hugh die!" and "Let Hugh Live."
On at least one day Robert Marshall, a state lawmaker, took the opportunity to throw his weight in the direction of preserving Hugh Finn's life. He joined the group pacing with signs outside the care center. At the same time the protests provided a mode of exposure that would both endear and alienate him from voters, depending on their point of view.
"Finn, 44, isn't being kept alive by lifesaving or unusual medical means but is simply being fed." Marshall argued. Removing tubes would be tantamount to euthanasia and illegal in Virginia.
'We can't tolerate this as a society if we say food and water are an extraordinary medical event,'' Marshall said."
Thomas Finn, father to the man in the middle of all the fuss, joined the public parade of those opposed to the starvation-death of Hugh Finn. In mid-September he gathered an affidavit from one nurse who was willing to swear that Hugh Finn could and had communicated to her.
On the other side Mrs. Finn's lawyer, Greg Murphy, characterized Marshall, other demonstrators, and even family members as misguided.
Protesters gather on the steps of the “rehab.” center to pray in 1990 after Nancy Cruzan was killed.
As if a patient's ability to act in one way or another were a litmus test for a right to life and a right to be cared for, Murphy stated, "Finn does not react. Unfortunately, people tend to see what they want because they are so close to him.''
"The family has to face up to reality,'' he said. "There is nothing more to be done.''
Acting as if they would have no option but to obey orders, David Tucker, administrator at Annaburg, announced that unless the court reversed itself the center would have no choice but to follow Michele Finn's instructions and disconnect Hugh Finn's feeding tube.
Denying a role in bringing about Finn's death, Judge Hoss reiterated his belief that based upon a 1992 court decision, Virginia law allows withholding food and water. The law specified that those in a "persistent vegetative state" could be denied life-saving treatments, and that included meals.
"It merely permits the natural process of dying,'' he said. "It does not relate to mercy killing or euthanasia.''
Putting Hoss' claims aside, Dr. Robin Merlino, medical director at Annaburg explained that the feeding tube was providing food and water that kept Finn alive. Without it, she said, "he would become dehydrated, his kidneys would fail, he would go into a coma and die within a couple of weeks."
Judicial process leads to resignation
John, Hugh Finn's brother initially said he planned to take his case to the Virginia Supreme Court. But in over two months of battling relatives and in the courts, John Finn had failed in his bid to become his brother's keeper, a court appointed guardian who could prevent Hugh's death.
In late September, discouraged at the lack of judicial review given by Judge Hoss and a refusal to overturn his decisions by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, the family agreed to an uneasy truce. Still unhappy over Michele Fin's decision they decided to end their legal dispute, leaving Finn's wife free to remove the tube when the appeal deadline expired.
Ed Finn, another of Hugh's brothers, confirmed the family's gratitude toward Governor Jim Gilmore and state agencies that expressed a willingness to continue the court battle.
"When we agreed with Michele to allow her to do it, that didn't change our mind about wanting to keep Hugh alive," Ed Finn said. But he added that he knew of no family member who would insist that the state continue to intervene.
No family member but Elaine Glazer. Urging Gilmore to use all of his authority, Hugh Finn's sister-in-law refused to give up the fight.
The state of Virginia argued to restrain Michele Finn's authority. In a last minute, late night telephone hearing on October 1, a lawyer for the state argued that pulling the tube would amount to euthanasia.
Assistant Attorney General William Hurd said Finn "is not dying, any more than a baby who cannot feed himself is dying."
But Judge Hoss restated his decision and rejected the state's motion. Within minutes Michele Finn was finally free to order her husband's tube removed.
The end for Hugh Finn
Following the last hearing, an angry Michele Finn made national news disdaining the state's case and saying that Gilmore had no concept of "the hell he put me through."
On October 1, despite inquiries as to when she would ask the nursing home to stop feeding her husband, Mrs. Finn remained unwilling to answer. Only three days later, on October 4, it was announced that doctors had in fact disabled the feeding tube two days earlier.
On October 9, Lisa Grepps, a spokeswoman for the Annaburg nursing home read a prepared statement.
"Hugh Finn, a brain-damaged man who became the focus of a high-profile court fight over the right to die, died Friday, eight days after the feeding tube keeping him alive was removed. He was 44. Finn died at 10:10 a.m."
Despite the easy out available by condemning Michele Finn, this case begs for public discussion about the various types of medical support that are available to patient's in severely disabled circumstances.
Not all "tube feedings" are the same.
Some types of artificial feeding involve the infusion of synthetically produced products like TPN. These products are able to sustain a patient for weeks, even months, but over time they take a toll on other bodily organs. They are not intended nor can they be used indefinitely.
To criticize a family for stopping some feedings might amount to unwarranted persecution.
Other types of artificial feeding involve prepared foods that are essentially pureed and pushed through a tube into the stomach. This type of feeding does not pose the same risk to health.
Hugh Finn lived for over three and a half years with food delivered in an unusual manner. The indication is that his tube feedings could have been continued indefinitely without harming other bodily organs or systems.
And while his life was certainly different than he had hoped it would be in earlier, healthier days, there is no indication that Hugh Finn, in the midst of this battle, had given up on life. His continued existence and early improvements testify to a will to live which was stronger than he might have guessed when he was well.
From the Christian perspective, even if it involves suffering, and all life does, our ability to live through such storms can always result in some kind of benefit to ourselves and even others.
The pity is that Hugh Finn may have discovered that only after making careless comments to his wife that set the course of his eventual dying in process.
The other pity is that Michele Finn was never able to adjust her worldview to accommodate a severely injured and needy husband.
By tenaciously holding onto unrealistic hopes without balancing them with a love for who Hugh Finn had become, she robbed herself of the chance to see how God could use overwhelming pain to produce something wonderful in her own life.
Last, reviewing various news stories about the Finn case brings to mind a necessary caution. Often the implication is that the individual ought to be held responsible for their injuries, even when those injuries involve no real risk-taking behavior.
This notion is peddled very subtly, even thoughtlessly. Just one example in Hugh Finn's case is that several journalists described his injury by stating that, "he ruptured his aorta," as if it was an act of his will. Instead, it was the force of another's car acting against his body that resulted in this massive trauma.
Normally we might argue for the economy of language; that such precision is unnecessary. But we do not live in an ordinary medical age. We live in an era when many consider that it is "better to be dead than disabled."
If we can shift our language so that it appears the individual bears responsibility for his or her injury, we move toward convincing ourselves that our failure to love is less troublesome than the carelessness of the victim.
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