By Joseph Gonzalez
HOUSTON (ChurchMilitant.com) - In the ongoing case of Christopher Dunn, a patient refused life-sustaining treatment by a Texas hospital, justice has been upheld — for the time being.
Nearly two months ago, Chris (46) was admitted into Houston Methodist Hospital because he was coughing up blood. Doctors found spots on his liver and pancreas. He has been on a breathing tube and is frequently put under heavy sedation.
On Friday, November 13, a panel of administrators and doctors at the hospital notified Chris' mother that in 10 days they would be withdrawing him from all life-sustaining treatment. Chris' doctor, Adita Uppalapati, had determined that further treatment was futile. Effectively, they were giving Chris until Thanksgiving to live.
At this point, Chris' mother sought legal council. Texas Right to Life referred her to Counselor Trey Trainor, a partner at Beirne, Maynard & Parsons, L.L.P. and a devout Catholic. ChurchMilitant.com spoke with Trainor about Chris Dunn's situation.
The hospital had been planning to give Chris "high doses of morphine and other drugs to make him comfortable." This "would have had a secondary effect on ending his life," said Trainor. "That's called snowing a patient."
Texas law allows a hospital's ethics committee to honor a physician's decision over a patient's or patient's family's decision — exactly what Houston Methodist did to Chris and his mother. This law amounts to a "death panel" and is morally wrong," according to Trainor.
This law is completely unconstitutional. ... [A] group of hospital administratives want to counteract the wishes of the family, the patient. ... [T]here is no judge, no jury, no record of this committee meeting. ... [T]here's no review whatsoever of the hospital's decison. A criminal on death row in Texas has more due process rights than a Texas patient.
Trainor went on to say that Texas Right to Life has challenged this law multiple times in the past, only to be defeated because of the law's great support — by the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Those bishops have fought back against changing this law," he said, "every session."
Chris' mother challenged the hospital's decision and a temporary restraining order was obtained, which forced the hospital to continue giving Chris life-sustaining treatment until the court hearing date on December 3.
The hearing took place Thursday at 1:00 p.m. with Judge Bill Burke of the 189th Judicial District Court of Harris County. Trainor said Judge Burke agreed to abate the proceedings until guardianship of Chris was determined. Until then, he ordered the hospital to keep Chris on life-sustaining treatment.
Trainor said the hospital is now disputing Chris' guardianship. "Because we've initiated legal action, the hospital wants to come in and say they should be the ones to make those decisions. The hospital claims that Mr. Dunn is not capable of making decisions to hire legal counsel and that he doesn't know legal counsel has been hired." On the contrary, Trainor says Chris is absolutely aware of his situation and is responsive.
"I've had the opportunity to ask Chris if he wants to live, and he has very affirmatively shown that he does want to live." Trainor said Chris was "holding up his hands in prayer, praying, when asked if he wants to live, and very affirmatively and distinctly nodding his head 'yes,' he wants to live."
Trainor insisted on a distinction between life support, which is a life-and-death situation, and life-sustaining treatment. Chris is "not being fully kept alive by artificial means" and therefore technically not on life support. "They cannot tell you what is conclusively wrong with Mr. Dunn. ... [T]hey say he shows signs of having pancreatic cancer," Trainor said. "But they have not done a biopsy."
Trainor also noted that if Chris has pancreatic cancer, such a condition is treatable. In cases where pancreatic cancer is fatal, the prognosis is a very short time. "But Chris has been in the hospital for nearly eight weeks now," he noted. So, one might ask, why is the hospital opting to withdraw treatment instead of trying to determine Chris' condition and treat it? Why is the court even considering the possibility that the hospital should be gaurdian?
Bobby Schindler, brother of Terri Schiavo, who was ordered by court to death by starvation in 2005, is all too familiar with situations like Chris'. "That this debate is even occurring demonstrates how culturally confused we are," Schindler told ChurchMilitant.com.
On the one hand, we're condoning laws that mandate physicians must provide death-inducing poisons to assist patient suicides, even if it violates the conscience of a physician — because a patient's right to assisted death apparentlly trumps a doctor's right to his own conscience. On the other hand, as Texas illustrates in David Christopher Dunn's case, we're treating a physician's judgment and actions as sacrosanct ... in spite of the will to live by a patient.
Unfortunately, cases such as Terri's and Chris' are not uncommon. Trainor said he knows of at least three other patients dealing with a similar crisis because their doctors won't honor their wishes. He speculates such an occurence happens on a "daily basis" in hospitals.
While Chris Dunn is undergoing a tragic ordeal, he is certainly not alone. "His mother's been in the hospital every single day since he's been there," Trainor said.
Trainor concluded by requesting that ChurchMilitant viewers pray for Chris and his mother as they struggle together and anxiously await the court's decison on guardianship.