Court declines to weigh-in on NJ end-of-life case

    Attorneys and hospital executives across the region were hoping a New Jersey appeals court would provide some guidance about who decides at the end of life.

    Attorneys and hospital executives across the region were hoping a New Jersey appeals court would provide some guidance about who decides at the end of life.

    Experts wanted the court to decide whether a hospital can end life-sustaining care when a patient’s family wants that treatment to continue.

    Widener University Professor Thaddeus Pope says when a hospital and family are at odds, the hospital typically gives in to the family’s wishes.

    Pope: They usually just do what the family wants, provide the care, even though they think it’s wrong, they think it’s medically inappropriate, it’s outside the standard of care, it’s not what medicine is all about.

    When Trinitas Regional Medical Center in North Jersey tried to stop dialysis for Ruben Betancourt, his family objected and a lower court forced the hospital to continue treating the 73-year-old.

    A hospital spokesman has said that Betancourt’s body was “slowly decomposing” and some doctors considered further treatment “inappropriate.”

    Trinitas tried to overturn the lower court ruling. The appeals court panel called on the state legislature to take up the issue, but said Mr. Betancourt’s eventual death made the case moot.

    The family’s attorney, Todd Drayton, says the lower court ruling stands and he considers that a victory for families.

    While the court declined to decide on the merits of the Betancourt case, Drayton says the 26-page ruling is full of “reasoning, hints and suggestions” that the panel supports the idea that a patient’s family or surrogate decision maker – not a hospital – should decide when to halt medical care.

    Attorney Anne Studholme represents a coalition of disability rights organizations led by Not Dead Yet. In the appeal case, she argued on behalf of the group as a friend of the court.

    Studholme: People with disabilities are quite sensitive to the sort of thinking which says, ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to live that way, therefore, he must not want to live that way.’ A lot of people say: Just try living that way for a while. You might find you prefer to live.

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