"A VERY PRIVATE MATTER?"
Parents battle over life of brain-damaged daughter
Lauren Richardson, 23, has been in a persistent vegetative state since taking an overdose of heroin in August 2006
By SEAN O'SULLIVAN, The News Journal
Posted Thursday, January 31, 2008
In a case with parallels to the 2005 uproar over Terri Schiavo, a Newark father is fighting a court order that could allow the removal of a feeding tube and end the life of his brain-damaged daughter.
"She's committed no crime and doesn't deserve to have this death imposed on her," said Randy Richardson, 52, on Wednesday.
According to court records, Lauren Marie Richardson, 23, is in a persistent vegetative state following a heroin overdose in August 2006. She was pregnant at the time and was kept alive at Christiana Hospital -- with feeding tubes and a breathing machine -- to allow her to give birth, which she successfully did in February 2007 to a healthy baby girl.
Late last week, a court awarded guardianship of Lauren Richardson to her mother, Edith Towers, who maintains her daughter did not wish to live this way and seeks to end artificial life support measures.
Randy Richardson has appealed a ruling by Delaware Court of Chancery Master Sam Glasscock III, putting any action on hold until the court's chancellor or a vice chancellor reviews the ruling, a process that will take at least three months.
Once that ruling is made, one side or the other may be able to appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court.
While the case is similar to the one involving Schiavo, legal experts said that matter did not set any precedents Delaware has to follow.
"That was a case about Florida law," said Drewry Fennell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.
In the Schiavo case, her husband, Michael Schiavo, waged a seven-year legal battle to end life support for her, stating that she did not want to live by artificial means. Schiavo's parents opposed removing a feeding tube. A lower court and later the Florida Supreme Court sided with Michael Schiavo. The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declined to intervene and in March 2005, the tube was removed. Terri Schiavo, 41, died 13 days later.
Lauren Richardson, a Glasgow High School graduate, did not leave a "living will" stating her desires in such a situation, or use a mechanism in the Delaware law called an Advanced Health Care Directive, a simple form a person can fill out to make their end-of-life wishes clear.
Randy Richardson acknowledges that the daughter he knew before her brain injury is gone. But, he said, she is still alive and responds to him. He said she has made progress since her overdose -- she no longer needs a ventilator to breathe -- and given more time and therapy that can continue. "We just want to give her a chance," he said, adding he is not talking about extreme measures.
He also said she should be kept alive for the sake of her 1-year-old daughter, and is concerned Towers, his ex-wife, has not allowed Lauren and her child to see each other.
On Wednesday, Richardson and the Delaware Pro-Life Coalition Inc. released a video of Lauren taken recently at The Arbors, a nursing home near New Castle, where she is receiving treatment. In the video, Lauren appears to respond and react to family members and a dog.
"There is no life support except ... a feeding tube," Richardson said, adding he has been told that with the proper therapy, his daughter could be taught to eat.
He said he would like to take her home and allow her to live out whatever is left of her life with dignity and not have it end in slow starvation with the removal of a feeding tube.
'A very private situation'
Lauren's mother declined comment through her attorney William A. Gonser Jr. beyond a brief statement on Wednesday: "This is a very painful, very sad and very private situation and both sides have suffered greatly."
In court, Towers argued that her daughter told her and others, at the time the Schiavo case was in the news, that she would not want to live that way.
According to court records, Towers recalled her daughter saying, "Don't ever leave me hooked up to life support. I would not want that. I think it is horrible. I think that I do not ever want to be kept on life support if the doctors say there's no hope."
Towers testified that she then promised her daughter she would not and made her do the same if she ever ended up in that situation.
An uncle also testified, according to the ruling, that in a separate conversation Lauren told him such an existence would be "gross" and she wouldn't want to live like that with others caring for her.
Richardson, who divorced from Towers when their daughter was young, disputes the accounts, saying Lauren was living with him at the time and expressed no such wish.
The court ruling indicates Lauren moved around among relatives.
Richardson said his former wife never mentioned his daughter's statements about life support and the Schiavo case before she filed for guardianship.
He also said his daughter made clear other end-of-life matters -- like her wish to be an organ donor -- but did not write a "living will" or state her opposition to life-support measures in her journals. Richardson also said his daughter had expressed anti-abortion sentiments, as in the case of her then-unborn daughter when she was encouraged to get an abortion.
Towers has temporary custody of Lauren's child, but Richardson said a second guardianship case is pending on that issue.
A difficult decision
In his Jan. 24 decision, Glasscock wrote that he believes both parents were fit to be Lauren's guardian and both love her and wish for what is best for her. However, he found that testimony presented by Lauren's mother was "clear and convincing" about her wishes and the evidence "presented by Lauren's father does not change this conclusion."
As for Lauren herself, Glasscock wrote, "All the medical evidence supplied by the physicians -- by the independent neurologist and by Lauren's own doctors -- is in agreement: Lauren is not in a coma but is in a persistent vegetative state. A large portion of her brain was destroyed by a lack of oxygen following a heroin overdose of August 2006. She is unable to communicate or experience consciousness. Her continued existence is dependent upon tube feeding and hydration. ... No improvement in her condition can be expected."
Richardson said he disagrees and, in addition to filing an appeal, reached out to several groups for assistance, including the Delaware Pro-Life Coalition, which organized a prayer vigil Wednesday outside The Arbors. About 25 people turned out, some carrying pictures of Lauren.
Richardson said the vigil was not protesting The Arbors, where he believes his daughter is being treated well.
Fennell, of the Delaware ACLU, said it is a sad situation for all involved but the system appears to be working the way it was intended.
Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed. Delaware is a state that does not require living wills or other written documents to allow for someone to be removed from life support, he said. It is among the states that allow verbal testimony from friends and family about what the patient would have wanted.
"There will be a scramble with each parent locking horns, trying to find friends and relatives who she said things to about this issue," he said.
Caplan said the ruling giving guardianship to the mother makes it tougher for the father to make his case.
"The burden will be on the father to prove the mother is not emotionally or psychologically qualified to act in the best interest of the daughter, and reflect her true values," he said.
Outside The Arbors on Wednesday, Richardson said he waited 17 months before saying anything publicly. "We didn't want to do this. It is not in my nature to speak to newspeople. ... But if I don't, who will? I love my daughter."