By Jamie Talan
March 4, 2003
A judge Monday refused to set aside a guardian's instructions for the care of 92-year-old Margaret Russell, a nursing home resident who has not been given any food or nutrients for five weeks.
State Supreme Court Justice Frank S. Rossetti ruled in Mineola that Russell's family "has not established clear and convincing evidence that the health care instructions ordered by a state-appointed guardian should be overturned. Those instructions were intended to reflect end- of-life care documents Russell had signed over the years. Russell's relatives insist her intent is being misconstrued and that she is being deprived of vital nutrition against her wishes.
When the ruling was delivered, Roger Russell, Margaret Russell's nephew, screamed "Murderers! Roger Russell, who was in court with three family members and six friends of the frail woman, said the decision was "an absolute outrage.
Margaret Russell, single and childless, had lived for years with her nephew and family. She now resides at Townhouse Extended Care Center in Uniondale.
"I know one thing,said Margaret Britton of St. James, who worked with Russell for 21 years in the Herricks school district. "Margaret would have hated this ... starving to death.
The guardian was appointed after a family dispute in 2000, and in January she was given the right to make health care decisions on Margaret Russell's behalf. Russell had just suffered two strokes that left her unable to speak or eat. Documents she signed on three occasions, beginning in 1991, directed that "life-sustaining procedures should be withheld or withdrawn if I have an illness, disease or injury, or experience extreme mental deterioration, such that there is no reasonable expectation of recovering or regaining a meaningful quality of life.
On Jan. 28, the guardian, Lynne Vaughan of the Family and Children's Association in Hempstead, cut off Margaret Russell's food and nutrition.
"We were told that she would die quickly,Roger Russell said.
Monday, Vaughan told the court that doctors at Mercy Hospital in Rockville Centre, where Russell had been a patient, said that withdrawing hydration would be painful, but removing food and nutrition would not.
Dr. Jung Chou, a friend of the Russell family who visited the patient twice in February, testified that Russell was awake, able to express feelings and could recognize the difference between loved ones and a stranger. Her heart rate, respiration and skin color were normal, he said.
"When you are hungry, it is unbearable,he said. "She is able to see, feel and express herself.With food and nutrition, he said, "she is going to have more strength and more spirit.
After the 90-minute hearing, Rossetti said the testimony wasn't sufficient to alter his January decision. "Dr. Chou's opinions were unsupported and in a vacuum, he said. "The guardian can continueto make decisions about Russell's care.
Such cases are probably rare, said Jane Greenlaw, co-director of the program in clinical ethics at the University of Rochester who worked on the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, which examined the medical and ethical issues of health care proxy law. "This case is a good example of how the law isn't a perfect tool,she said.
Bioethicist Carl Coleman, an associate professor at Seton Hall Law School in Newark, said it is "inhumane to give someone hydration and not food and nutrition.Coleman, who directed New York's Task Force on Life and the Law, said providing water and not food "is really starving someone to death.