Man Nearly Taken Off Life Support After Med. Center Mistake

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jul 31, 2003   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Man Nearly Taken Off Life Support After Med. Center Mistake

by Steven Ertelt Editor
July 31, 2003

Richmond, VA ( — Doctors at the University of Virginia Medical Center nearly removed a patient from life support prematurely. The case has observers accusing the center of potentially breaking the law and refusing to treat a patient it deems not likely to recover.

Jerry Childress, whose son Jason, 26, has been in a coma for two weeks following an automobile accident, was told by UVA officials that his son would be removed from life support on Tuesday. However, he wanted his son to have more time to recover from the injuries and to come out of the coma.

Jerry found help from a local attorney, David Schreve, who contacted the medical center. According to Schreve, the center failed to provide a 14 day advance notice to Jerry prior to the decision to remove Jason from life support, as required by law.

Schreve said the UVA attorney agreed the notice should have been given and now Jerry has a written agreement that UVA will not remove Jason’s life support while Jerry files a request to appoint a guardian ad litem for Jason and a physician to make an independent investigation of his medical condition.

The Virginia Health Care Decisions Act says a court-ordered guardian has the power to make medical decisions for an incapacitated adult if the adult does not have an advance medical directive that states his desires should he become incapacitated.

If a guardian has not been appointed, a spouse has the second right of decision-making and then the patient’s adult children or parents.

However, Jason has no spouse or adult children and his parents are in disagreement over his care. Jerry wants to give Jason a chance to recover while Jason’s mother disagrees.

Schreve says this exposes a "quirk" in the law whereby a patient is left without a capable decision-maker. He believes the local courts will appoint a guardian and the decision will eventually resolve the problem.

However, the quagmire has pro-life advocates chiding the center for its shoddy treatment of the Childress’.

"This case illustrates the increasingly aggressive attitude in favor of non-treatment or termination of treatment that health care providers will now often take," pro-life attorney Tom Marzen tells

Marzen, who heads up the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled, says hospitals should transfer a patient to another facility that will agree to provide treatment before deciding to terminate a patient’s life.

"People should not assume that they will be continue to be treated unless they say otherwise, especially if health care providers believe patients will die anyway at some point or, if treated, be severely disabled if they will survive," Marzen concludes.