Here's a story
Yesterday was another fine day for me. I had the great pleasure of meeting Bill Colby. No, not the old CIA director. The Bill Colby I'm talking about is currently a fellow at something called the Center for Practical Bioethics. He used to be a partner at a big-bucks Kansas City law firm. While at that firm, he took on a pro bono case that the old guys said would last a half-day. Instead, it lasted years. It changed lives, including Colby's. You might even say the case took one or two lives, depending on your perspective. It was the case of Nancy Cruzan.
Nancy Cruzan, aged 25, crashed her car in a bad accident near her Carthage, Missouri home on Jan. 11, 1983. The emergency responders were able to get her heart and lungs working, but she had lain without oxygen for a long time before they got there, and much of her brain was destroyed. She was left in a persistent vegetative state. Her bodily functions worked -- sort of -- but her existence could not reasonably be called consciousness. Her eyes were open; she had some limited reflex reactions; but, in the word that used to suffice in a less sensitive time, she was a vegetable -- kept alive only by a feeding tube. If Terry Schiavo is still fresh in your mind, you get the picture.
Colby's book, Long Goodbye, is about Nancy's family, and how they spent more than three years fighting to have the feeding tube removed. Once they realized that their daughter and sister was wihout a meaningful life, and that she could be sustained that way for three or four decades, they searched their souls and determined that that wouldn't be right. But the medical authorities in Missou refused to pull the tube at the family's request. If the family wanted to let Nancy die, they would have to invoke the legal system to order the state to allow them to do it.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court -- the Court's only major right-to-die case so far -- with young Colby, then in his early 30s, suddenly thrust into the limelight. The family lost in the High Court, by a 5-4 vote, but eventually "won" in a new trial in a local court, and they had their daughter's feeding tube removed. She died around three hours after Christmas Day in 1990.
There are very few visitors to this blog who wouldn't benefit from reading Colby's book. If you care about the theory of the right to die, bioethics generally, the right to privacy, abortion, parental rights, the influence of law over agonizing personal decisions, or just the story of a bright young man in over his head, Long Goodbye has valuable messages for you. Heck, even John Ashcroft (then governor of Missouri) and Ken Starr (then U.S. solicitor general) make appearances.
I have at least a mild interest in all those subejcts, but what ultimately kept me up at night, sometimes stopping to dry my own tears as I read, was the story of a father and his daughter. Colby's work is really a story about Joe Cruzan, Nancy's father, more than anything else. At one point toward the end of Nancy's life (and Joe's), a stranger sent Joe a postcard that read in part:
In Nancy's case, her father did -- at enormous cost.
The book has several pages of photos, and by the time you're done with the text, you could care less about Ashcroft, Starr, or the nine justices of he Supreme Court. The only pictures that matter are those of the parents, Joe and Joyce, and of course, those of Nancy. God rest all of their souls.
If my own gut reaction is any indicator, this is a story that you clearly should take a look at.