A Life-or-Death Situation

“A Life-or-Death Situation.” By Robin Marantz Henig, The New York Times.

 As a bioethicist, Peggy Battin fought for the right of people to end their own lives. After her husband’s cycling accident, her field of study turned unbearably personal.

Brooke was cycling down a hill in City Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City when he collided with an oncoming bicycle around a blind curve, catapulting him onto the mountain path. His helmet cracked just above the left temple, meaning Brooke fell directly on his head, and his body followed in a grotesque somersault that broke his neck at the top of the spine. He stopped breathing, turned purple and might have died if a flight-rescue nurse didn’t happen to jog by. The jogger resuscitated and stabilized him, and someone raced to the bottom of the canyon to call 911.

If his wife Peggy Battin had been there and known the extent of Brooke’s injury, she might have urged the rescuers not to revive him. Brooke updated a living will the previous year, specifying that should he suffer a grievous illness or injury leading to a terminal condition or vegetative state, he wanted no procedures done that “would serve only to unnaturally prolong the moment of my death and to unnaturally postpone or prolong the dying process.” But Peggy wasn’t there, and Brooke, who had recently retired as an English professor at the University of Utah, was kept breathing with a hand-pumped air bag during the ambulance ride to University Hospital, three miles away. As soon as he got there, he was attached to a ventilator.

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