Orthodox Man Improves as Doctors Battle Family Over Halting Life Support

Rhonda Spivak
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Rhonda Spivak

WINNIPEG, Canada - The family of an 84-year-old Orthodox Jew who is on life support says his condition has improved substantially after hospital doctors unsuccessfully tried to pull the plug on him over two months ago on the basis that there was no hope for recovery.

Miriam Geller says that her father, Sam Golubchuck - who is unwittingly at the center of a precedent-setting court case - is now "being weaned off life-support," and "is awake and holding our hands."

"The nurses have him up in a cardiac chair every day, a couple of times a day for two to three hours" and "a physiotherapist comes in regularly to do arm and leg exercises," she added.

Golubchuck is alive today only because his family was successful in getting an emergency ex parte injunction (without notifying the hospital) from Justice Perry Schulman that prevented the doctors from removing him from life support, a move that would have violated the family's wishes and religious beliefs. At a hearing on December 11, 2007, the hospital and doctors maintained that Golubchuck had minimal brain function.

Following that hearing, the family's lawyer, Neil Kravetsky, sought to file affidavits by Dr. Daniel Rosenblatt, a critical care physician in New Jersey, and Dr. Leon Zacharowicz, a neurologist from New York, that dispute the hospital's position.

"This appears to be the first case in Canada where a hospital has actually fought with a patient to take him off life support," Kravetsky told Haaretz last month. "Other cases haven't gone this far because the family has given in and the patient has died."

After a hearing on January 11, 2008, Justice Schulman allowed Kravetsky to refile edited versions of these affidavits so they could be admissible as evidence.

In his affidavit, Dr. Zacharowicz said that even according to entries in Golubchuck's medical chart made before December 11, "There is no evidence whatsoever that he is brain dead, close to brain dead, or dying, from a neurological point of view."

Zacharowicz concluded, "The decision of any medical professional to disconnect this clearly alive patient - whom medical records indicate is returning neurologically to his baseline, pre-admission clinical condition - is incomprehensible to me."

Justice Schulman will be allowing lawyers for the hospital to cross-examine Rosenblatt and Zacharowicz on their affidavits and to file additional affidavits in response. He has not made any final ruling in the case.

Lawyers for the hospital maintain that it is the sole right of the team of physicians to decide when to withdraw life support, and that this decision ought not to be in the hands of the courts.

On January 30, Manitoba's College of Physicians and Surgeons released new guidelines that became effective February 1. They state that the final decision to pull the plug on a patient lies with the physician.

The guidelines say that the minimum goal of life sustaining treatment is for patients to recover to a level at which they are aware of themselves, their environment and their existence.

In the event a physician and a family do not agree as to whether the minimum goal has been met, the guidelines provide that the treating physician must consult with one other physician and then communicate the decision to the family.

In the event that a patient could achieve the "minimum goal" but the physician concludes treatment should be withdrawn anyway, the physician must provide the patient's family written or verbal notice 96 hours before life support is stopped.

Kravetsky called the new guidelines "terrible."

"It's extremely suspicious that after taking three years to prepare these guidelines, the college would release them now and direct doctors to follow them immediately when the court is ruling on this very issue," he said.

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