ASHLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon officials are requiring a nursing facility to spoon-feed a woman despite her making clear that measures should not be taken to prolong her life.
When former librarian Nora Harris was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's disease in 2009, she and her husband hired an attorney to create an advance directive, a legal document used to guide medical care in case someone becomes incapacitated. Harris' advance directive specifically addressed "tube" or intravenous feeding.
She is now unable to communicate, and a judge says the facility must help her eat.
Her husband says the state is ignoring his wife's wishes, the Mail Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/2cL0Lea ). He went to court after he found out Fern Gardens, a memory care facility designed for patients with Alzheimer's, had been spoon-feeding his wife.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Patricia Crain said she could not order the nursing home to stop spoon-feeding Nora because the state ombudsman's office said not helping her eat would violate state law. An attorney who represented the office noted that Oregon law does not allow guardians to give directions to withhold food — only artificial nutrition and hydration.
"It's not a happy decision for me," Crain told Bill Harris and his daughter during a court hearing. "From what you describe of your wife and your mom, she would hate this."
Bill Harris lost July 13 but declined to challenge the judge's decision. Harris doesn't think his wife will live the 18 months to three years the court battle could take.
Oregon was the first U.S. state to allow doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives. But people with dementia or Alzheimer's disease are ineligible to request medication to end their lives because the illnesses impair decision-making.
Eric Foster, an attorney appointed by the court to represent Nora Harris, said in court documents that the advanced directive did not explicitly say she did not want help eating.
"The best evidence of whether Mrs. Harris should be provided with food assistance is her current desire to eat," Foster wrote. "Mrs. Harris could consistently refuse to eat, if that was her desire. If she refuses meals in the future, Fern Gardens will not pressure her to eat."
Bill Harris and his attorney contend Nora Harris is not choosing to eat but simply responding reflexively to a spoon held to her mouth.
Fred Steele, agency director of the state ombudsman's office, said the mission is to make sure people in long-term care are treated with respect and their rights are protected.
"The advance directive form only speaks to artificial nutrition," he says. "This case is not dealing with artificial nutrition and that's the complication."
Nora Harris has been in Fern Gardens since 2013. Twice since then she has been placed in hospice care after her weight fell. Her family believed the end was near each time.
"It's frustrating and heartbreaking that she has this horrible disease and her wishes have not been respected," her daughter Anne Harris said. "It makes you sad that this is how the end of her life is going to go."
Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/