WINNIPEG — The condition of an 84-year-old Orthodox Jew who is on life support is improving after doctors at Winnipeg’s Grace Hospital tried to pull the plug on him more than a month ago, against his family’s religious beliefs.
Miriam Geller said her father, Sam Golubchuk, “is alert” and “his eyes are open.”
According to Neil Kravetsky, the family’s lawyer, it’s only because the family went to court on Nov. 30 and obtained an ex parte injunction (without notice to the hospital) that doctors were prevented from removing Golubchuk’s life support.
Kravetsky said that on Dec. 12, one day after a court hearing in the case, a notation in Golubchuk’s hospital chart recorded some improvement in his neurological condition, including “some eye movement [in response] to voice,” “more spontaneous eye opening” and “more spontaneous right arm movement.”
On Dec. 17, the word “awake” was written in Golubchuk’s hospital chart.
Kravetsky said that at the Dec. 11 hearing, Golubchuk’s “entire chart was not presented by the hospital, only some parts of it.” He asked for and received the chart from the hospital after the hearing.
Kravetsky sent the chart to Dr. Daniel Rosenblatt, a critical care physician in New Jersey, and Dr. Leon Zacharowicz, a pediatric neurologist in New York. Affidavits from both doctors were filed in court on Jan. 8.
The affidavits won’t be made public until Judge Perry Schulman rules on whether they are admissible as evidence.
Lawyers for the hospital and doctors have objected to the admissibility of the affidavits, saying it’s not for the court to decide whether to prefer the opinion of one doctor over the other.
At a Jan. 11 hearing on the matter, a lawyer for Grace Hospital, Bill Olson, said that the “issue is whether the court through an injunction should be interfering in doctors’ medical decisions.”
The hospital maintains that it’s the right of the physicians treating Golubchuk to decide when to terminate life support, as opposed to his family or the courts.
At the Jan. 11 hearing, Kravetsky told Schulman that the affidavits of doctors Rosenblatt and Zacharowicz were highly relevant and referred to facts recorded in the hospital chart about Golubchuk’s condition that had not been put before the court by the doctors or the hospital.
“This court should have [Golubchuk’s] full hospital chart. We are talking about a man’s life,” Kravetsky said.
“The evidence is so important [that] justice requires that it be admitted,” he added.
Olson said that even if the judge decides that the treating doctors have the right to make the decision to pull the plug, this may not happen, as the doctors would re-evaluate Golubchuk’s condition to see if the action is still warranted.
Schulman was set to render a decision on the admissibility of the affidavits of Rosenblatt and Zacharowicz, or give some direction about them, by the end of this week.
“From a halachic standpoint, what is at issue is at what point a person is considered to be a goses [a person in the final stage of dying],” said Rabbi Avraham Altein, right, Winnipeg’s senior Chabad Lubavitch rabbi.
“When a person is a goses, you are not allowed to hasten the process of dying, but you don’t have to prolong it… A person is considered a goses if they cannot possibly live for 72 hours, even by using whatever machines modern medicine has available,” he said.
“This means that if Golubchuk were a goses and he wasn’t on life support, we would not be required to put him on it. However, even when a person is a goses, if he is already on life support, then it cannot be withdrawn… In Golubchuk’s case, it can’t be said he is a goses.”
Arthur Shafer, left, director of University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, said there should be no moral difference between putting someone on life support and then taking them off as opposed to never putting them on in the first place.
“Otherwise, doctors will be a lot slower to plug people in, and some people may die who should have been plugged in.”
Shafer said that if Golubchuk “is in an irreversible vegetative state, he could potentially be like this for a very long time… If so, would the Orthodox Jewish community want to see tens or hundreds of thousands of people in Canadian hospitals kept alive for decades by ventilators and other machines? Is that how they want us to spend our scarce medical resources?”
He added that former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, “who appears to be in an irreversible vegetative state, may be getting this kind of treatment, but if every Israeli got this kind of treatment, the whole state budget would be used up. Should every Jew really be kept alive like Ariel Sharon?”