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Family Seeks to End Nightmare of 'Living Death'

October 02, 1986|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

Family members will always remember her as "the little banty hen," a tiny, fiercely protective bundle of energy who, even in her late 60s, could match her young grandchildren blow for blow in fun and frolic.

When Grandma showed up, say her two daughters, the kids knew they were in for a treat, whether it was a junket to the beach or a trip to Knott's Berry Farm, where the Rowland Heights woman would climb aboard the parachute jump with all the girlish excitement exhibited by her 6-year-old granddaughter.

"It was always full-blast and feisty with Mother," says Florence DuBois of her mother, Avis Flott.

But all of that came to a sudden, gruesome halt in December, 1978.

Struck by Automobile

On her way to a Christmas show at a granddaughter's school, Flott was struck down by a car. She had stopped at a curbside mailbox to mail Christmas cards, according to family members.

"She was rushing across the street to make a call at a pay telephone, when she was struck by this vehicle," said Vivian McMahon, Flott's oldest daughter.

Characteristically, Flott was in a hurry because she was supposed to take pictures of her granddaughter in the show.

Flott, now 77, has been in a coma ever since, a small, limp figure in a ground-floor room at the El Monte Golden Age Convalescent Hospital. Stricken with irreversible brain damage, she is kept alive with the use of a nasogastric tube running through her nose and into her stomach, through which medical staff pump a daily diet of 1,200 calories of nutrition.

In August, Flott's daughters--asserting that their mother had expressly stated on various occasions before the accident that she "never wanted to be kept alive on machines"--filed suit to have the tube removed in an effort to terminate her life. The procedure, in effect, would starve the woman to death.

McMahon and DuBois touched off a lengthy court battle--one that still has not been resolved--which eventually may have implications for other comatose patients in the state's nursing homes.

'Will Not Have Been in Vain'

"Maybe our mother's death will not have been in vain if her case can help others in her condition," said McMahon, a soft-spoken woman who sometimes struggles for words when she talks about the case.

So far, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Warren Deering has ruled that the tube can be removed from the comatose woman, a committee of lawyers representing all parties in the case has met to hash out the procedures for having the tube removed and the family has watched the once-energetic woman vegetate for another month.

According to lawyers involved with the case, it demonstrates a troublesome lack of guidance coming from the courts in cases of patients who cannot express their own desires, particularly those who are comatose but not brain dead and are being cared for in nursing homes.

If the Flott case were to go to the state Court of Appeal, the result could be issuance of guidelines for state-licensed nursing homes in dealing with brain-impaired patients, lawyers said.

"There hasn't been a civil appellate court decision in California regarding the withdrawal of feeding of a comatose patient," said Brian Birnie, an attorney representing Flott's physician, Dr. Kurt Gunther. "The courts haven't established what standards of proof there should be to determine a patient's wishes."

An apparent agreement to resolve the meandering case hit a snag this week, delaying the resolution of the case. State law-enforcement officials object to what they see as a precedent-setting proposal for a blanket injunction against criminal prosecution in the case, and medical authorities will not proceed in removing the tube without it.

"It's a display of inertia," said a frustrated Richard Scott, attorney for Flott's family. "The medical people won't go out on a limb without some assurance of safety, but the government won't tell them the diameter or the strength of the limb."

Flott will have been in a coma for eight years on Dec. 12.

Unfavorable Prognosis

The medical prognosis is not good for Flott. The two daughters say that doctors have told them that their mother may linger on in a coma for 10 years or more, before she succumbs from the effects of lung congestion or heart failure.

According to Birnie, speaking for Dr. Gunther, Flott's recovery from the coma would be "borderline miraculous," though she is not legally "brain dead."

"The thing that's so heartbreaking about the situation is that it's never over," said McMahon the other day in the living room of her West Covina home. "It's just a living death. You can't in any sense say she's alive."

"We want to see Mother die with a little dignity," added DuBois, who is from Norwalk.

Suit Filed

The legal issues first were raised last spring, when Flott's family, which includes a son, Ralph Charles Flott, of El Cajon, decided to try to have the comatose woman's life terminated. That was shortly after the death of Flott's husband, Ralph Mark Flott, in April.

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