CANYON LAKE, Texas — A family tragedy that unfolded in a Texas hospital during the fall of 1988 was a private ordeal -- without judges, emergency sessions of Congress or the debate raging outside Terri Schiavo's Florida hospice.
The patient then was a 65-year-old drilling contractor, badly injured in a freak accident at his home. Among the family members keeping vigil at Brooke Army Medical Center was a grieving junior congressman -- Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
More than 16 years ago, far from the political passions that have defined the Schiavo controversy, the DeLay family endured its own wrenching end-of-life crisis. The man in a coma, kept alive by intravenous lines and oxygen equipment, was DeLay's father, Charles Ray DeLay.
Then, freshly reelected to a third term in the House, the 41-year-old DeLay waited, all but helpless, for the verdict of doctors.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 29, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Tom DeLay -- A photo caption accompanying an article in Sunday's Section A about House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's family experience with an end-of-life issue misidentified Bobby Schindler, Terri Schiavo's brother, as Bobby Schiavo.
Today, as House Majority Leader, DeLay has teamed with his Senate counterpart, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), to champion political intervention in the Schiavo case. They pushed emergency legislation through Congress to shift the legal case from Florida state courts to the federal judiciary.
And DeLay is among the strongest advocates of keeping the woman, who doctors say has been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years, connected to her feeding tube. DeLay has denounced Schiavo's husband, as well as judges, for committing what he calls "an act of barbarism" in removing the tube.
In 1988, however, there was no such fiery rhetoric as the congressman quietly joined the sad family consensus to let his father die.
"There was no point to even really talking about it," Maxine DeLay, the congressman's 81-year-old widowed mother, recalled in an interview last week. "There was no way [Charles] wanted to live like that. Tom knew -- we all knew -- his father wouldn't have wanted to live that way."
Doctors advised that he would "basically be a vegetable," said the congressman's aunt, JoAnne DeLay.
When his father's kidneys failed, the DeLay family decided against connecting him to a dialysis machine. "Extraordinary measures to prolong life were not initiated," said his medical report, citing "agreement with the family's wishes." His bedside chart carried the instruction: "Do not resuscitate."
On Dec. 14, 1988, the DeLay patriarch "expired with his family in attendance."
"The situation faced by the congressman's family was entirely different than Terri Schiavo's," said a spokesman for the majority leader, who declined requests for an interview.
"The only thing keeping her alive is the food and water we all need to survive. His father was on a ventilator and other machines to sustain him," said Dan Allen, DeLay's press aide.
There were also these similarities: Both stricken patients were severely brain-damaged. Both were incapable of surviving without medical assistance. Both were said to have expressed a desire to be spared from being kept alive by artificial means. And neither of them had a living will.
This previously unpublished account of the majority leader's personal brush with life-ending decisions was assembled from court files, medical records and interviews with family members.
It was a pleasant late afternoon in the Hill Country of Texas on Nov. 17, 1988.
At Charles and Maxine DeLay's home, set on a limestone bluff of cedars and live oaks, it also was a moment of triumph. Charles and his brother, Jerry DeLay, two avid tinkerers, had just finished work on a new backyard tram -- an elevator-like device that would carry family and friends down a 200-foot slope to the blue-green waters of Canyon Lake.
The two men called for their wives to hop aboard. Charles pushed the button and the maiden run began. Within seconds, a horrific screeching noise echoed across the still lake -- "a sickening sound," said a neighbor. The tram was in trouble.
Maxine, seated up front in the four-passenger trolley, said her husband repeatedly tried to engage the emergency brake, but the rail car kept picking up speed. Halfway down the bank, it was free-wheeling, according to accident investigators.
Moments later, it jumped the track and slammed into a tree, scattering passengers and debris in all directions.
"It was awful, just awful," recalled Karl Braddick, now 86, the DeLays' neighbor at the time. "I came running over, and it was a terrible sight."
He called for emergency help. Rescue workers had trouble bringing the injured victims up the steep terrain. Jerry's wife, JoAnne, suffered broken bones and a shattered elbow. Charles, who had been thrown head-first into a tree, was in grave condition.
"He was all but gone," said Braddick, gesturing at the spot of the accident as he offered a visitor a ride down to the lake in his own tram. "He would have been better off if he'd died right there and then."
But Charles DeLay hung on. In the ambulance on his way to a hospital in New Braunfels 15 miles away, he tried to speak.