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Ronald Cranford, 65; Ethicist Testified in Terri Schiavo Case

June 03, 2006|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Dr. Ronald Cranford, a neurologist and medical ethicist whose positions in thorny right-to-die cases drew both praise and vilification, has died. He was 65.

Cranford died Wednesday at a hospice in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina after a 30-month battle with kidney cancer.

A longtime professor at the University of Minnesota and a neurologist at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Cranford had been involved in right-to-die cases since the early 1970s, but he was perhaps best known as an expert witness in the highly charged case of Terri Schiavo.

Schiavo suffered a heart attack in 1990 and her breathing stopped for several minutes, resulting in brain damage. In 1998, her husband, Michael Schiavo, petitioned a state court to allow the removal of her feeding tube. A seven-year legal battle ensued between her husband and her parents. The U.S. Supreme Court refused six times to intervene.

Cranford was one of several doctors who examined Schiavo in 2002 and found her to be in an irreversible vegetative state. He testified in support of his diagnosis throughout legal action brought by her husband.

The plastic feeding tube through which she had received food and water for 15 years was finally removed by a Florida judge's order on March 18, 2005. She died 13 days later. An autopsy found that although she died of dehydration, she was massively and irreversibly brain-damaged, blind and oblivious to what surrounded her at the time of her death. The autopsy found that any improvement in her condition would have been medically impossible.

Throughout March 2005, Cranford seemed to be acting as a surrogate for Michael Schiavo and was a frequent guest on television talk shows to defend his diagnosis. Cranford received death threats.

"They call me Doctor Death. I would prefer Doctor Humane Death, Doctor Caring Death," Cranford said.

Born in Peoria, Ill., Cranford earned both his bachelor's degree and his medical degree at the University of Illinois. He served as a doctor in the Air Force after graduation and was stationed as a flight surgeon in Vietnam. It was there that he began to form opinions on death and dying.

After his military service, Cranford joined the Hennepin County Medical Center and became involved in a panel studying end-of-life issues. Over the next few years, the ethics panel considered the pleas of several patients with irreversible life-threatening conditions who wanted to die.

In some cases it facilitated treatment to fulfill the requests. At other times it didn't.

Over the years, Cranford helped families cope with often agonizing end-of-life decisions.

"The families are really the ones that are agonizing over these decisions," he once told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "I realized that I could help them more than I could help the patients."

He also became a recognized expert on the proposition of brain death and the issue of life in a persistent vegetative state. He wrote more than 90 papers on the subjects and appeared at international conferences on the issue.

After his cancer was diagnosed, Cranford underwent surgery but avoided chemotherapy. He spent much of the rest of his days lecturing, teaching and trying to inform the public on end-of-life issues.

"Schiavo was king of the culmination of my career," he said in a profile in the journal Medical Ethics Advisor.

"There are enormous changes in the area of medical futility and hundreds of families out there who can't accept the reality of medical futility," he said.

"There's nothing wrong with that, because the idea of futility runs against the grain with patients and families. So it's a good thing to work on."

Cranford is survived by his wife, Candy Cranford, of Bloomington, Minn.; his daughters Kristin of Long Beach and Robyn Moder of Beverly Hills; a son, Craig Losure of Glencoe, Minn.; and a brother, Tom Cranford of Peoria.

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