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A disturbing spectacle just played itself out in Florida, providing a cautionary tale for all Americans with living wills. Orlando Regional Healthcare officials took Alice Pinette, the elderly wife of Hanford Pinette, 73, to court over the right to pull the plug on Pinette, a patient in an Orlando hospital whose lungs and kidneys were kept going with machines. But in a twist on the typical battle over plug-pulling, it was the wife who wanted him kept alive and the hospital who felt he had lived quite enough, thank you. Pinette had signed a living will in 1998, which stated that he did not wish “that my dying be artificially prolonged” if he had an “incurable illness.” The hospital maintained that Pinette’s wishes were not being carried out because his wife insisted on keeping him on life support, loving him and caring for him-as sick as he was. These days, the term incurable illness covers a lot of ground. The hospital argued that he would never get better because he would not be able to live without the respirator-a rather circular argument, since many people with chronic debilitating diseases live for long periods of time using them. (Christopher Reeve comes to mind.) Alice, Pinette’s wife of 53 years, argued that he was alert and responded to her; the doctors saw an unresponsive patient heading downhill. Alice maintained that he communicated with her by mouthing words and kicking the stumps where his amputated legs had been; she understood him in the way of those who have been together a lifetime. According to the Pinette family lawyer, when Pinette signed the living will, he thought it would apply only if he were in a vegetative state, something “like the Karen Quindlan case”-a deep coma. And Pinette’s living will expressed more that just an ambiguous wish about a terminal condition and the prolongation of dying: it also stated unequivocally that in the event he became unable to communicate, Alice Pinette-the woman with whom he’d shared his life-was to become his proxy for all health care decisions. The hospital prevailed and shut off Pinette’s respirator on Dec. 8; he died immediately. By his side was his wife, who had tried to save his life and failed. The court in Florida has set a dangerous precedent by putting doctors and hospital administrators-i.e., strangers-on an equal footing with those who share a marital bond in making agonizing life or death health care decisions for a gravely ill spouse, forcing a spouse to defend in court the reason his or her loved one should live. Surely Pinette did not contemplate such a gross intrusion into his marital privacy when his signed his living will and named his beloved Alice as his proxy. That is a nightmare no American should have to imagine. Perhaps it is time for the drafters of living wills to go back to the drawing board and fine-tune these instruments, lest we all find ourselves in court battling hospital administrators to keep our spouses alive.

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