Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Care Of Stricken Mother Deepens Family’s Faith

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published October 26, 2006

October is Respect Life Month in which Catholics are called to reflect on the innate dignity and inestimable worth of every human life as God’s creation, from the unborn to the most severely disabled or infirm person.

It’s been over a decade since Arturo Vigil’s wife Emilia was left in a coma after her car was struck broadside by a truck, nearly three years since she died in December 2003 and the family laid her to rest.

Throughout that time, Arturo showed deep respect for his wife as he profoundly honored his wedding vows to love and cherish her in sickness and in health until her natural death.

After the accident on April 28, 1995, they didn’t think Emilia would survive. She was rushed to the hospital with severe brain damage and bruising of her entire body.

For a few weeks she received critical care and breathed through a respirator but then improved to where she no longer needed life support. She was treated at different hospitals and received physical therapy, until doctors felt there was nothing more to be done for the then 63-year-old woman. She was placed for a few days in a nursing home, but Arturo felt that she wouldn’t receive proper care there to survive. After six weeks the family of nine children and their spouses and grandchildren brought her home for what would become eight years of loving care.

Arturo, a slim, 78-year-old man of Mexican descent, wore relaxed fit blue jeans and a plaid cotton shirt on a cloudy mild day in 2005 as he walked into the living room of his ranch home and gazed out the large window framing the yard and sylvan neighborhood tucked down a hill off Chamblee Tucker Road. He reflected on the time in which his wife of almost 50 years lay on a bed in living room space converted to her bedroom, nourished through a feeding tube, surrounded by medical supplies and receiving 24-hour nursing care.

She couldn’t speak or express herself, but Emilia responded to people and sounds and grimaced when she felt pain. She would become uncomfortable with the occasional new nurse. Her lungs and body were healthy; her heart was strong. Arturo recited the rosary nightly at her bedside, and the non-Catholic nurses would often join him. On a couple of occasions for their anniversary he invited a priest from their parish, Holy Cross Church, to their home where he renewed his wedding vows before their family.

“She couldn’t speak at all. I’d renew my vows by her bedside, and we all prayed and shed a few tears. That’s the whole idea of the holiness of marriage, of the vows that we take till death do us part, for better or for worse.”

By her bedside the family gathered and sang for her birthday parties, a daughter-in-law playing the piano and a grandson the guitar. Emilia reacted with “a huge smile.” By her bedside they played tapes of her nieces singing, and she cried. It was there that Arturo loved his wife and contemplated the mystery of suffering, of marriage, of death, of faith and of life.

“It’s a mystery that God doesn’t always open up to us to know what’s inside a person. When you’re in a situation like this, we don’t know for certain what the level of awareness is, what she’s experiencing, what’s going on in there,” Arturo reflected. “It’s like she was trapped in there. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t express herself, but she had awareness. She could smile at you. You could tell she was happy when they washed her hair and cleaned her up. So there’s a person there, not in the traditional way like you and me. It never occurred to me that I would want to end her life because it was very ordinary care.”

The family did authorize a do-not-resuscitate order if Emilia were to have a heart attack, feeling that would mean God was calling her home. For stimulation they had her sit in a geriatric chair to watch television a couple of times a day.

“I think she did have some improvement, but it was very, very slowly,” Arturo said.

The death of Terri Schindler Schiavo on March 31, 2005, nearly two weeks after doctors, acting on a court order, removed her life-sustaining nutrition and hydration according to her husband’s instruction, drew national attention to end-of-life issues and incited debate over the so-called right to die and euthanasia movements for the severely ill and disabled, and over the Catholic teaching that every human life, however weak and incapacitated, has equal value and dignity as God’s creation. Schiavo had been incapacitated since 1990 when she suffered heart failure that caused severe brain damage.

In a 2005 statement on Schiavo’s care, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore spoke of how Pope John Paul II had affirmed in a 2004 speech that those deemed in a “vegetative state” “retain their human dignity in all its fullness” and are human beings in need of love and care. The Holy Father affirmed that these patients have the right to basic health care, such as nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth. He also stated that providing water and food “is morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment of the patient and alleviation of his suffering.” Cardinal Keeler explained that there are times when even such basic means may cease to be morally obligatory because they have become useless or unduly burdensome for the patient, but to deliberately remove them in order to hasten a patient’s death would be a form of euthanasia, which is gravely wrong.

The Vigil family was disheartened by the sad ending to the Schiavo case and that of others in similar predicaments.

“If she had any response at all—and apparently people say she did—I don’t see how people could say let’s take the feeding tube off and let her go. The sad thing is that they did not let her parents be with her when she died,” Arturo said.

His daughter Teresa, who lives with him and assisted with her mother’s care, believes that those who devalue the lives of the severely disabled are, however unconsciously, participating in the culture of death. There is much to be learned in the writings and the example of Pope John Paul II, she said, who spoke so often of the precious value of life and then lived with debilitating illness until his own death.

“You always err on the side of life and of respecting the individual. We always tried to make sure (Emilia) was well taken care of, just like Terri’s parents wanted to do for her,” Teresa continued. “She (Emilia) was completely alive, her body was functioning, and all she needed was nutrition and care, normal care, that was generally non-medical.”

The Vigils’ story reflects the redemptive love that can be found even in tragedies. But Arturo also confronted another end-of-life decision with his mother just two weeks after Emilia’s accident that reflects how some cases involving end-of-life issues are more complex, less black and white.

Arturo had been caring at his home for his 99-year-old mother who had broken her hip and was bedridden, bringing food to her daily and helping to bathe her. But while he was at the hospital with Emilia, his mother developed pneumonia. Shortly after checking into a hospital she dislocated her leg. He and her doctor decided surgery was not worth the risk. She reached the point where she couldn’t or wouldn’t eat anymore, and after speaking with several members of the church and “agonizing over this for several days I finally decided I did not want to put a feeding tube on her. She was hardly there at all. … What kind of life was she going to have?” Arturo recalled.

His mother passed away a few weeks later in a hospice. “The church stance is what’s ordinary (means of care) versus what’s extraordinary (means of care). Each situation has to be evaluated on its own merits. I felt that it would have been an agony or worse, and she probably couldn’t have survived anyway because of what they did to her in the hospital … dislocating her leg. Her body was falling apart and I didn’t think it was right, and she was almost 100.”

Arturo, a Christian initiation program instructor at his parish, felt at peace with the decision.

“Ordinary versus extraordinary means, it’s sometimes not a very clear line. In our lifetime I have seen so many changes in our medical profession that things are possible now that may not have been so 100 years ago, so some things could change in terms of what’s ordinary and what’s extraordinary. But I think in all these things we need to turn to the Lord in prayer and try to discern what his will is. He’s the author of life. That’s what we want, what God wants.”

Emilia was a woman of deep faith. The Vigils for about 15 years were lay missionaries in Mexico working in cooperative and credit union ministries, making known the social doctrine of the church on justice for workers, before returning to the United States in 1967 and moving to Atlanta in 1969. She was a fun-loving person who would light up the room and enjoyed music, meeting new people and being with family, especially playing with grandchildren, and serving the poor through the parish St. Vincent de Paul Society. Arturo worked many years as a certified financial planner until he retired to care for his wife.

Arturo and Teresa, who sat across from him at the kitchen table, appeared at peace, speaking gently about Emilia and of their belief in the redemptive value of her suffering for a world filled with pain and sin. Arturo recalled how before the accident one morning he and Emilia were making their bed and she commented, “If the Lord chooses me to suffer, I hope I won’t be the complaining sort.”

“Mother Teresa of Calcutta said suffering is a gift because Jesus taught us how to suffer and He said I have suffered. I’m the master and we’re going to suffer too. … I used to tell Emilia at times that the Lord had called her to a special vocation to suffer for others, and I used to mention to her to offer her suffering up for all our family and the whole world that needs so much grace,” he said. “Having that kind of belief brought a lot of peace to my soul, knowing it was ordained by God, (that) if the Lord wanted her to suffer it wasn’t bad. We try to ease each other’s pain and suffering like we did with her, but sometimes you can’t get rid of all of it, especially with the unknown pain of being trapped in her body and not able to communicate. That must be horrendous suffering to have.”

Teresa added how one of Emilia’s brothers had fallen away from the faith and her mother months before her accident had urged him “to get right with the Lord. … She basically said ‘for the salvation of your soul I would give up my life, I would do that for you.’ He experienced I believe a sort of conversion after her accident and it had meaning.”

Arturo expressed their concern that there is a growing acceptance in this country of mercy killing and euthanasia.

“I don’t think we have the right to arbitrarily end some person’s life, but this is happening in some countries and even here in Oregon where they allow assisted suicide. You don’t even know oftentimes if it’s suicide, or if it’s (not) willed by the person. Sometimes they could get rid of people who don’t really want to go yet. Unfortunately, that’s a slippery slope we’re facing in this country.”

The father and daughter noted that there’s so much doctors don’t yet know about the brain and recounted news stories of people coming out of comas to unexpected degrees and after long periods of time. Yet Arturo found that there can be a rush to end the life of someone severely injured. He recalled how shortly after Emilia’s accident before the extent of her brain damage was clear, one on-call neurologist checking on his wife for the first time called him at 5 a.m. to declare she was “brain dead” and to ask if he wanted her life support to be removed.

“I was appalled that he would say something like that because everybody else told us we should have hope, that she could very well come out of the coma. A lot of people had said that,” Arturo said. “That just expressed an attitude that some people have about that, a callousness altogether.”

The family prayerfully cared for Emilia and watched over her nurses for eight years until in August 2003 their insurance company left the state and the family learned that that by state law the company was no longer obligated to continue coverage for the round-the-clock care. The family began paying for the care, about $1,000 a day, and Teresa began preparation to become a nurse’s aide. Arturo acknowledged that “for people who don’t have the money it makes it extremely difficult for the families.”

As they faced that challenge, Emilia developed pneumonia and died in December 2003 with Arturo and other family members at her side in the hospital.

Both father and daughter acknowledged that the greatest sense of loss and grief occurred after the accident in 1995 and that there was the lifting of the emotional burden when Emilia died.

“It doesn’t diminish at all the love we had for her and that we miss her,” Teresa recalled. But seeing an end to her suffering condition “certainly was a relief—but she died naturally.”

God “is the only one that really has the authority to give life and take it away,” Arturo said. “We’re supposed to be custodians of that life. That’s the way I view it, and I think that’s the way it should be because we’re not God. God is God and He does oftentimes give people a long life and for others He takes it early. I don’t know if I’m going to be here tomorrow and neither do you because everything is in His hands, and that’s the way we should live our lives and not try to control things.”