A life-and-death battle is raging in Frederick County Circuit Court among family members of a man who is being kept alive by a feeding tube after suffering brain damage from a heart attack and seizures in July.
Daniel Sanger, 55, is a patient at Frederick Memorial Hospital. His wife, Leta Sanger, consulted with his doctors, and decided to take him off the feeding tube on Oct. 16, according to court documents.
But Daniel Sanger’s mother and brother obtained a temporary court order on Oct. 20 for doctors to reinsert the tube, pending a guardianship hearing on Wednesday before Judge Theresa Adams.
In the past week, attorneys for both sides have been filing motions to hinder the opposition.
Attorney Daniel Cox, representing Daniel’s mother Phyllis Sanger and his brother Mark Sanger, alleges that Daniel Sanger told his family and doctors that he wanted to live, and that his wife, Leta, suffers from dementia and should not make decisions regarding her husband’s medical care, according to court documents.
Daniel Sanger’s doctors, Shahid Rafiq and Praveen Bolarum, said in affidavits that they never heard Daniel Sanger say he wanted to live, and that Leta Sanger had not displayed any signs of being incapable of making decisions regarding her husband’s medical care.
Rafiq, a neurologist, stated that Sanger has been unable to communicate since he became involved in Sanger’s care in September.
“Contrary to the allegations … Daniel Sanger never told me that he wanted to live,” Rafiq wrote. He also stated in his affidavit that he has had several conversations with Leta Sanger.
“During our conversations, she was coherent and able to discuss all issues related to the care of her husband. Based upon my interaction with Leta Sanger, I do not believe she suffers from dementia and/or a mental illness,” Rafiq wrote.
Bolarum, a family practice physician, echoed Rafiq’s assessment of Leta Sanger’s ability to make decisions about her husband’s care. He also stated that Daniel Sanger has a brain injury from which he would not recover, that he is unable to speak or feed himself, and that he is having difficulty with the tube feedings. The nature of those difficulties is unclear from the court documents.
In an attempt to prove Leta Sanger suffers from a condition that impairs her ability to make medical decisions for her husband, Cox tried to access her records from the Motor Vehicles Administration that he alleges deny her access to a driver’s license because of an impairment. That access was denied by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.
Attorney Natalie McSherry, representing Frederick Memorial Hospital, stated in court documents that Daniel’s mother and brother, the plaintiffs, have only disputed Leta Sanger’s condition because of “an apparent disagreement with her decisions.”
“Indeed, Plaintiffs continue to attempt to invoke the court’s power based solely on affidavits from lay persons concerning issues requiring medical expertise regarding competence to make decisions on the one hand and the condition of a patient for whom the plaintiffs have not access to detailed information,” stated court documents.
But the plaintiffs, according to court documents, said Sanger displayed marked improvement in recovering from his heart attack while he was in a nursing home between Sept. 26 and Oct. 7. “The recovery was going well and Mr. Daniel Sanger was working with a therapist,” according to court documents filed by Cox. “Therefore, the medical condition of Mr. Daniel Sanger is placed in controversy.”
Attorney Alan Winik, representing Leta Sanger, alleged in court documents that Cox had harassed hospital staff and taken pictures of Daniel Sanger without permission. Winik subpoenaed Cox to testify at the Wednesday guardianship hearing, and requested that he turn over the photos taken at the hospital, while Cox asked that the subpoena be quashed on a technicality on Thursday.
Cox did not answer several calls for comment, though his office issued a press release on the matter on Oct. 20. Winik also declined to comment on the case. Leta Sanger did not return calls for comment.
Phyllis and Mark Sanger had contacted the Terri Schiavo Foundation for help, according to Bobby Schindler, Schiavo’s brother and founder of the organization that acts as a resource for families facing life and death decisions.
His sister Terri was at the center of a dispute over removing her feeding tube after she had been hospitalized for eight years. After several court hearings and a plea from former President George W. Bush to save her life, Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed in March 2005. She died two weeks later. An autopsy revealed significant brain damage.
Schindler said a major misconception about feeding tubes is that they are a form of life support for terminal patients, when they are not. Starvation and dehydration is a painful death, he said.
“Terri took two weeks [to die]. Any doctor that tries to convince us that this is a peaceful way to die is not telling the truth,” Schindler said. “People suffer horrible and there is a tremendous amount of pain.”
His heart, he said, goes out to the Sangers. “Why aren’t they giving this guy a chance to recover?” he said.