Sunday, March 6, 2011

For Rwandan Grandmother American Health Care System Means Death

A court-appointed guardian has removed feeding tubes from a 58-year-old comatose grandmother in a Maryland nursing home who has no health insurance and whose children cannot afford to pay for hospice care.

In the wake of the controversy over “death panels”, the case of Rachel Nyirahabiyambere, a Rwandan immigrant, could be even more politically explosive than the death of brain-damaged Florida woman Terri Schiavo.

Ms Nyirahabiyambere, her husband and her six children fled from Rwanda in 1994 to the Congo. The family was scattered and her husband died, but two sons, Jerome and Gratien Ndagijimana, were allowed to enter the United States as refugees. They worked hard and sponsored their mother as a legal permanent resident in 2008. She found a job with health insurance in Buffalo. But when her eldest son moved to Virginia, she quit her job and followed him to help care for his children. She also lost her health care benefits. She was also ineligible for Medicaid because she has not lived in the US for five years.

Then, in April last year, she had a stroke which left her in a permanent vegetative state. She was being cared for at Georgetown University Medical Center, a Catholic hospital, in Washington DC. After seven weeks, the hospital tried to discharge her, as caring for her was very expensive. According to the New York Times, the hospital told her sons that they had three options: to find a nursing home, take her into their own homes or send her back to Rwanda. The sons said that they could not afford any of these.

Tension grew. In December, at the request of the hospital, a Virginia court appointed a guardian, Andrea J. Sloan. Ms Sloan acted quickly. Ms Nyirahabiyambere was transferred to a Maryland nursing home and in mid-February, despite anguished protests from her sons, her feeding tubes were removed so that she would starve to death. As of Thursday (March 3), she was still alive.

The Times cites emails from Ms Sloan:

“Hospitals cannot afford to allow families the time to work through their grieving process by allowing the relatives to remain hospitalized until the family reaches the acceptance stage, if that ever happens… Generically speaking, what gives any one family or person the right to control so many scarce health care resources in a situation where the prognosis is poor, and to the detriment of others who may actually benefit from them?”

Ms Nyirahabiyambere left no “living will” but it seems clear that she would have preferred to remain hooked up to her feeding tubes. However, Ms Sloan ignored her preference. According to the Times, she told her sons that she would disconnect their mother unless they could demonstrate that she wished to live out her life “with a feeding tube, in diapers, with no communication with anyone and in a nursing home.”

Her sons are distressed. “In our culture, we would never sentence a person to die from hunger,” says Jerome Ndayishimiye. ~ New York Times, March 3

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