The management of the needs of patients that are in a vegetative state is, perhaps, one of the most complicated aspects of nursing, not because of the complexity of the life-sustaining processes but because of the ethical dilemma surrounding the subject. Karen Ann Quinlan’s case was one of the most graphic examples of the problem. The case is quite difficult because of the moral uncertainty involved, particularly, the need to act in the best interest of the patient and the necessity to meet the family members’ wishes (i.e., the choice between sustaining Karen’s life as her father’s demand and terminating the life support as the step that seemed morally sensible at the time).
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It could also be argued that the described scenario represented the physicians’ refusal to take the actions that will ultimately lead to the patient’s death. Indeed, the unwillingness to confront the situations involving the patients’ death is a common source of moral distress that physicians face in the context of the healthcare setting (Guido, 2014).
Since brain death is termed as legal death in the United States, the case also required dealing with certain legal issues. For instance, the legal implications of terminating the life support included murder, hence the reluctance of the hospital staff to accept the family’s wishes (Guido, 2014). The “Right to Die” regulation was produced as a result of the court case filed by the family members (Wolf, Berlinger, & Jennings, 2015).
The case of Karen Ann Quinlan might seem like a prime example of a moral gray area in the context of nursing since it implies that the needs of the patient (i.e., sustaining Karen’s life) and the requirements of her family members (i.e., terminating life support) were obviously conflicting. However, a closer look at the situation will show that Karen’s case boiled down to recognizing the patient’s right to die.
Guido, G. W. (2014). Legal and ethical issues in nursing (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Wolf, S. M., Berlinger, N., & Jennings, B. (2015). Forty Years of work on end-of-life care – From patients’ rights to systemic reform. The New England Journal of Medicine, 372(7). 678-682. Web.