A quiet end to a very public tragedy

01/26/2014 7:11 PM

01/27/2014 10:18 AM

A nationally publicized ordeal that began two months ago when Erick Muñoz found his pregnant wife on the floor of their suburban home ended quietly Sunday at John Peter Smith Hospital.

The hospital said around midday that it would not appeal a state district judge’s order that Muñoz could remove his wife, Marlise, from life support.

The 33-year-old paramedic, stricken Nov. 26 by a fatal embolism, was about to enter her 23rd week of pregnancy with what would have been the couple’s second child.

A lawyer for the family said Sunday that Marlise Muñoz was pronounced dead a short time after life support was withdrawn.

“Our client, Erick Muñoz, has authorized us to give notice that today, at approximately 11:30 a.m. … Marlise Muñoz’s body was disconnected from ‘life support’ and released to Mr. Muñoz,” said a statement from the family’s attorneys, Heather L. King and Jessica H. Janicek.

“The Muñoz and Machado families will now proceed with the somber task of laying Marlise Muñoz’s body to rest, and grieving over the great loss that has been suffered.

“May Marlise Muñoz finally rest in peace, and her family find the strength to complete what has been an unbearably long and arduous journey.”

Later Sunday afternoon, Erick Muñoz returned from the hospital to his Haltom City home to find his living room flooded by a ruptured water heater. As the sun set, he and friends were trying to clean up with mops.

“I got here and found this just a couple of hours ago,” Muñoz said. “I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.”

As he spoke on a radiant afternoon, a child’s swing hung from a tree in his front yard. The Muñozes’ first child, Mateo, is 14 months old. Erick Muñoz absently tossed a stick to family dogs in the back yard.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not giving any statements today. I’ve got to clean up.”

End-of-life wishes

Born in San Diego, Marlise Muñoz spent much of her childhood in Germany, where her father was with the Air Force. The family later moved to Norman, Okla., where Marlise Muñoz worked in emergency services before being recruited to work as a paramedic in North Texas.

She eventually met Erick Muñoz and helped him prepare for his paramedic’s exam.

“We were opposites but a perfect balance,” Erick Muñoz told the Star-Telegram in early January. Marlise “was very spontaneous, outgoing. Her smile lighted up a room. I am quiet, reserved. I just loved being around her.”

She had also made it known to her husband that she did not want to be kept on life support should anything happen to her, he said.

On Nov. 26, Erick Muñoz woke to Mateo’s cries and found his wife unconscious on the kitchen floor.

“The whole process has been a mental strain, an emotional marathon,” Erick Muñoz said in the earlier interview. “She always said, ‘If I am in a vegetative state, I want you to discontinue life support and be a good father to our son and raise him to be a good man.’

“That’s what’s driving me,” he said. “That was her wish.”

On Nov. 28, Marlise Muñoz was declared brain-dead, and her husband asked that she be removed from life support. The hospital would not, citing a 1999 Texas law that requires a pregnant woman to be kept on life support until the fetus is viable, usually at 24 to 26 weeks.

The family eventually sued the hospital in a case that made headlines around the world and inspired intense moral and ethical debate.

On Friday afternoon, after an hour of emotional and often graphic argument, state District Judge R.H. Wallace ruled that she should be removed from life support.

The judge sided with attorneys for the family who argued that the Texas law did not apply to Marlise Muñoz because she was brain-dead. Wallace gave the hospital until Monday afternoon to appeal. On Sunday, JPS said in a statement that it would not.

“The past eight weeks have been difficult for the Muñoz family, the caregivers and the entire Tarrant County community, which found itself involved in a sad situation,” said a statement released by J.R. Labbe, a spokeswoman for JPS Health Network.

The hospital “has followed what we believed were the demands of a state statute. From the onset, JPS has said its role was not to make nor contest law but to follow it,” the statement continued.

“On Friday, a state district judge ordered the removal of life-sustaining treatment from Marlise Muñoz. The hospital will follow the court order.”

Tarrant’s argument

During Friday’s hearing, a Tarrant County assistant district attorney, representing the county-owned hospital, argued that the interests of the unborn child prevailed against the wishes of the Muñoz family.

Last week, attorneys for the family said in a statement that the fetus was “distinctly abnormal,” with lower extremities deformed, and suffered from a number of other serious health conditions, including water on the brain and heart problems.

As weeks passed, the case also became a touchstone in the abortion debate. Over the weekend, when it was still unknown whether the hospital would appeal, an anti-abortion protest was organized to take place outside JPS on Sunday afternoon.

By the time 40 people gathered on Sunday, including national pro-life leader Troy Newman of Operation Rescue, the decision had been made.

Marlise Muñoz was gone. The protest became a memorial service.

“I came to see if the hospital would appeal the decision,” Natalie Wickman of Arlington said. “But once I got here I heard that they had taken her off life support. It was sad, but I still wanted to be here for the baby.”

Staff writers Max Baker and Domingo Ramirez Jr. contributed to this report.

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