Weary Father Left To Count the Days

Jason Torres of Arlington saw a sonogram Thursday. There is no way to tell if the melanoma has reached the fetus, but it appeared healthy and kicked.
Jason Torres of Arlington saw a sonogram Thursday. There is no way to tell if the melanoma has reached the fetus, but it appeared healthy and kicked. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 27, 2005

At some point last week, the people at Virginia Hospital Center gave Jason Torres a chair that reclines fully so he could more comfortably sleep by his wife's side, which was "pretty exciting," he said, mustering the best attitude he could.

This was the 46th day, which was very much like the 45th day and the 44th: Susan, his 26-year-old pregnant wife, lay in her hospital bed in Arlington, brain dead, and thus by Virginia law dead, yet attached to a ventilator, IVs, tubes and monitors in the slim hope that her body could sustain the fetus at least two more weeks before cancer reached her womb or her body just quit.

Doctors checked in -- the neurologist, the internist, the perinatologist, the neonatologist, the oncologist, the doctor for nutrition, "all sorts of doctors," said Torres, 26, of Arlington. "You know, the post-op doctor, everything."

By Friday, he said, life and death seemed in a tie: The melanoma had spread to Susan's lungs, but the fetus had grown, too, and even kicked.

In the week since Susan Torres's story became public, a relative handful of people have said it is demeaning to use her body as an incubator. Some have questioned the enormous amount of money being spent on the thinnest of hopes or cited Jason Torres's financial predicament as one more example of an inadequate health insurance system.

Others have simply helped Jason Torres with his share of the bill, which he estimates at $300,000 or more: About $175,000 has poured in so far, $15 checks from down the street, an anonymous $15,000 one, dollars from across the country, Canada, England and Australia.

Mostly, though, the case has been notable for its rarity, for its medical complexity and for its lack of ethics controversy. Seasoned doctors who discuss those matters finish by saying that the case of Susan Torres is just plain sad.

"Personally, if I were in the position of the husband, I think this is exactly what I'd want done, because your wife is not suffering, and I don't think it's demeaning," said Robert E. Harbaugh, chairman of the neurosurgery department at Penn State's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and spokesman for the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. "I don't think that's the case. I just think it's tragic."

From an ethical point of view, some of the big questions were answered three days after a cancerous tumor at the top of her spinal column, a melanoma, began bleeding and felled Susan Torres on May 7. She was about four months pregnant with their second child. Her doctors have declined to comment, but Jason Torres said they determined his wife to be brain dead, which, according to widely accepted laws in Virginia and other states, means that she is dead.

The question became whether to try to keep her body functioning with machines so the fetus could grow, an ethical scenario akin to organ donation, said Robert M. Veatch, a professor of medical ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University.

In this decision, he and others said, it is Susan Torres's desires and values, as expressed by her or as divined by her husband, that are given the most weight, in light of the fetus's chances of survival.

Jason Torres said he struggled a bit initially. A Catholic, he prayed to God and yelled at God, which he still does and figures is all right, "as long as there's a dialogue." Ultimately, he said, there was no question that his wife, who converted to Catholicism and who had refused early pregnancy tests for birth defects, would have wanted to continue despite the risks to the fetus.

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