The Battle Outlives Hugh Finn
Medical Examiner Tries to Take Body
By Brooke A. Masters
Finn, 44, who became the center of a public debate over when to remove life support from people with severe brain damage, died at 10:10 a.m. of cardiopulmonary failure at a Manassas nursing home.
The decision by his wife, Michele, to remove his feeding tube set off a family battle that escalated into a public war as Finn's parents and brothers tried to stop her in court. Last week, Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) took the extraordinary step of intervening personally and was rebuffed by the Virginia Supreme Court.
Yesterday, it was the Prince William County health director, Jared I. Florence, who stepped in. After Annaburg Manor nursing home turned Finn's body over to an Alexandria company for shipping out of state, Florence -- a state employee -- ordered the body taken to a Manassas funeral home for examination.
Florence also sent a van to Annaburg Manor to seize Finn's medical records. The nursing home alerted lawyers for Michele Finn, who then frantically searched funeral homes for the body and filed an emergency motion to prevent an autopsy. Prince William Circuit Court Judge Frank A. Hoss Jr. ordered the body returned and denied Florence access to the medical records, saying further medical investigation is unnecessary.
Florence's move was "one more outrageous intrusion into this family's tragedy," said Garey Eakes, one of Michele Finn's attorneys. "They had no authority to conduct an investigation."
Florence declined to comment, but state officials said he acted on his own initiative. They said such a move was appropriate because coroners can investigate accidents and Florence believed the underlying cause of death was Finn's 1995 car accident. "This is simply a medical examiner trying to do his duty under the Code of Virginia, no more, no less," said Martin Brown, assistant secretary of health and human resources.
Mark A. Miner, a spokesman for Gilmore, said the governor had no role in seizing Finn's body. "We don't have a reason to do this, nor do we have the jurisdiction to do this," he said.
Michele Finn's attorneys said Finn's body was back in Alexandria last night being prepared for shipment to Louisville, where he lived with his wife and two children.
His death came 3 1/2 years after he was injured in an automobile accident and four months after Michele Finn decided she wanted to have his nutrition and fluids stopped.
In the suit brought against Michele Finn by other family members, Hoss ruled that there was "clear and convincing evidence" that her husband was in a persistent vegetative state, supporting the removal of his feeding tube under a 1992 Virginia law. The Virginia Supreme Court also supported her position, rejecting Gilmore's contention that withholding nutrition and fluids constituted illegal euthanasia.
Yesterday, Gregory L. Murphy, another of Michele Finn's attorneys, issued a statement on her behalf: "Hugh Finn . . . was a loving father to his two daughters Keeley and Bridget and was a cherished son and brother. He was also deeply devoted to Michele Finn, his wife and best friend. He will be genuinely missed."
Hugh Finn's death also ended a sad vigil for his parents and siblings. "We're pretty somber. We knew he was going to die," said the youngest brother, John, 33. "We're a pretty religious family and we know he's up there driving them nuts in heaven."
The case crystalized the difficult decisions faced by families of patients in a persistent vegetative state, a condition that superficially can resemble awareness but offers almost no chance of recovery.
In Finn's case, his father said his son could communicate, and a state health department nurse said Finn had said, "Hi." However, a state neurologist later confirmed the diagnosis.
A 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision allows families to withhold treatment from such patients but said states could require strong evidence of the patients' wishes. Finn had not left written instructions, but Hoss ruled that he had made his wishes known to his wife and his lawyer.
Finn's connection to Virginia was relatively recent. He spent his childhood in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he and one of his five brothers, Joseph, now 39, spent hours rigging up their own neighborhood radio station, using equipment from their father's music store.
Later, Finn worked with his father setting up and running the family business's mobile sound system at rock concerts, ethnic festivals and other events. "I could get up and walk away and never even have to tell him anything," said Thomas Finn, 72.
A gifted pianist, Hugh Finn attended Mansfield State College on a music scholarship but also worked at the campus radio station and at commercial stations.
"He was always very able to assess a situation and break things down to their atomic level," said Stephen Martino, who met Finn at the college radio station and was the best man in his wedding. "That's probably why he was so good in news. He knew what was important."
Finn met his future wife at a 1977 Junior Achievement conference. They married in 1981 and moved to Louisville, where he took a job as the backup weatherman at WAVE, the NBC affiliate.
Gregarious and energetic, Finn became a news anchor and morning show host and taught part time at the University of Louisville. He raised money for a variety of causes.
"He and Michele had without a doubt one of the best marriages I have ever seen," said his sister Karen Finn, 41, who, along with Finn's other sister, supported Michele throughout the public battle.
Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Craig Timberg in Richmond and Leef Smith and Josh White in Manassas contributed to this report.
HUGH FINN'S LIFE AND DEATH
EARLY LIFE AND CAREER
May 20, 1954: Hugh Finn born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to Thomas and Joan Finn, third of eight brothers and sisters.
1972: Enters Mansfield State College in Pennsylvania to major in music.
1970s: Works at radio and television stations in Pennsylvania. Meets 18-year-old Michele Glazier at a convention.
1981: Marries Michele. Is hired by WAVE-TV in Louisville as weatherman. Promoted to news anchor within a year.
1986: After attending college part time, receives a college degree from Wilkes University.
1993: Kentucky Supreme Court rules in favor of a woman who wants to remove the feeding tube of her daughter, who is in a persistent vegetative state. Finn tells his wife and his lawyer he would not want to live that way.
July 1994: Finn is fired by WAVE in shakeup.
January 1995: Finn starts Internet sports news service.
THE ACCIDENT AND AFTERMATH
March 9, 1995: As Finn drives daughters Bridget and Keeley to a bus stop, another car collides with their Ford Ranger. Daughters suffer broken bones, Finn serious brain damage.
October 1995: Finn is transferred to Moss Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia.
February 1996: Finn is transferred to Annaburg Manor nursing home in Manassas to be near parents and siblings.
January 1998: Michele Finn, as head of advocacy and injury prevention for the Brain Injury Association of Kentucky, testifies to state Senate committee on bill to provide long-term rehabilitation costs of brain-injury victims. Bill will take effect in July 1999.
June: Michele Finn advises family she plans to remove feeding tube.
July 16: Finn's brother John files lawsuit seeking to replace Michele Finn as guardian of her husband.
August: Michele Finn's sister calls Virginia Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), asking him to intervene. Through Marshall's efforts, state begins investigation of the case.
Aug. 31: Prince William Circuit Court Judge Frank Hoss Jr. issues order upholding Michele Finn's right to remove feeding tube. Three doctors had testified Finn is in persistent vegetative state. No doctor disputes that diagnosis.
Sept. 21: Hoss delays removal of the feeding tube after a Virginia health department nurse reports Finn said "hi" to her when she visited him.
Sept. 28: Family decides not to request state intervention.
Oct. 1: Doctors at Manassas nursing home remove Finn's feeding tube after Hoss rejects a motion by Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III to stop the withdrawal.
Oct. 2: Virginia Supreme Court rejects the governor's appeal.
Yesterday: Finn dies at
SOURCES: Associated Press, staff reports
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company