A homeless woman lost an attempt in D.C. Superior Court yesterday to stop doctors from amputating her gangrenous feet. Her court-appointed guardian said he expected the operation to take place soon at D.C. General Hospital.
The ruling by Judge Cheryl Long was one of the first to be made under a 16-month-old District law governing the appointment of guardians to make medical decisions for people deemed incompetent. Doctors said the homeless woman would die without the operation.
The ruling ended a weeklong drama for 47-year-old Alice Anderson, a self-described street person for the past five years who now is a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital. Anderson said she believes she was chosen by God to do His work, and that the gangrene was an indication that God thought her work was done. She said she would rather die than have her feet removed.
A week ago, Long ruled that Anderson was incompetent to make medical decisions for herself, and appointed a guardian. Anderson's court-appointed attorney took the case to the D.C. Court of Appeals and introduced new psychiatric testimony that Anderson was competent, and the appeals court sent the case back to Long on Thursday.
In Long's chambers yesterday, Anderson's attorney, Darrel Parker, faced off with her guardian, Patrick J. O'Brien, over the impact surgery would have on Anderson.
"What will happen when she awakens and realizes she has lost her feet?" Parker asked.
"Without the surgery, she won't wake up," O'Brien said. "The woman is rotting away. At some point we have to make a decision."
Doctors from St. Elizabeths had testified earlier that Anderson probably would die soon if the gangrene was allowed to spread beyond her feet. There is no treatment for gangrene, tissue decay caused by a loss of blood supply, other than amputation. In court papers, the doctors said the operation should take place by Feb. 12.
Yesterday, Parker's request for a 48-hour stay to allow him more time to search for Anderson's family was denied by Long, who cited the emergency nature of the case. Parker said he hoped family members might support Anderson's decision not to have the operation.
Howard University Hospital psychiatrist Alyce Gullattee told Long yesterday that Anderson is bright and articulate, and is competent to make her own medical decisions. Gullattee interviewed Anderson the day after Long had ruled on Anderson's competency.
Gullattee said Anderson told her, "God is my doctor, lawyer and psychiatrist."
Long said later that testimony, rather than convincing her to follow Gullattee's recommendations, more firmly convinced her that Anderson needed the intervention of the court.
Long said the District law, which went into effect in October 1989, is vague about the criteria that a guardian is to use in making medical decisions. She suggested that the D.C Council add an amendment to clarify the law.