The District of Columbia has gone to court seeking a ruling that would declare a comatose, 9-year-old Washington boy deceased and authorize doctors at D.C. General Hospital to discontinue the life support systems that have been keeping him alive since May.
The court action, the first of its kind in Washington, came after the youth's parents, Ronald and Beverly Camp, refused to authorize discontinuing treatment even though medical experts declared of Yusef Camp: "This child is not only dead but actively decomposing."
Ronald Camp, a 28-year-old father of four who works days as an exterminator and nights in a carry-out shop in Northeast, charged that doctors "are trying to kill my son" because of a negligence suit he filed that alleges that hospital doctors are responsible for Yusef's condition and asks for $35 million in damages.
Ed Marshall, director of patient care services at D.C. General, said that "everything that could be offered [Yusef] Camp in the way of medical expertise has been offered but without desired results. The patient's father was advised of this . . . but Mr. Camp did not fully accept [this] conclusion at that time. Therefore the hospital requested guidance from the corporation counsel's office who in turn requested a court decision.
D.C. Deputy Corporation Counsel John H. Suda said yesterday that the petition is designed to fill a void in current D. C. statutes concerning what constitutes death.
Unlike about half the nation's states, which recognize brain death -- the absence of any activity in the brain -- as a criterion for death, Suda said, "the District is behind science at this point in time . . . I don't think anyone should pull a plug until this matter is resolved. We must have a decision on the legal definition of death in this jurisdiction."
Medical and legal experts around the nation say that with ever-increasing scientific advancements, doctors have been able to support life almost indefinitely even though an individual's brain or vital organs have stopped functioning. The purpose of brain death statutes, they say, is to eliminate any possibility of criminal charges for murder against doctors who diagnose brain death and then turn off life-support systems.
"Technically," said George J. Annas, a professor of law and medicine at Boston University and a noted expert on biomedical ethics, "brain death is a medical and not a legal decision. Every state that has been asked to has declared brain death a reasonable criterion for death . . . As callous as it sounds, the parent's objections are really irrelevant. If the child's dead that's a fact. It is not the parents' decision as to whether he is dead or not."
For Ronald Camp a devout Moslem, the issue is not so much one of science as it is one of faith. "I could walk up and and say unplug him; but for the rest of my life I would be thinking; was I too hasty? Could he have recovered if I gave it another six months or a year? I'm leaving it in Almighty God's hands, to let it take whatever flow it will."
Yusef, who would have entered the fifth grade at Benning Elementary School this fall, lies on a waterbed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Ward at D.C. General. A respirator forces him to breath, the drug Dopamine maintains his blood pressure. An electric Blanket keeps his body at 97 degrees.
Doctors said they have found maggots in Yusef's lungs and nasal passages ["maggots grow in dead tissue," a court-ordered neurologist wrote in his report], and his right foot and ankle are gangrenous. Yusef shows no response to noises, manipulation or painful stimuli and no spontaneous movement.His pupils are dilated and fixed under the cotton bandages that cover his vacant stare.
Yusef's aunt, Diane Camp, said the boy's formerly light complexion has darkened to a reddish-brown and his hair has also turned reddish. "There's a kind of decaying smell about him," she said.
Doctors said that when they disconnected Yusef's respirator once in a test, no spontaneous respiratory movements were seen after three minutes. They said 10 brain scans have shown the boy no longer has any activity in his brain. "Efforts undertaken and means employed to preserve and maintain the life of Mr. Camp have been unsuccesful and it fulfils no humanitarian or useful function to continue treatment," hospital officials claimed in court documents.
Ronald Camp said he believes that Yusef's condition was brought on when he ate what Camp says was a "pickle laced with (the hallucinogenic drug) PCP" that he bought from a vendor near his Blaine Street NE home on May 4.
An hour after the youth ate the sour pickle, his father said, "he got dizzy and fell down. He couldn't use his legs. Some people up the street had to carry him home. He kept complaining that his brains -- not his head -- were hurting. He wanted water, but he kept throwing it up. He was very agitated, his patience was short."
Camp's ex-wife. Beverley, with whom Yusef lived with his three younger brothers, soon called an ambulance. The paramedics, Camp said, diagnosed his condition as heat stroke.
"My ex-wife kept him home and gave him (a drink). But then he began to scream real loud and call my wife not momma, as he always did, but by her full name, Beverly Jean Camp . . . He was screaming for God to help him. He yelled, 'God, would you please help me sit up.'"
At 10 that night, Beverly Camp called an ambulance again, and this time the boy was transported to D.C. General. Doctors there, acording to court statements, found the child hallucinating and agitated, showing "episodes of convulsions and it was believed Yusef had injested a drug, guantity unknown."
When his stomach was pumped, according to a hospital spokesman, doctors found the pickle, some candy and a small quantity of marijuana. One of three samples sent to laboratories in the District, Utah and North Carolina found traces of PCP. The other tests were inconclusive.
A police investigation later found that the pickle vender was not the source of any drugs and the investigation was closed.
Doctors say that at around 4 a.m. on May 5, Yusef stopped breathing for "uncertain reasons," court documents say. He was hooked to the respirator that keeps him breathing no activity.
"As long as I can remember," said Ronald Camp of his slight, 4-foot son, "Yusef has always talked about being a Dallas Cowboy . . . he showed a lot of understanding about life that kids his age just don't ordinarily have."
Two weeks before Yosef became ill, Camp said, "he drew me a card on notebook paper. The front said 'I love you' -- the 'c' was a heart and the 'u' was a Dallas Cowboys football helmet. Inside it said, 'He that you care for always cares for you.'"