The million-dollar courtroom drama had finally closed. The jet- setting Dane, the raven-haired mistress, the German-born maid, the vengeful stepchildren had taken their curtain calls.
Life had changed for all the cast members of the von Bulow play except for one: Sunny. She spent the day after her husband's acquittal like all the others in the half-life of irreversible coma. She lay in bed behind the guarded door of the $725-a-day room in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
For the 1,632nd day she did not see anything or hear anything or feel anything or taste anything. The physical therapist came in to exercise her limbs and turn her from one side to the other to prevent bedsores. Her hair was combed, makeup applied, teeth brushed. Her 80-pound body was fed through a tube.
But that evening, in an eery bit of theatrical timing, something did change. Across the river from Sunny's hospital, in New Jersey, Karen Ann Quinlan died of pneumonia.
Over the past decade, ever since the 21-year-old woman lapsed into a coma, ever since her parents sued the state of New Jersey for the right to turn off her respirator, Karen Ann Quinlan has been the symbol of what we call "the right to die."
The judge who ruled in the landmark Quinlan case in 1976 freed others who might have been tethered to machines, forced, as he wrote, to "endure the unendurable only to vegetate a few measurable months." But in some curious twist of fate, he didn't really free Karen. When her parents turned off the machine, Karen continued to breathe on her own.
For the past nine years, Karen was what Sunny is: one of some 10,000 patients in this country in a "chronic vegetative state." They are not on machines. They are not suspended by wires from ceilings like characters from "Coma." They are in hospital beds at an average cost of $150,000 per person per year. And their life- support system is food.
These patients have raised a series of questions about medicine and mercy that make the original Quinlan case look easy. We are now being asked to decide if there is a difference between "pulling the plug" and closing the feeding tube.
These issues were argued again last month in a courtroom less than an hour's drive from the Providence, R.I., stage for the von Bulow drama. The central figure in Dedham, Mass., was Paul Brophy, a former firefighter and emergency medical technician, now also in a chronic vegetative state.
The 47-year-old Brophy had seen enough accident victims to tell his wife, Patricia, "If I ever get that way, pull the plug." Now, more than two years after an artery in his brain burst, he was still "that way," and there was no plug to pull, just a feeding tube. His wife went to court to force the New England Sinai Hospital to stop giving food and water to her husband.
What is striking about his case is that Brophy, like Karen Ann Quinlan, like Sunny von Bulow, is not brain- dead by our current definitions. But the part of his brain that controls thinking, feeling, what made him Paul Brophy, is obliterated.
The hospital argued that food and water are basic and natural human rights. It was not in the patient's best interest, they said, to be starved to death. The doctors testifying for Mrs. Brophy argued, on the other hand, that artificial feeding is not different from artificial breathing. They see irreversible coma as a kind of prolonged dying and food as a medicine that makes the patient "endure the unendurable only to vegetate."
The Brophy case -- all these cases -- present a choice between two repulsive options: deliberate starvation behind closed hospital doors and endless unconsciousness behind those doors. Usually these matters of life and death are resolved quietly, in hushed conferences between doctor and family. The Quinlans chose to feed their daughter. But surely, in such a case, when the wishes of the patient are known, when the family agrees, it is equally moral to let Paul Brophy die.
The long dying of Karen Ann Quinlan is finally over. The verdict in the Brophy case will come next month. As for Sunny von Bulow, suspicion and money are her life-support system. In their mutual mistrust, husband and children will sustain her in this half-life for some time.
But hers is the horror story now. Not as sexy a drama as the one told in the Providence courtroom but more common, and destined for a longer run.
There are flowers in Sunny von Bulow's hospital room. And music. I am told that it has a beautiful view.