Courtesy of Mercury News
The family of a young Los Gatos woman featured in a Mercury News story about the painful death she endured after suffering from cancer has sued the nation’s largest for-profit hospice service, charging that it deprived the woman of a “peaceful death.”
The lawsuit was filed in Alameda County, where Vitas Hospice Care has offices, and alleges that the hospice’s failure to inform her that she could receive “palliative sedation” to relieve her suffering was “reckless” and “inexcusable.”
Michelle Hargett Beebee was 43 when she died late last year after being diagnosed with stage-four pancreatic cancer. The mother of three children, Beebee entered Vitas hospice service three weeks before her death. In December 2009, she was the subject of the final installment of the Mercury News’ award-winning “Life In a Year” series.
“She was in unrelieved pain until she died,” Michelle’s father, Joe Hargett, said in a statement. “Michelle could have had the peaceful death she wanted had Vitas Hospice adequately treated her pain and informed her of treatments that were legally available to her. We don’t want others to suffer unnecessarily painful deaths like Michelle’s.”
The family is represented by Kathryn Tucker, director of legal affairs for Compassion & Choices, a nonprofit group that began as the Hemlock Society and deals with end-of-life issues. Beebee died in the final month of the same year that California enacted the Right to Know End-of-Life Options Act, ensuring all terminally ill patients access to counseling about their options.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first case in the nation to assert that failure to inform a dying patient about the option of palliative sedation falls outside the standard of care,” Tucker said. “Michelle was never told about that, and that is inexcusable. That’s what makes this a landmark case.”
Attempts to reach Vitas at its corporate headquarters in Florida were unsuccessful. Vitas is a division of the same company that owns Roto-Rooter, a plumbing and drain-cleaning provider.
The suit seeks no specific monetary award, though a jury could assess damages if the case goes to trial.
“One of the most damaging effects of Michelle’s unrelieved pain was the impact her suffering had on her young children,” Joe Hargett said. “Michelle did not want her children to remember her that way. We hope that this legal action can help prevent this from occurring to other patients and their children.”