Parents allow 5-year-old to choose ‘heaven or hospital’

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PORTLAND, Ore. – A case in Oregon gained national attention after a 29-year-old woman chose to end her life with the help of doctors while battling an inoperable brain tumor.

Last year, Brittany Maynard became the face of the controversial right-to-die movement. 

Her case and her choice caused mixed emotion and discussions across the country.

Now, another family’s decision in Oregon is sparking outrage.

Family members say 5-year-old Julianna Snow has never been healthy enough to enjoy normal activities and events like other children her age.

Julianna was diagnosed with a severe case of an incurable neurodegenerative illness called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

Doctors say the muscles that control her breathing are so weak that a minor cold could lead to a deadly case of pneumonia.

If she survives, they say she will likely end up on a respirator with very little quality of life.

Credit: CNN
Credit: CNN

There is no debate about the medical facts of Julianna’s case, but a decision by her parents have caused a discord.

Michelle Moon and Steve Snow asked Julianna, when she was just 4-years-old, if she wanted to go to the hospital the next time she becomes dangerously ill, or if she wanted to stay home and go to heaven.

Moon says she started a blog and began looking for guidance about end-of-life talks with a child.

Michelle: Julianna, if you get sick again, do you want to go to the hospital again or stay home?

Julianna: Not the hospital

Michelle: Even if that means that you will go to heaven if you stay home?

Julianna: Yes… I hate NT (naso-tracheal suction, where a tube was placed down her nose into her lungs without sedation). I hate the hospital.

Michelle: Right. So if you get sick again, you want to stay home. But you know that probably means you will go to heaven, right?

Julianna: (nods)

Michelle: And it probably means that you will go to heaven by yourself, and Mommy will join you later.

Julianna: But I won’t be alone.

Michelle: That’s right. You will not be alone.

Julianna: Do some people go to heaven soon?

Michelle: Yes. We just don’t know when we go to heaven. Sometimes babies go to heaven. Sometimes really old people go to heaven.

Julianna: Will Alex (her 6-year-old brother) go to heaven with me?

Michelle: Probably not. Sometimes people go to heaven together at the same time, but most of the time, they go alone. Does that scare you?

Julianna: No, heaven is good. But I don’t like dying.

Michelle: I know. That’s the hard part. We don’t have to be afraid of dying because we believe we go to heaven. But it’s sad because I will miss you so much.

Julianna: Don’t worry, I won’t be alone.

Michelle: I know. I love you.

Julianna: Madly.

Michelle: Yes, I love you madly. I’m so lucky.

Julianna: And I’m so lucky.

Michelle: Why?

Julianna: Because you love me madly.

Before these conversations, Michelle says she and Steve had planned to take Julianna to the hospital if she were to get another infection. But after hearing Julianna’s wishes, they changed their minds.

“She made it clear that she doesn’t want to go through the hospital again,” Michelle wrote CNN in an email. “So we had to let go of that plan because it was selfish.”

While most readers left supportive comments on her blog post, some thought Michelle and Steve made the wrong choice.

“Unbelievable that any parent would think a 4-year-old is able to understand or make a decision on life,” commented one mother of a child with a chronic illness. “Clearly that mother asks her leading questions. This article sickens me.”

The next week, Michelle posted another blog post, further explaining their decision.

“She’s scared of dying, but has, to me, demonstrated adequate knowledge of what death is. (J: ‘When you die, you don’t do anything. You don’t think.’),” Michelle wrote. “She hasn’t changed her mind about going back to the hospital, and she knows that this means she’ll go to heaven by herself. If she gets sick, we’ll ask her again, and we’ll honor her wishes.”

She continued: “Very clearly, my 4-year-old daughter was telling me that getting more time at home with her family was not worth the pain of going to the hospital again. I made sure she understood that going to heaven meant dying and leaving this Earth. And I told her that it also meant leaving her family for a while, but we would join her later. Did she still want to skip the hospital and go to heaven? She did.”

Credit: CNN
Credit: CNN

Should a child decide her own end-of-life care?

Bioethicist Art Caplan has read Michelle’s blogs, and he thinks she’s made the wrong decision.

“This doesn’t sit well with me. It makes me nervous,” he says. “I think a 4-year-old might be capable of deciding what music to hear or what picture book they might want to read. But I think there’s zero chance a 4-year-old can understand the concept of death. That kind of thinking doesn’t really develop until around age 9 or 10.”

He says Julianna’s parents shouldn’t put any stock in what she has to say about end-of-life decisions. Maybe she chose heaven over the hospital because she feels how much her parents hate to see her suffer; young children often pick up cues from their parents and want to please them, he says.

Caplan, before he started the bioethics program at New York University a few years ago, worked at the University of Pennsylvania and consulted on end-of-life cases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with Dr. Chris Feudtner, a pediatrician and ethicist there. Caplan respects him a great deal.

Feudtner, it turns out, disagrees with Caplan about Julianna.

“To say her experience is irrelevant doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “She knows more than anyone what it’s like to be not a theoretical girl with a progressive neuromuscular disorder, but to be Julianna.”

At his hospital, he has asked dying children her age what they want to do, and in the appropriate circumstances, he has taken it into consideration.

For example, he doesn’t take their opinion into account when it’s a black and white decision — children with treatable leukemia must get chemotherapy, for example, no matter how hard they protest. But when the choice is gray, when there’s more than one reasonable option, as there is with Julianna, he has put stock in their wishes.

As for a 4-year-old not having the mental capacity to think through death, he’s found that even adults often don’t think through such issues as carefully as one might like.

“My 86-year-old father died in April, and I’m not sure he truly got it,” he says. “He was bed-bound from cancer, and he said, ‘If this is the best I get, get me a Smith & Wesson.’ Did he mean that? I don’t know.”

Feudtner, the chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on hospice and palliative medicine, says as best he can tell from Michelle’s blogs, Julianna’s choice for heaven over the hospital is reasonable and her parents are right to listen to her.

“Palliative care isn’t about giving up. It’s about choosing how you want to live before you die,” he says. “This little girl has chosen how she wants to live.”

Julianna is no ordinary 5-year-old

Art Caplan’s words sting Michelle, but she says she understands how someone could have a difficult time understanding what she and Steve have decided.

If you haven’t met Julianna, she says, it’s hard to explain how even at such a young age, she understands the choice that’s in front of her, how she’s the one who experiences the suffering and should get a say in what will happen to her.

The doctors and nurses who know Julianna best agree.

Dr. Danny Hsia, her pulmonologist, observes that Julianna is wiser than most 5-year-olds. “In that case, it makes a lot of sense to listen to her. I have the utmost faith in her mother and father. They’re phenomenal parents and have her best wishes at heart,” he says.

He believes that when Julianna gets another infection, the hospital will likely not be able to save her. “For her, there is no light at the end of the tunnel,” he says, his voice trailing off. “She doesn’t have a long time to live.”

Diana Scolaro, the nurse who took care of Julianna through three stays in the intensive care unit, also supports Steve and Michelle’s decision to listen to their daughter.

“You have to know what it’s like to hold down a child and hear them scream so you can stick a tube down their nose. It’s one thing to do that when you know you’ll have a success at the end, but for Julianna, there is no success,” she says. “We pulled her from death’s door so many times last year, but she’s sicker now than she was then, and I don’t think we could pull her through another big crisis.”

Diana cries as she tries to express her wishes for Julianna. “I want her living and dying in her princess room, at home, surrounded by her family, not in the cold technology of a hospital,” she says. “There is no cure for her. Every day is a blessing. Every day is a gift.”

Doctors say Julianna’s life didn’t start out this way. When she was 2-years-old Julianna could sit up unsupported and walk with a walker. Two years later, she couldn’t hold toys and wasn’t even able to eat.

Several times a day in the hospital, a nurse would put a tube down her nose and throat, forcing it past her gag reflex and into her lungs to suck the mucus out of the tiny pockets in her airways. It was too dangerous to sedate her for the procedure, so Julianna had to feel everything.

“It’s not for the faint of heart to take what she took,” Diana Scolaro says.

Planning for heaven, enjoying life

Julianna is planning for her future in heaven, and for her parents’ eventual arrival there.

“Do you want me to stand in front of the house, and in front of all the people so you can see me first?” she asks.

“Yes,” her mother answers.

“And will you run to me?” she asks.

“Yes, I will run to you,” Michelle answers. “And I think you’ll run to me, too.”

“I’ll run fast,” Julianna responds, shaking her head back and forth to show how fast she will run.

It has been a year since Julianna last had an infection, and these months have been “a dream,” Michelle says. But she knows it won’t last forever. Any little cold could ruin the lovely dream.

Her medical training and her faith tell her that she and Steve and Julianna will know when the end is near. And they will make a decision about what to do. Together.

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