Family judges are regularly called upon to make life and death decisions, but few can have been as fraught as that concerning a little boy who suffered irreversible brain damage after choking on a piece of fruit. Despite his parents’ determination that he be kept alive, the High Court authorised medics to withdraw life support.
The 19-month-old boy was entirely healthy before the choking incident. However, by the time he arrived at hospital, he was in severe respiratory distress. All efforts to revive him had failed and he had fallen into profound unconsciousness and total dependence on a ventilator. He was making no voluntary effort to breathe and doctors were unanimous in their view that brain stem death had occurred.
His parents were, however, ‘simply unable to contemplate’ turning off the ventilator. Their lawyers argued that irreversible unconsciousness and brain stem death were not synonymous with death in the legal and clinical sense.
The Court expressed profound sympathy for the parents and the boy’s two older siblings. However, in opening the way for an NHS trust to cease life-preserving treatment, the Court ruled that the time had come to permit him to die with dignity. The Court was confident that medics would do all in their power to minimise the boy’s suffering in the moments before his inevitable death.