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Lawyer dies amid feud over living will

Blair Clark's wife, Ping, wanted his life support to continue, but four other family members were opposed.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Blair Clark's family spent nearly two months engaged in a legal battle over whether to continue his life support after a heart attack, but there was no indication of that hostility when he died Tuesday night.

Clark, 58, died at St. Petersburg General Hospital a week after a court determined the St. Petersburg lawyer and professor was in a persistent vegetative state and should have his feeding tube removed. His adult daughter, Katrina Larson, and sister, Sue Harrelson, were by his bedside praying.

"It was the way he would have wanted things to happen," said Clark's son, Dan. "It was just unfortunate it took so long to get to this point."

His wife of three years, Ping, had not visited her husband since the tube was removed. The family members with whom Mrs. Clark has been feuding could not find her to tell her the news. The phone at her downtown condominium has been disconnected, and she didn't know her husband had died until her attorney told her Wednesday morning.

But Clark's death may not have ended the disagreements between Ping Clark and the rest of the family.

Dan Clark said his father wanted to be cremated, although he did not put that request in writing. But, he said, he wonders whether Ping Clark will contest those plans.

The family -- Clark's mother, sister and children -- have not been able to find Mrs. Clark to talk to her about the funeral arrangements. Dan Clark said her attorney has said she is in seclusion.

"I'm hurt really bad," Mrs. Clark said in a call to the Times on Wednesday. "My heart is bleeding. I just don't understand why they didn't want to save him."

The family had been to court several times since Clark's Sept. 9 heart attack.

Ping Clark, who is of Chinese descent, wanted to continue life support and traditional Chinese treatments in the hope he would eventually wake up from a coma. But Clark's children, sister and mother -- who said he was in a persistent vegetative state -- argued his living will indicated he would be opposed.

On Oct. 24, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer signed an order that Clark should not undergo any more life-prolonging procedures. Greer, while waiting for more information on Clark's medical condition, allowed examinations and treatments such as a blood transfusion and acupuncture.

The Clark case is similar to that of Terri Schiavo, the St. Petersburg woman whose right-to-die case has drawn national publicity. She has been in a vegetative state since 1990. In February, Greer granted Mrs. Schiavo's husband permission to remove his wife's feeding tube, but her parents are appealing.

As a lawyer, Clark helped his clients write living wills. He also had taught business law classes at the University of South Florida since 1995.

Clark, an athlete and runner, collapsed before starting a race in Seminole. He was taken to St. Petersburg General Hospital, where doctors believe he could breathe on his own but placed him on a ventilator anyway.

Clark's living will said he did not want to be kept alive by "ventilators, artificial means or heroic measures" and that "hydration or nutrition should not be administered." The document, dated July 1997, says Ping Clark should "ensure the final expression of my legal right to refuse medical or surgical treatment is honored."

Mrs. Clark, though, did not want to do what her husband's living will asked, the children say. She said her husband did not intend the will to be used at such a young age or if there was a chance he could improve.

In another document -- also from July 1997 -- Clark designates his wife as his health care surrogate. But the court could not rely on that document, since two witnesses had signed the form but Clark's own signature was missing.

A third document, dated December 1995, gave Dan Clark power of attorney -- the ability to make financial and health decisions for his father.

Mrs. Clark, 49, said her husband recognized people, turned his head toward voices and made eye contact with visitors in his hospital room. But Dan Clark, 28, and Katrina Larson, 30, dispute that and say they have eight doctors to back them up.

Doug Williamson, the attorney for the Clark family, said most living wills are honored by doctors, but when there is a dispute between family members, a hospital may require a court order.

"All that is supposed to matter is what Blair Clark thinks," Williamson said. "That's the tragedy. The last thing he would have wanted is exactly what he got."

Memorial

A memorial will be held for Blair Clark at 10 a.m. Friday at First Presbyterian Church at 701 Beach Drive NE. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Gideons International, St. Petersburg West Camp, P.O. Box 11555, St. Petersburg, FL 33733.

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