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Sick woman fights parents over ending life support

Parents Jin-ah Lee and Manho Lee hold a

Parents Jin-ah Lee and Manho Lee hold a press conference regarding their critically ill daughter, Grace Sung Eun Lee, in Uniondale. (Oct. 4, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

From her Long Island hospital bed, a young woman facing terminal brain cancer is seeking the right to die, but her deeply religious parents Thursday said the request is tantamount to suicide.

As Sungeun Grace Lee, 28, awaited a decision on her bid to end life support, her parents explained why they've gone to court to keep her alive.

Her father, Man Ho Lee, pastor of Antioch Missionary Church in Flushing, Queens, and her mother, Jin Ah Lee, contend their daughter is depressed, on drugs that cloud her judgment and being pressured by North Shore University Hospital.

Taking her off life support, the parents say, is contrary to her and the family's religious beliefs. They want her transferred to a nursing home instead.

"I cannot imagine my daughter as suicidal," Man Ho Lee told reporters through a Korean translator. "Even though the hospital's doctors and staff are professionals, when someone sets a date and time to die, it is considered a suicide and a sin. It's important for us to let doctors know that they have no right to take someone's life."

Lee, of Douglaston, Queens, was diagnosed with a tumor on her brain stem in November. After suffering seizures, she was rushed to North Shore hospital in Manhasset on Sept. 3. Paralyzed from the neck down, she was hooked up to a machine that breathes for her.

Doctors said Lee -- who goes by Grace -- has a few months to live and has repeatedly expressed her desire to be removed from the ventilator.

Experts say she has the right to pull the plug, if determined to be mentally competent.

But her parents have gone to court to bar the hospital from removing the tubes. Attorney Jeffrey Forchelli of Uniondale, who represents the parents, has asked the Brooklyn Appellate Division to extend a restraining order preventing the hospital from removing life support.

A decision could come any day, Forchelli said Thursday, noting that if the appeals court rejects the request, doctors could immediately remove the ventilator.

Forchelli said Lee has told her parents she wants to live.

"The Lees have spoken to her like only a father or a mother could speak to their daughter, and she has told her family that she doesn't want to die," he said.

But Lee's court-appointed lawyer, David Smith of Garden City, said he has met twice with her and is convinced she is mentally competent and understands what she's asking for.

"She understands very well," he said. "I had a conversation with her about the religious ramifications, and she was very firm in her resolve and very content with her decision."

Smith said that despite constant pressure from her parents, she wants them at her side.

"The parents spend every day telling her they believe she's going to burn in hell" if she withdraws from the ventilator, the attorney said. "Notwithstanding that, she wants her parents to visit. Although they disagree, these are her parents and she wants them there."

The hospital would not comment, citing patient privacy. But in testimony, Dr. Dana Lustbader, chief of palliative medicine at North Shore-LIJ, said neither the tumor nor the drugs have impaired her mental capacity.

Although unable to talk, Lee, who worked as a manager at Bank of America and was active in her father's Christian church, can form words with her mouth, shake her head and indicate "yes" or "no" by blinking, Lustbader said. "In talking about her wishes to have the breathing tube removed and knowing that she would die when the tube is removed, she's appropriately tearful," Lustbader testified.

Dr. Brian Keefe, associate chairman of the psychiatry department at North Shore-LIJ, evaluated Lee and concluded she suffers "from neither a major mental illness such as depression nor any cognitive impairment."

Experts in bioethics said federal law is clear about an adult patient's right to make his or her own medical decisions if the person is mentally capable. "The parents have no ultimate authority if she's competent," said Arthur Caplan, director of the medical ethics division at New York University's Langone Medical Center.

Dr. Timothy Quill, of the Center for Ethics, Humanities and Palliative Care at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, said doctors need a patient's "permission to invade their bodies for medical treatment." If a person wants to withdraw treatment, that is their right, he said.

With Zachary Dowdy,

Chau Lam and John Riley

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