Sabina and Perry Elfmont talked often about how they would face
death. As a retired physician, 88-year-old Perry had seen many
of his patients suffer at the end.
Perry had lived a rich life with his wife of more than 30 years.
He had run the New York blood bank and, despite his age, he still
could enjoy theater and museums. He and his 78-year-old wife traveled,
making visits to his homeland of France. They took walks in New
York City, where they shared an apartment. A voracious reader,
Perry was fluent in five languages.
A Living Will
Perry told Sabina if he became seriously ill he didn't want heroic
measures if it meant he wouldn't live his life to the fullest
anymore. Perry had suffered three heart attacks that forced him
to retire from his active physician practice after 25 years. He
knew exactly what life-prolonging interventions could be imposed
if he reached a critical stage. Perry completed a living will
and delineated what he did not want if he became incapacitated,
including resuscitation, mechanical respiration, and renal dialysis.
It even included his desire to be cremated at burial.
One May morning in 1994, Perry woke up disoriented. Sabina found
her husband in a state of confusion and paranoia. She immediately
called his doctor.
A stroke was a possibility so he told Sabina to bring Perry immediately
to Mt. Sinai Medical Center emergency room. Sabina brought a copy
of his living will. Perry's cardiologist had a copy and Sabina
wanted the attending doctors and hospital to know his wishes.
Do Not Resuscitate
Once her husband was moved to a bed, Sabina informed the attending
residents that he had a do not resuscitate (DNR) order. She then
filed the information with the hospital. "It simply came naturally
to me because I knew his opinion about having unnecessary things
Sabina stayed by Perry's side until Perry's son, Andrew, came
by on the second day. Sabina went home to get some rest, a decision
she says she will regret forever.
When she returned the next morning, her husband's hands were
restrained and he looked terrible. Sabina asked what had happened.
She was told that Perry had gone into respiratory arrest in the
middle of the night and they had resuscitated him. Sabina looked
over at Perry. He was tethered to his bed, unable to speak, unable
to do anything. All the fears he had expressed in their conversations
had come true.
The events of that evening are now the subject of a lawsuit between
Sabina and Andrew Elfmont and Mt. Sinai. But essentially the medical
resident on staff resuscitated Perry after the DNR order had been
countermanded by a physician overseeing his care. Sabina says
Perry's cardiologist admitted that a mistake had been made.
She confronted a neurologist who was treating her husband. "I
said, 'How could you do it? A living will is a patient's wish.'"
Sabina says the doctor told her his job was to keep patient's
alive, not to let them die.
When she asked why her husband's hands were in restraints, she
was told it was to prevent him from yanking out his tubes. "He
knew exactly what he wanted to do," she said.
Two days later, Perry was released from Mt. Sinai and he and Sabina
spent the next 27 months together in their apartment. Although
Perry could initially walk with difficulty, he was depressed and
despondent. He couldn't speak, he couldn't read, and he couldn't
care for himself. His friends found it hard to visit, says Sabina.
She hired a nurse to care for him to help keep his life as normal
as possible at home. But Perry didn't have much of a life, she
says. He wouldn't get up in the morning unless Sabina woke him;
he wouldn't eat unless food was put in front of him; and he couldn't
hold a conversation. Toward the latter part of his life, he lost
After a few months at home, Perry refused to go outside. He did
not want to be in a wheelchair. Sabina says she was so worried
that he would commit suicide that she only left the apartment
to go to the bank and supermarket.
A Widow's Crusade
In August 1996, Perry died at home at age 90. Sabina and Andrew
cremated him and spread his ashes in France. While still grieving
Perry's loss, Sabina has become a crusader for assuring the rights
of the terminally ill. A Polish-born Holocaust survivor, Sabina
says if she had been with Perry the night he almost died, she
would have respected his wishes. "I wouldn't have let there be
a resuscitation. As hard as that would be, I know how important
it was to him."
New York attorney Lewis Fishlin, who represents Sabina and Andrew,
says that Perry should have been permitted to die. "This is not
a man who meandered around the subject [of death]. This is a man
who focused clearly on what his wishes were and made it clearly
Sabina's message to others: "If you have a living will, be on
top of it." Perry's experience taught her that it's not when you
die, it's how you die. "A living will should be enough, but it
seems it didn't work . . . Once you write a living will, put your
family around the table and talk to them about it," she says.
"Perry talked to me very often about it." Sabina, now 80, isn't
sure whether she can sustain a legal battle with a major New York
hospital but she says for Perry she must try. "I wanted to fulfill
his wishes and they didn't let me."