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Review of "Rescuing Jeffrey"

By Richard Galli
Griffin Trade Paperback, 1999
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Nov 4th 2001
Rescuing Jeffrey This memoir chronicles ten days of crisis for the Galli family. Seventeen-year-old Jeffrey broke his neck diving into the swimming pool at a family friends' house on July 4, 1998. He was rushed to hospital and his life was saved. But he was now completely paralyzed from the neck down. He cannot even breath for himself. Once the full horror of the extent of Jeffrey's injuries become clear, his parents wonder whether they should now kill him.

Although Richard and Toby make their decisions together as husband and wife, it is Richard's experience of events we learn of, since it is his memoir, and he gives the impression that he is the main decision-maker in the marriage. He is a lawyer, and it is clear that he is used to arguing his case articulately and convincingly. The story is powerful enough on its own to pack a punch, but Galli really manages to bring the events alive, and he conveys at least some of the agony that he felt for his son, for his family, and for himself.

Their friends rally round wonderfully, coming to the hospital, writing notes, offering help and love. Richard and Toby spend a great deal of time at the hospital, occasionally getting a little sleep or food, but mostly just trying to work out what to do, and communicating with Jeffrey as he starts to become conscious and aware of what has happened to him.

In the first few days, it is clear from Richard's notes to himself that he believes Jeffrey's new life will not be worth living, and that they should let his life end. It seems that Toby is in agreement on this. They find out what steps they would have to go through in order to turn off Jeffrey's breathing support, and they meet with experts and the hospital ethics committee.

The professionals convince them that they can wait a few days. As parents, they have the legal right to make the decision to discontinue life support until Jeffrey's eighteenth birthday, which is not until the following November. But they want to find out more about what Jeffrey's new life could realistically be like. They read the memoirs of Christopher Reeve and Travis Roy, but they know Jeffrey's life will be nothing like these role models, because he lacks their resources and their achievements. Jeffrey hasn't even had a girlfriend, and he had been struggling in high school. Only after getting treatment for depression had Jeffrey started to find his feet and match the accomplishments of his peers.

Richard and Toby visit some nursing homes for people who need full-time care, but it soon becomes clear that their son's injury is too severe for even these facilities, and that the only place Jeffrey will be able to stay is at home. They know that Jeffrey's life span is likely to be severely shortened by his injury, but that there is still a high probability that they will eventually reach an age when they do not have the physical strength to look after Jeffrey at home. So there is a strong chance that, at some point in his life if he lives into his thirties and forties, Jeffrey will have to be taken into a facility a long way from their home in Rhode Island, where he would be looked after by strangers.

From Richard's reconstruction of those ten days, it seems that there were two factors that changed their mind about ending their son's life. First was the acknowledgment that Jeffrey should have some part in deciding whether he lives or dies. Second was being given the assurance from a physician, whose name is never mentioned, that he would be ready to help Jeffrey terminate his life support if that was what Jeffrey and his family wanted.

This is an important book for anyone interested in the rights of the disabled, the responsibilities of parents to their disabled children, and the quality of life of people with severe spinal injuries. I'd recommend it also for use in classes on medical ethics. One of the most controversial aspects of the story is the way that Richard is ready to make a decision to turn off the life support machines without bringing in Jeffrey into the decision-making process, even though Jeffrey was conscious and would within a few months be a legal adult himself. While the parents were within their legal rights, many would say that their approach was ethically questionable. On the other hand, we should be aware of the dangers of second guessing someone else's thinking unless we have had experience of similar crises ourselves, and most are grateful never to have to face such a terrible decision.


Jeffrey Galli Web Site

© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry. He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can play a greater role in public life. He is available to give talks on many philosophical or controversial issues in mental health.