Twenty years ago this month a family tragedy was entering its final stages. The family’s name was Cruzan. People of faith, people of medicine, and families of people are still dealing with the legacy of those events.

Nancy Cruzan’s gravestone reads: Born July 20, 1957/Departed January 11, 1983/At Peace December 26, 1990. Paramedics who found her face down in a water-filled ditch found no vital signs but were able to resuscitate her. She was left in a persistent vegetative state. Four years later her family accepted the fact that she would never regain consciousness. It took three years of court rulings before doctors were allowed to withdraw a feeding tube. Twelve days later she died.

Her sister, Chris Cruzan White, says Nancy Cruzan’s legacy is the importance of people telling loved ones what their choices are at the end of life.

White :22 mp3

She was interviewed at the Center for Practical Bioethics, in Kansas City, which held a seminar last month on the continuing impact of the Nancy Cruzan case.

In the year Nancy Cruzan died, a woman named Terri Schiavo went into cardiac arrest and suffered massive brain damage because of lack of oxygen. White says she was asked many times to comment in the five years the Schiavo case worked its way through the courts. But she refused.

White :27 mp3

White’s daughter, Miranda Lewis–Nancy Cruzan’s niece–remembers the critics of family efforts to let Nancy die….and remembers that she learned from them…

Lewis :10 mp3

It was a learning experience, too, for White’s other daughter, Angie Broaddus….

Broaddus :15 mp2

She’s a teacher.

For Lewis, the legacy of Nancy Cruzan is that the issues associated with her long dying are still matters for discussion..

Lewis :08 mp3

Her mother, Nancy’s sister, carries a different message from those events two decades ago.

white :22 mp3

There are other legacies of Nancy Cruzan and Terri Schiavo. They are why hospital officials tell us about living wills whenever we check in or one of our family members does. They are why Missouri and other states have laws governing healthcare proxies and advance directives.

(Our thanks to Lorell LaBoube at the Center for Practical Bioethics for his help with this story)