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Husband of brain-dead Texas woman: 'I asked God to take me instead'

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
updated 6:55 PM EST, Thu January 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marlise Muñoz had been brain dead since November
  • A hospital kept her body on a ventilator to preserve the fetus she carried
  • Her family fought that decision in court and won
  • Machines keeping her heart and lungs working were shut off on Sunday

(CNN) -- Erick Muñoz tried to keep hope alive, but he knew his wife was dead.

"Many a night, I asked God to take me instead," he said in an exclusive interview with CNN's "AC360" on Wednesday. "But you can't turn off that knowledge, that you know how bad it was. ... And I promised her, I told her I will honor her wishes."

On Sunday, someone switched off the machines inside a Texas hospital that kept Marlise Muñoz's heart and lungs working.

Her family spoke to CNN on Wednesday in their first national television interview since they won their battle to disconnect the ventilator from the pregnant woman's body.

Erick Muñoz: I asked God to take me instead
Brain-dead woman off life support
Attorney on judge's order: We are relieved

Their wrenching court fight drew national attention and sparked debate over who's alive, who's dead and whether the presence of a fetus changes the equation. Now, they say they want their story to be heard in order to save other families from going through the same nightmare.

Marlise was 33 years old and 14 weeks pregnant with the couple's second child when her husband found her unconscious on their kitchen floor November 26. Though doctors had pronounced her brain dead and her family had said she did not want to have machines keep her body alive, officials at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas, argued state law required them to maintain life-sustaining treatment for a pregnant patient.

Marlise didn't leave any written directives regarding end-of-life care. But long before she was hospitalized, her family said, they had made Marlise a promise to honor her wishes, and they were determined to keep it.

"We looked her in the eye and told her," Erick Muñoz said, his voice cracking as he spoke to CNN's Anderson Cooper. "And for the state of Texas, to not let us do that, was hard. You know, you want to keep your word to your loved one."

'They're using my wife'

Erick Muñoz had no doubt about what his wife wanted. They were both paramedics, and it was something they'd talked about many times as they discussed their days.

In their line of work, Erick Muñoz said, they became all too aware of families who held on to loved ones long after they'd gone. And of how fleeting life can be.

"You work on a freeway or a busy road," he said. "That driver just accidentally hits you, and you could be gone."

Now that Marlise is gone, her family is pushing for others to have those same conversations.

"We were together on the same page from the very beginning, which we feel is very important for families that have to go through something like this, that there isn't any in-house fighting," said Marlise's mother, Lynne Machado.

It should be a family's decision, they said, not a political issue.

They've heard protesters and politicians pointing to the case and claiming laws should be rewritten to make sure someone like Marlise can't be disconnected from life support. Those people, they said, are missing the point.

"I feel that's unfair on their part. They're not the family. I can't take the right away from you to do something with your loved ones. I don't feel they should, either," Erick Muñoz said. "I feel they're using my wife, unfortunately, as a stepping stone, as an argument for their debates. They want votes. And I tell them, 'That's wrong.' ... They are using her as a political argument."

Mom: 'We needed to do this for her'

Marlise's family members were preparing to say their final goodbyes in the ICU the day in November when doctors showed them that her heart kept stopping and that her brain was swelling.

But then suddenly, the situation changed: a doctor told them they couldn't disconnect the machines.

The family says they were shocked, and that even the doctors seemed surprised.

"I thought, there must have been a miscommunication in some way. We said 'No, no, no. That's not what she wanted. She wanted never to be on life support.' They said, 'Well, but she's pregnant.' And then, you know, it went from there," Machado said. "We knew we weren't going to let this rest, because it wasn't right. It was not honoring her wishes."

That's why the family went to court and kept fighting, she said, even as the going got tough.

Even as it became clearer every day that the woman they loved had slipped away.

Even as her skin texture changed -- becoming like a mannequin's, cool and rubbery.

Even as the air in her hospital room started to smell more like death than life.

"There would be times I'd feel frustrated by the process we were having to go through. And I could just feel Marlise say, 'Mom, don't give up, keep going, keep fighting.' And for many days, that's what I held onto," Machado said. "We tried to raise our children to stand up for what's right, even if you're the only one standing up. And this is what Marlise would have done had the situation been different. She would have stood up for what's right, so we needed to do this for her."

A judge in Fort Worth sided with the family on Friday, ordering the hospital to remove any artificial means of life support from Marlise by 5 p.m. Monday.

The devices were shut off Sunday morning and her body was released to her husband.

"The Muñoz and Machado families will now proceed with the somber task of laying Marlise Muñoz's body to rest, and grieving over the great loss that has been suffered," the family's attorneys said in a statement at the time. "May Marlise Muñoz finally rest in peace, and her family find the strength to complete what has been an unbearably long and arduous journey."

Now, the family says they know that Marlise and the baby girl she carried, who they named Nicole, are in heaven.

But even the legal victory, which gave them a chance to say their final goodbyes, wasn't a moment for celebration.

"It wasn't happy for anybody. There was not a happy ending," Machado said. "We were pleased that the judge ruled in our favor, and that he realized that Marlise was not a patient, as the hospital was saying. That she was, in fact, legally dead."

Attorneys: Fetus was 'distinctly abnormal'

What happens next?

The hospital acknowledged Friday that Marlise had been brain dead since November 28 and that the fetus she carried was not viable.

"The past eight weeks have been difficult for the Muñoz family, the caregivers and the entire Tarrant County community, which found itself involved in a sad situation," a hospital statement said over the weekend. "JPS Health Network has followed what we believed were the demands of a state statute."

Since the ventilator shut off, Machado said she's finally started to do something she wasn't able to do for months after she knew her daughter was gone: grieve.

"For me, closure began after she was disconnected. I was able to get a sense of closure. ... It was hard to start the grieving process when we still had this body that we knew was an empty shell in front of us," she said. "We really couldn't start grieving, but now we can."

Erick Muñoz said he doesn't know whether he'll pursue legal action against the hospital. He said he's angry, arguing that the hospital misinterpreted the Texas law and kept his wife's heart beating long after she'd died.

And he said if hospital officials send him a bill for her time on a ventilator, there's no way he'll pay it.

But it's too soon to say what steps are next.

Right now, he's focused on their 15-month-old son.

"One of her wishes also was to raise a good man out of my son, and that's what continues to drive me, and what I will use as my driving point for the rest of my life," he said. "Because that's my job now, to raise a good man, because I promised her."

The ethics of life support

What no one wants to talk about

CNN's Caleb Hellerman, Jason Morris and Matt Smith contributed to this report.

Watch Anderson Cooper 360° weeknights 8pm ET. For the latest from AC360° click here.

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