Terri Schindler-Schiavo–the brain-damaged woman who lies helplessly in a Clearwater, Florida hospice bed–has endured a relentless legal tug of war. Her parents and siblings want her alive and rehabilitated. Meanwhile, her husband, Michael, hopes to detach her feeding tube so she can wither away and die. In the noble spirit by which government defends the defenseless, Florida officials should shield Terri from Michael Schiavo and place her in the care of her parents.
Terri’s troubles began on February 25, 1990, when she collapsed at her St. Petersburg home. She was hospitalized and suffered brain damage sometime during this ordeal. She has been in a hospice since April 2000. It is hard to see how she could live normally again.
Michael insists that Terri would have preferred death to life in her current condition. Her wishes are, however, at most, muddled. “She made a number of statements, and the court found by clear and convincing evidence in January 2000 that Terri Schiavo would not want to be artificially fed in her condition,” says George Felos, Michael’s attorney.
But why would Terri–healthy, robust, and 26 when she fell ill–ponder her mortality and reject potential life supports? Even if she said as much in conversation, that is hardly a coherent declaration before doctors and a judge that would constitute informed consent to be freed to die.
“She never expressed anything like that to our family or friends,” Terri’s mother, Mary Schindler, says from her Gulfport, Florida home. “The only people who heard that were her husband, and his brother, and sister-in-law.”
Mrs. Schindler and her husband, Robert Sr., visited Terri Monday at the Park Place assisted-living facility after not seeing her for 55 days. Michael Schiavo had limited their vistation rights while Clearwater police investigated accusations that the Schindlers had injected their daughter with something during their previous visit on March 29. Police cleared the Schindlers after finding no evidence to support these allegations.
Terri’s family also categorically rejects the idea that she is in a “persistent vegetative state.” Florida defines this as: “a) The absence of voluntary action or cognitive behavior of any kind. b) An inability to communicate or interact purposefully with the environment.”
Terrisfight.org, the Schindlers’ website, features short video clips from a September 2002 medical evaluation in which Terri clearly welcomes her mother’s arrival at her bedside. She follows a balloon as it’s moved over her head. Asked to open her eyes, she first hesitates, then opens them as widely as humanly possible.
“The patient is not in a coma,” concluded neurologist and 1999 Nobel Prize nominee William Hammesfahr, M.D, after observing Terri. “She is alert and responsive to her environment. She responds to specific people best. She tries to please others by doing activities for which she gets verbal praise.”
“The above behaviors are all indicative of cognition,” clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Alexander Gimon stated in an August 2003 affidavit after reviewing videotapes of Hammesfahr’s examination. “They are completely inconsistent with a diagnosis of vegetative state.”
For his part, Michael Schiavo has not been a model husband.
He lives adulterously with Jodi Centozone, with whom he has had two children. In a monumental conflict of interest that should disqualify him from deciding Terri’s fate, her death would facilitate his marriage to Jodi while Terri’s existence only complicates their lives.
After wining control of Terri’s treatment, plus medical malpractice and other legal awards totaling some $1.6 million, Michael had Terri’s cats, Shanna and Tolly, put to sleep.
He told attorneys in November 1992 that he took Terri’s engagement and wedding rings and “made a ring for myself.”
Terri’s family complains that Michael has denied Terri speech-, occupational- and other therapies that could strengthen her mind.
According to the September 2003 deposition of Terri’s nurse, Carla Iyer, Michael asked, “Can’t you do anything to accelerate her death?” and “When is that bitch gonna die?” When Terri’s health waned, Iyer said he would exclaim, “I’m going to be rich!” then discuss plans to buy a car, boat, and European vacation.
Terri’s family cites a September 5, 1991 bone scan by Dr. W. Campbell Walker, M.D. It lists “compression fracture[s]” throughout Terri’s body and concludes: “The patient has a history of trauma.” They wonder if Terri suffered domestic violence.
“This whole claim that Michael somehow abused Terri is totally false,” George Felos retorts. “It was considered by the court at a hearing and rejected.” He says that other doctors have argued that the bone scan shows abnormal growths rather than tell-tale ruptures.
Absent incontrovertible, documented proof that Terri Schindler-Schiavo wants to die, she deserves the presumption of life. Terri refutes claims she is comatose by interacting with her surroundings. Her cat-killing, ring-melting husband has more pressing priorities than Terri’s longevity.
If Florida judges grant her husband’s wishes–as they did before an urgently adopted, now-overturned, law reversed them–Governor Jeb Bush’s attorney, Ken Connor, warns: “Michael Schiavo effectively gets to kill his wife through starvation and dehydration.”
Before that happens, Florida officials or a federal court should disqualify Michael Schiavo and let Mary and Robert Schindler nurse their daughter back to life with dignity.