Till death us do part

National | Terri Schiavo's parents are trying to keep their severely disabled daughter alive, but last week her husband and an appeals court brought her a step closer to death

Issue: "More than a warlord," July 21, 2001

For love or money? That's the question surrounding lawsuits in Florida that by the end of July may result in the death of Terri Schiavo, 37, a St. Petersburg woman institutionalized since February 1990 with severe brain damage.

It has been more than 11 years since Mrs. Schiavo suffered a heart attack at age 25. An eating disorder-related potassium imbalance triggered the seizure, squelching for five minutes the flow of oxygen to Mrs. Schiavo's brain. She suffered acute and permanent brain damage, and lost all speech and most cognitive ability. Initially, a neurologist classified Mrs. Schiavo as "PVS"-in a "persistent vegetative state," or "eyes-open" state of unconsciousness. Other doctors said such a diagnosis was premature.

For a decade Mrs. Schiavo, a dark-haired woman with large brown eyes, lived in a succession of hospitals and nursing homes. Today, she is confined to a tiny room with a slim bed, chest of drawers, and a single aluminum window at Woodside hospice in Largo, Fla., a secluded, pine-shaded facility where terminally ill people go to die. She receives food and water through a tube. But though her condition is considered "terminal" according to Florida statute, she is not terminally ill in the sense that she is actively dying. She also is not in PVS, according to her parents and others who visit her regularly.

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"When we come to visit, she'll see us and laugh ear-to-ear," said Bob Schindler, Mrs. Schiavo's father. "Her mother will hug her goodbye and Terri will start to cry." Mrs. Schiavo often turns her head purposefully when people speak to her, according to affidavits filed this year by six neurologists. She makes guttural sounds that appear to be attempts at speech. She also opens her eyes during the day and closes them at night to sleep.

A total of nine neurologists have also stated that Terri Schiavo is not in PVS. "It is obvious to me that Ms. Schiavo is a viable human being who is at least semi-responsive to her environment," physician Richard Neubauer stated in a May 2001 affidavit. Dr. Neubauer is a recognized expert in hyperbaric oxygen therapy, a type of treatment he believes might improve Terri's condition. "She is not brain dead nor is she in a persistent vegetative state."

So why did a Florida appeals court on July 11 decide that Mrs. Schiavo should die sometime after July 20, unless a circuit court judge changes his mind? And why is Mrs. Schiavo at Woodside, a home for the terminally ill, in the first place? Because her husband Michael ordered her transferred there last year.

Mrs. Schiavo's trip to the hospice actually began in 1997, when Mr. Schiavo hired as his attorney George Felos, a yoga devotee and right-to-die specialist. Mr. Schiavo told Mr. Felos that before her attack, his wife had given him an "oral living will," telling him that if she ever were radically incapacitated, she would not want to be kept alive by artificial means. Terri Schiavo is not hooked to any heroic lifesaving devices, but Mr. Felos had in 1990 successfully argued before the Florida Supreme Court that tube-feeding constitutes artificial life support. In 1997, Mr. Felos filed with the Pinellas County Circuit Court, on Michael Schiavo's behalf, a petition asking that doctors withdraw Mrs. Schiavo's food and water.

When Mrs. Schiavo's parents Bob and Mary Schindler learned of the petition three months later, they were devastated. Since 1993, they had locked legal horns with Michael Schiavo over their daughter's future and his use of medical funds set aside for her care. That year, he'd cut off the Schindlers' access to her medical records. In addition, he refused to allow any physicians to examine her without his specific approval. To block Mr. Schiavo's attempt to end her life, the parents filed an objection to his petition.

The Schindlers charged that Mr. Schiavo was in a hurry to bury their daughter so he could inherit $700,000 in medical funds that remained from a 1992 malpractice settlement won on Mrs. Schiavo's behalf-and marry the woman he'd been engaged to for five years.

But when the life-support petition went to trial in 2000, Judge George Greer ruled that neither Mr. Schiavo's financial interests nor his love life were relevant to the case. Doctors testifying on Michael Schiavo's behalf called his wife's apparently conscious responses-laughing, crying, turning toward visitors-"reflexes." Mr. Schiavo and two of his relatives testified that Mrs. Schiavo had made statements to them, when healthy, about not wanting to be hooked up to machines.


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