Editor’s note: The following is an excerpted speech delivered to the student body of North Greenville University in North Greenville, S.C., by Diana Lynne, author of a powerful, comprehensive book on Terri Schiavo’s life and death, titled “Terri’s Story: The Court-Ordered Death of an American Woman.”
Imagine for a moment you’re driving along the highway after dark and a deer darts across the road in front of you. You swerve and succeed in missing the animal, but your car careens head-on into a tree. You’re transported to the hospital where doctors determine you’ve sustained a severe brain injury. You’re in a coma.
According to the legal description, you are incapacitated – you cannot speak for yourself. Who would speak for you? Who would make the decisions regarding your medical care? Would it be your mother? Your father? Your spouse? Your brother? Who would have the power to order the removal of the ventilator you rely on for breathing or the feeding tube you rely on for nourishment? Does that person or persons share your core values? Would they choose life or death for you?
Terri Schiavo was a practicing Catholic who attended Catholic schools all the way through to her high-school graduation. She routinely attended Mass with her parents, and siblings and, in fact, did so approximately 12 hours before her still-unexplained collapse and brain injury. The Catholic doctrine she would have learned is that it is morally appropriate for a patient to forego extraordinary or aggressive medical treatment if it poses more of a burden than a benefit. Terri’s gastric feeding tube could neither be considered aggressive treatment nor burdensome according to Catholic tradition, and thus its removal would likely have been viewed by Terri as a sin. (The late Pope John Paul II clarified the Church position on the removal of feeding tubes in March 2004, calling it “true and proper euthanasia by omission.”)
In Terri’s case, her husband of five years, Michael Schiavo, applied for and was granted the authority by a court to speak for Terri. As we all know, he ultimately chose death for Terri. Here’s a stunning fact: If Terri and Michael were simply boyfriend and girlfriend – had they not been married, Terri would be alive today. We would never have even heard of the name “Terri Schiavo.” Michael Schiavo could not have been appointed by the court as her legal guardian. This responsibility would have fallen to Terri’s parents who believe in the sanctity of life.
Terri Schindler met classmate Michael Schiavo during her second semester at community college. It was love at first sight for both of them. They spoke of marriage on their second date and got engaged five months later. Because Michael Schiavo was raised Lutheran, the couple attended prenuptial counseling with the Schindler family’s Roman Catholic parish priest. Michael was then given a dispensation to marry into the Roman Catholic faith. The couple married on Nov. 10, 1984.
Opposite work schedules and financial pressures reportedly created marital strife for the young couple. So too did Michael’s reported controlling nature. He is said to have monitored Terri’s odometer and restricted her from going anywhere after work. Terri’s work mate and best friend in Florida testified she and Terri discussed divorcing their husbands and moving in together. Terri’s brother, Bobby Schindler, and her mother, Mary Schindler, also say Terri confessed to them she was unhappy in her marriage and wished she had the courage to file for a divorce.
According to her father, Bob Schindler, Terri’s faith was a bone of contention in the marriage. In a sworn affidavit, Schindler stated Michael showed no interest in Terri’s faith and, on occasion, made derogatory or condescending comments about her going to Mass. For this reason, he said, Terri would go to Mass during the week with her girlfriend or on Saturday evenings with her parents or sister while Michael was at work.
At 5:40 a.m. on Feb. 25, 1990, a 911 call summoned emergency responders to the apartment where Terri and Michael Schiavo lived. Paramedics arrived to find Terri lying face down on the floor, unconscious and not breathing. How she got this way remains a mystery to this day. According to Michael Schiavo, Terri and he had been sleeping and she got up for some reason. He heard a thud in the hallway and rushed out to find her lifeless body.
Over the years Michael Schiavo has offered varying accounts of how he found Terri. In some versions he found her body lying face down, in other versions he found her lying face up. One consistent detail he offers: He did not attempt to revive his wife with CPR even though he knew how to administer it. He says he “panicked.”
By all accounts, Michael Schiavo was a doting husband following Terri’s collapse who practically lived at the hospital over the 10 weeks Terri Schiavo was there. At the rehabilitation facilities and nursing homes she resided in afterward, Schiavo hounded the caregivers to provide excellent care for his wife. He was known to lose his temper with caregivers to the extent that one facility filed a restraining order against him.
Terri made progress in her therapy over these two years, according to her medical record, to the point of responding to visual stimuli, albeit inconsistently, and uttering the words “yes,” “no” and “stop that” during physical therapy sessions. Michael Schiavo kept a diary during the early months in which he documented the headway she was making with optimism. Passages from the diary indicate he felt Terri was responsive and aware – not a vegetable.
Doctors didn’t share his enthusiasm and felt Terri wasn’t progressing enough to justify the level of care she was receiving. In mid-1991, her therapy was stepped down to once a month and she was transferred to a nursing home. In the words of Schindler attorney Pat Anderson, 17 months after her brain injury Terri Schiavo was “put on the shelf.” Over the subsequent 13 years, and despite the recommendation of Terri’s treating physician, Michael Schiavo ordered Terri not receive further rehabilitative therapy.
In January 1993, Michael Schiavo collected $2.25 million from a lawsuit he filed against two of the doctors Terri saw prior to her injury. He argued they should have prevented her collapse. During the malpractice trial, Michael Schiavo cried on the witness stand and told the jury he believed in his wedding vows – through sickness and in health. He said he was attending nursing school to learn how to care for Terri and he intended to take her home and care for her for the rest of his life. After attorneys’ fees and other expenses were paid, Schiavo netted approximately $350,000 for himself for loss of consortium and some $776,000 was put in a trust fund to pay for Terri’s medical care for the rest of her life.
Six months after pocketing the money, Michael Schiavo attempted to kill Terri by ordering her doctor to not treat a urinary tract infection. He later testified he understood that not treating the infection would have allowed it to develop into sepsis, or a full-body infection, which is fatal if left untreated. When asked in a deposition why he was trying to kill Terri,
Schiavo responded, “Because I think it’s what she’d want.” His attempt to end her life was frustrated by the nursing home caregivers, who disregarded Schiavo’s orders and gave Terri the antibiotics she needed.
At around this same time, according to Schiavo, a consulting neurologist raised the idea of pulling Terri’s feeding tube. Here’s another stunning fact: Michael Schiavo himself expressed revulsion at the suggestion. He testified that he responded, “I couldn’t do that to Terri.”
Yet, what Schiavo found morally wrong in 1993 morphed into a moral imperative three years later after he came in contact with attorney George Felos, who describes himself as a crusader for the right to die and boasts ties to a right-to-die organization with roots in the euthanasia movement in the early 20th century. Schiavo had also gotten engaged to and was living with another woman with whom he would father two children and ultimately marry after Terri’s death.
Although three people filed court affidavits swearing to conversations with Michael Schiavo in the early years following Terri’s collapse, during which he stated he didn’t know what to do and didn’t know what Terri would want, by 1997 after hiring George Felos Michael Schiavo suddenly recalled end-of-life statements allegedly made by Terri, which ultimately persuaded Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge George Greer that Terri wanted to die. It mattered little to Greer that Terri was said to have stated, “Where there’s life, there’s hope” in reference to the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, the subject of the first high-profile court battle over a woman deemed to be in a persistent vegetative state.
Despite Michael Schiavo’s flip-flop on the issue of removing Terri’s feeding tube, despite reneging on his promise to take care of Terri for the rest of her life, despite all of his inconsistent testimony about Terri’s collapse (which raises questions about his credibility in the eyes of veteran detectives), despite the fact that when he filed the petition seeking the removal of Terri’s feeding tube he stood to inherit the hundreds of thousands of dollars in her medical trust fund upon her death, despite the evidence Terri wasn’t happy in her marriage to Michael Schiavo prior to her injury and possibly would not have, herself, appointed him as her legal spokesperson, Judge Greer kept Michael Schiavo in the role of Terri’s guardian and denied numerous requests on the part of her parents for either themselves or her brother or sister to replace him. And, in the end, Michael Schiavo’s testimony on what Terri would want carried the day.
Experts stress you should designate in writing whom you want to speak for you in the event you become incapacitated. This person is called a health-care surrogate or proxy. Most living wills give you the opportunity to name a health-care surrogate. Most commonly, health-care surrogates are spouses. Given this, the best way to protect yourself in the event of incapacitation is to surround yourself with people who share your core values, and will go to bat for you against doctors and nurses who hold contrary views.
The moral of Terri’s story: Choose your mate wisely. Your life depends on it.