She was kept from the hospice bedside of her 42-year-old child at the hour of death. Several weeks have since passed and she remains in the dark as to where her child’s spouse buried the cremated remains. In the place of consolation, the spouse offers the grieving mother derision and spite. The mother’s crime? Opposing the spouse’s dogged pursuit of her child’s death over the past seven years.
The mother’s name is Susan Colquhoun. She lives in Harare, Zimbabwe. Her nightmare mirrors that of Mary Schindler, mother of Terri Schiavo, the 41-year-old brain-injured woman who died one year ago tomorrow following the court-ordered removal of her feeding tube.
‘Angel of death’
Colquhoun’s son, Stephen, sustained a brain injury eight years ago, after being struck by lightning on the Tengwe farm where he was employed. Witnesses of the incident reported to the mother the extraordinary details. One standing nearby claimed Stephen was laughing at the sight of an ostrich in the distance, dancing and twisting itself into a fantastic feathery pretzel. Stephen had put his head back as he laughed, closed his eyes and exclaimed, “God! What a beautiful country this is!” At that moment, the lightning bolt struck him on the right temple, burning an inch-wide hole in the side of his head above his right ear and lifting him into the air. He landed on the ground several feet away.
From boyhood, Stephen, who is described as a perfect double for actor Kiefer Sutherland, loved violent storms and would run outside with his mother and siblings at the first sign of a deluge and lay on the lawn marveling at the sheet lightning. One night, when Stephen was 11, his mother remembers him running up to her “in a state of fear” following a storm.
“He said the most extraordinary thing,” Colquhoun recalls, ‘”‘The angel of death [lightning] has just flown over the house and I know it is looking for me, Mom.’ He never again shared the storms with us and his nightmares of being ‘trapped in a loaf of bread’ haunted him for years. It is as if he had known that one day he would be struck down by lightning and trapped within his own body.”
The lightning knocked Stephen unconscious and he remained in a coma for several weeks, during which time he underwent a tracheotomy. His mother was assured the device was merely a temporary “nursing aid,” but he was never weaned off of it over the subsequent eight years.
Stephen Colquhoun’s diagnosis depended on who was paying the doctor’s bill. Physicians hired by Stephen’s wife of approximately one year, Zana Colquhoun, determined he was in a permanent vegetative state, although no tests were ever taken to assess his level of consciousness. Answering a call for help from Susan Colquhoun and her family, a prominent neurosurgeon from South Africa flew to Harare to examine Stephen and reported there were signs of cognizance, but could not determine how much damage had occurred or how long he could survive.
The neurosurgeon admitted very little was known about lightning-strike victims, as it was rare for them to survive a direct hit. Africa has the highest lightning-strike fatality rate in the world. An expert on lightning-strike victims consulted over the Internet helped tip the scales in favor of Zana Colquhoun.
Like Terri Schiavo, in the months directly following his injury when he was given physical therapy, Stephen made progress toward rehabilitation. He moved limbs, wiggled toes and ate bowls of porridge by mouth. When his efforts to respond to commands during therapy sessions were applauded, Stephen is said to have returned the praise with a smile. Susan Colquhoun maintains she was able to communicate with her son through a language of hand squeezing and facial grimaces.
Zana Colquhoun wrote her observations at that time on a visitor’s journal kept on the wall beside Stephen’s bed, noting Stephen’s progress with optimism. Like Michael Schiavo in the early months following Terri’s injury, Zana Colquhoun believed her spouse was aware of her presence and that of their son born two weeks after Stephen’s lightning strike.
Then, as with Terri, Stephen’s rehabilitation was abruptly aborted on the orders of his spouse. Oral feeding was replaced by tube feeding. Plans to fly him to Johannesburg for special treatment in a hyperbaric chamber were abandoned. Like Terri Schiavo, he was transferred to a hospice facility. The team of physical therapists who had attended to Stephen on a daily basis was dismissed by the spouse, as was a subsequent therapist privately employed by Susan Colquhoun. No explanations were given.
Will to live or die?
As in the Terri Schiavo case, the reason for stopping rehab was not financial. Zana Colquhoun received substantial sums of money in donations to fund Stephen’s care. Like Michael Schiavo, Zana Colquhoun, who already was dating another man, decided her spouse needed to die. Her apparent change of heart coincided with the e-mailed prognosis from the lightning-strike victims’ expert, whom neither met nor examined Stephen. She suggested he would be better off dead. The recommended course of action from this prominent physician was to introduce Stephen to the “old man’s friend,” which is a euphemism in the medical community for pneumonia left untreated until death ensues.
In a 1999 letter addressed to her mother-in-law and Stephen’s siblings, a
copy of which was obtained by WND, Zana Colquhoun demanded her husband
should not be “forced” to live.
“Steve is lying in bed with absolutely no function of any part of his body and certainly, to me, there is no hope or sight of any possibility to prove otherwise,” Zana Colquhoun wrote. “My opinion is that there is no noticeable, meaningful or significant improvement. And maybe he hasn’t chosen to live like this, but rather we are responsible for forcing food and medication down his throat daily, which is keeping him alive.”
“Whether this is his will or not, we will never know,” she added. “But
knowing Steve as I did, I am quite sure that this is not the way he would
have chosen to live.”
Zana Colquhoun’s family backed her stance, as did the hospital and hospice administrators who were bound by law to answer to the patient’s next of kin. Just as in the case of Terri Schiavo, the spouse had the legal upper hand in the dispute. Susan Colquhoun believes that needs to change.
“It makes a mockery of basic human rights when a comparative stranger enters a family through marriage and has the immediate right to decide on whether their partner can live or die,” she asserts. “And the parent loses all rights to save their child, under circumstances such as those experienced by the Schindlers, myself and untold thousands of others.”
Susan Colquhoun and Stephen’s siblings viewed his situation entirely differently from his wife.
“If my son wanted to die, he would have done so years back,” Colquhoun stated to WorldNetDaily. “I have a report from a doctor I smuggled into the nursing complex a couple of years ago, confirming that Stephen was very cognizant and co-operative, but [was] in a poor state of nutrition and [had] a malfunctional trach tube which [was] likely to cause dependency pneumonia. The report also refers to lack of sufficient physiotherapy, which is essential for patients in Stephen’s condition.”
Susan Colquhoun describes an uphill battle to keep her son healthy over the years following his brain injury, and meeting with constant resistance from his caregivers who took their orders from Zana Colquhoun. When she discovered her son feverishly fighting the infection of bedsores, or dependency pneumonia as a result of the tracheotomy tube in his throat, she arranged for him to receive care and antibiotics from a wound specialist. When Stephen started to appear “skeletal,” Colquhoun says she got his weight back up by bringing homemade, high-protein soups and feeding him, while his brother in South Africa arranged for him to receive special food supplements.
Stephen’s tracheotomy tube was left uncovered at one point, allowing flies to feed on the raw flesh around the stoma. Cockroaches that were breeding in the frame of his hospital bed moved into the tube. After watching her son cough up dead cockroaches, Colquhoun erected a mosquito net around his bed. On the orders of the facility’s administrator, this was immediately taken down. Colquhoun reports that after she threatened to bring in the police and the media, the netting returned and was kept in place.
Colquhoun alerted the International Red Cross, the Nursing Association and a human rights attorney, but got nowhere.
Family dispute becomes public debate
In May 2001, the familial debate over Stephen’s fate spilled onto the editorial pages of the weekly local newspaper, the Financial Gazette, beginning with a column by reporter Grace Mutandwa, who had visited Stephen at the hospice.
“I know deep in my heart, that it would be wrong to let this young man die,” Mutandwa wrote. “He is mentally alert, recognises people, gets quite excited when his mother visits and while squeezing your hands tries to mouth ‘hello’ or ‘hi’. Yes, he might be bedridden and has developed paralysis, possibly through lack of adequate physiotherapy, but should he just be left to die?”
Zana Colquhoun responded with a letter to the editor. “Every medical opinion [concurred] that there [was] no prospect of improvement,” she wrote, maintaining her husband remained “deeply unconscious.” She also disputed the suggestion of medical negligence and abuse.
“I was 25 years old at the time of the tragedy and I have worked tirelessly and to the utmost of my ability to ensure that Stephen is looked after to the best possible standard in Zimbabwe,” Zana Colquhoun wrote. “I have been devastated and very deeply hurt by the unwarranted and unsubstantiated attack by Grace Mutandwa … concerning Stephen’s treatment. Most offensive is the suggestion that attempts have been made to terminate my husband’s life. The fact that Stephen is still alive three and a half years after his injury is more than adequate proof that there is no such intention.”
Stephen’s brother, David Colquhoun, penned a rebuttal in another letter to the editor: “My brother is alive today due to the wonderful care that his privately employed nursing staff have provided over the last three and a half years, together with Stephen’s amazing willpower to stay alive,” he wrote. “I believe that together with his nurses and the right rehabilitation programme he would have been afforded a far better quality of life today.”
On Dec. 6, 2005, Stephen Colquhoun died of a reported massive heart attack. According to the death certificate, the heart attack was triggered by bronchopneumonia in the right lung. He’d made the acquaintance of the “old man’s friend.” Stephen’s body was moved to the morgue hours before his mother was informed of his death by his eldest brother in Johannesburg. Neither the widow, nor the hospital administrators contacted the mother with the news. By the time she reached the hospital, her son was gone and all traces of his ever being there completely erased.
U.S. ‘exporting euthanasia’
Susan Colquhoun sees no coincidence in the eerie parallels between her family’s ordeal and that of the Schindlers continents away. She believes the death of Terri Schiavo lit the fuse of euthanasia around the world. “Terri Schiavo” became a household name in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere.
“I knew the moment I learned of Terri’s demise, my son would have less than six months of life left to him, unless I could get him out of the hospice and under the care of a doctor who cared enough to help,” Colquhoun wrote WND. “I believe to this day, they refused to let me take him out, because he was a living testimony to the practice of deliberate negligence leading to ensured fatality. Nothing I can do or say will bring my son back to me, but I cannot remain silent while so many innocent human beings are suffering in silence under a sentence of death imposed on them by a society that has lost all sense of value for human life.”
“The Third World takes very careful note of what goes on in the USA, as it is regarded as the most powerful country in the world, as indeed it is,” she continued. “What the USA does must be right – ergo – to dispatch human waste because it offends, or because the law considers it useless to let someone unfortunate enough to suffer [brain injury] … continue their right to live.”
In addition to the global precedent set by the death of Terri Schiavo, Colquhoun draws a more direct tie between the U.S. and her son’s death. The physician her family first consulted over the Internet for expert medical advice on treating lightning-strike victims was located in the U.S. In an e-mail to the Colquhoun family, the doctor suggested Stephen would be better off being helped out of this world through “old man’s friend.” And that is where Susan Colquhoun’s nightmare, and Stephen’s dying, began.
As in the United States, euthanasia is illegal in Zimbabwe. But if you ask Susan Colquhoun, euthanasia takes place under cover of malpractice and medical negligence.