Terri Schiavo: Death, Religion, Reason and Emotion

Entered 4-2-05 by Ken Wear after the death of Terri Schiavo

Terri Schiavo focuses our attention on death and the interplay of reason, emotion and religion as expressed in a 'Culture of Life.'

In the search for common elements in Terri's case it is necessary to know something of the history of the tragedy and events during the ensuing fifteen years. I have learned, from the World Wide Web:
As a teenager Terri was very overweight. She chose to lose weight in order to become more attractive on the marriage market and, after losing 65 pounds, men began paying closer attention to her, including her future husband. She acquired unwise eating habits, became bulimic and in time suffered cardiac arrest, which was determined to be due to a potassium deficiency resulting from her bulimia. She was resuscitated but did not regain consciousness at any time after cardiac arrest. Had husband Michael not insisted on resuscitation, Terri likely would have been pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. That was February 25, 1990; her body was maintained artificially after resuscitation. (A more complete history appears at the end of this document.)

A jury was convinced of the medical malpractice of doctors in not diagnosing Terri's bulimia. They awarded $750,000 to her and $300,000 to her husband. The husband was guardian and controlled her assets.

Diagnostically, a CT scan in 1996 revealed profound abnormalities, an EEG performed revealed no electrical activity and a 2002 CAT scan demonstrated massive atrophy. I have found no information on treatments at the time of cardiac arrest or at any time after resuscitation. Undoubtedly court documents contain full details.

In 1998 her husband, Michael, petitioned the Pinellas County court to remove the feeding tubes but her parents objected. I found no information on when the press became aware and the resultant flurry of public concern that led to contributions for Terri's legal defense. A crucial point in the legal dispute between Terri's parents and husband lies in the absence of documented information about her wishes, whether she would have wished to remain physically alive although mentally dead in the hope of eventual awakening or whether she would have wished to forego further treatment so physical life could end and release her spirit. Florida courts concluded it would have been her wish to end life in preference to living in a persistent vegetative state.

I note that:
1) Brain scan technology has advanced greatly in the intervening years and the determination of death now revolves around brain death rather than cessation of bodily function.
2) Hyperbaric oxygen therapy has been promoted to reinvigorate parts of the brain affected by stroke.
3) Research continues and further advances in medicine should pinpoint regions of the brain that are crucial to recovery and central to determination of brain death.

I speculate that:
Terri and her parents lived in the embrace of the Roman Catholic Church; Michael was Lutheran. I suppose the Catholic church's position is that, as long as there is some vestige of life, all available means must be undertaken to support that life2 To view footnote click here, Whatever personal opinion Terri might have held, as a young (26 year old) woman with no hint of concern for such late-life issues, it is unlikely she would have prepared legal papers to document it .

I have no doubt of emotional commitments at the time of Terri's cardiac arrest and I do not question that the religious faith of those involved came into play. Fifteen years is a big chunk of life for any of us, and no doubt attitudes changed during those fifteen years. As a skeptic and sometimes cynic, I must pursue another line of thought in the evolution of attitudes on the part of parents, husband and others: the influence of money.

As husband Michael was in control of her award. In the event of divorce there may have been grounds for contention over control of the money, but he did not pursue divorce (which is contrary to Roman Catholic teachings). Resolution of the controversy of continuing life support versus allowing death could have been solved very simply by surrendering control to the parents, who could then have maintained life support as long as they felt it justified.

Enter the public and lawyers. Terri's parents, the Schindlers, accepted donations toward their legal expenses. The Terri Schiavo Foundation was formed. The Web gives no indication of the public's generosity or whether the parents benefited; those are trivial issues. Possibly the lawyers saw an opportunity for personal enrichment and sought to continue the case as long as they could. While the Culture of Life may have been foremost motivation in the early years of Terri's vegetative life, the question of money leaves me in the quandry whether Culture of Life issues continued to drive this case or whether financial concerns evolved to become paramount during those 15 years.

To me quality of life is central, but in many minds the death of Terri Schiavo is linked to the abortion issue through the Culture of Life. In that light the issues of life and death that are invoked in her case may fall into the divide between ethical and religious issues. While I am a strongly spiritual being, I have chosen to try to find common ground between science, philosophy and religion through application of the powers of mind.

The Culture of Life pits advocates of "Support all real and suspected human life at any price" against advocates of "Quality of life" and "Object of affection" as well as economic sanity. Operation of the law in Terri's case, I feel, considered the futility of further contention but gave all interested parties ample opportunity to vent their concerns.1 To view footnote, click here.

I have composed an essay on the social contract; which you may view by clicking here; it pursues a number of aspects of the culture of life. (Abortion is also considered part of the culture of life; comment on the 'quality of life' aspect of this topic appears if you click here.)

6-15-05 Since posting this commentary, the results of autopsy have been revealed. Brain size had shrunk to half normal; there was no evidence of ability to see or otherwise respond. Death was by dehydration, but there could have been no sensation of pain. One would think that results of medical tests in 1996 would have convinced all concerned that any meaningful recovery was beyond the realm of possibility. I can only speculate on the influence of the lawyers and donations from an interested public.

3-31-07 I awoke this morning reflecting on the role of each participant in this drama: husband, parents and siblings, medical personnel, lawyers, jury, the press, donors toward legal expenses, judges, congressmen: Did not each person in turn act in keeping with his own conscience? Private decisions in the name of Christian love and compassion. My Easter thought: What would life be like had Jesus of Nazareth not walked upon Earth?

If you wish to go to the Table of Contents of this web site, click here.

I have since composed a poem and set it to music. The poem appears below, and, as soon as I master the techniques for preparing a proper song sheet, that will appear. Copyright is registered. The peom (without music) was published in Integra, the journal of Intertel (an international IQ club), in September 2005. (5-10-07: A copy of the music as it now appears, prepared on my home computer, may be viewed by clicking here.

Curiously, I awoke one Saturday morning shortly after Terri's demise with phrases and tune running through my mind. I could not shake them; they persisted; so I set about, with paper and keyboard, setting it down on paper. Before the week end was over, lyrics and melody were complete.

Terri Schiavo lay in a coma fifteen years from 1990 until her death in 2005. Fifteen years is a big chunk out of anyone's life, but I have tried to capture it in this song:

To Terri, From Mike: a ballad for Terri Schiavo

I wrote a song for you, my love, to tell you how I feel
Your Mom and Dad, they loved you, too; you even made the news
For fifteen years we watched and prayed that you would wake again
Your soul is gone; the case is closed; forever rest in peace

You grew up fat; men turned away; you wanted life with love
Those sixty pounds you lost for me then led to your disease
Your doctors failed; your heart beat stopped; machines kept you alive
Insurance paid; the newsmen heard; our lives were ne’er the same

Your brain had died; your body lived; we knew not what to do
But money flowed and people cared and lawyers found their case
I tried to live a normal life; two children came from that
Your folks and I fought long and hard; we prayed for us and you

Your name’s a household word by now; your soul looks from above
You know we did the best we could; our love was ne’er in doubt
God knows my heart; I loved you so; but fate pulled us apart
Our story ends and life goes on, but no one will forget

Added Oct. 2008: Theresa Marie Schindler was born Dec. 3, 1963, as the first child of Robert and Mary Schindler, and she grew up in Huntingdon Valley, a suburb of Philadelphia. She graduated from Archbishop Wood Catholic High School in '81, after which their family physician suggested the NutriSystem diet to lose weight -- and she lost 55 pounds. Although she acquired unwise eating habits in order to lose weight, she apparently never confided that to any one. She met Michael Schiavo (born April 3, '63, in Levittown, PA) in sociology class at Bucks County Community College in '82 and in a few months he proposed. They married Nov. 10, '84 in a Catholic church in Pennsylvania; she weighed 140 pounds at the time.

In '86 they moved to St. Petersburg, FL, and lived in her parents' condo until they took early retirement. Michael worked as a restaurant manager and she worked as an insurance clerk. She wanted to be a veterinarian and he became a respiratory therapist and registered nurse. They had no children. In May, '89, she weighed 121 pounds and the family physician referred her to an obstetrician/gynecologist. In the early morning of Feb. 25, '90, she collapsed and suffered cardiac arrest. Michael was appointed legal guardian. The cause of cardiac arrest has never been determined; it is not clear whether she had bulimia; and at no time has there been evidence of abuse.

After 2-1/2 months Terri emerged from coma and regained a sleep-wake cycle but did not exhibit repeatable and consistent awareness of herself or her environment. In '92 Robert Schindler accused Michael of involvement in Terri's collapse; also in '92 Michael was awarded the money from his malpractice suit and received payment in Feb. '93. Months later Terri contracted a urinary infection and Michael entered a "Do Not Resuscitate" order, which was later reported as 'predicated on his reasoned belief that there was no longer any hope for Terri's recovery.' In '93 Mr. Schindler tried to have Michael removed as Terri's guardian. Thus the squabbling commenced.

Public and court documents carry the full story of disagreements and public involvement. Michael petitioned to have the feeding and hydration tubes removed from Terri in '98; at trial in 2000 the court determined she would not want to be 'kept alive on a machine;' but the controversy remained the province of local newspapers until Nov., 2002. The saga ended with removal of the tubes under court supervision March 18, '05; her death is recorded as March 31 from dehydration. Her ashes are interred at the Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park, Clearwater, FL.

(Michael reported his father-in-law suggested in '91 that he 'get on with his life,' which suggests there was at that time a recognition of the hopelessness of recovery. Evidently outside people came to exert a controlling influence.

Michael had two children with Jodi Centonze, Clearwater, FL. They were married after Terri's death.)

1 Footnote: There was a short-lived effort by the Congress of the U.S. to inject federal authority into what was obviously a local matter. Fortunately, that effort failed and the Constitution of the United States was not further emasculated by this case.
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2March 14, 2009 The Roman Catholic teaching as it applies to withdrawing Terri's life support: Reading from the American Catholic newsletter: "Does the obligation to prolong life ever cease? Yes, if prolonging life does not help the person strive for the purposes of life. Pursuing life’s purposes implies some ability to function at the level of reasoning, relating and communicating. If efforts to restore this cognitive-affective function can be judged useless or would result in profound frustration (that is, a severe burden) in pursuing the purposes of life, then the ethical obligation to prolong life is no longer present." Note "can be judged useless." I offer no comment.
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