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The Hearing to Save Terri Schiavo's Life

By Rus Cooper-Dowda                  

In 1990, Terri Schiavo's heart suddenly stopped. Before she could be revived, her brain was damaged and she slipped into a comalike state.

In early October [2002], the latest hearing began to determine the 38-year-old woman's fate. Her parents and their doctors say Terri is responsive and deserves to live. Her husband, who has just had a daughter by the woman to which he is now engaged, wants Terri to die.

Terri received a $700,000 malpractice award in the early 1990s (doctors hadn't done enough to diagnose the potassium deficiency that led to her heart attack); husband Michael has been paying his legal fees out of it in his fight to end her life. If she dies, as her husband (he has never filed for divorce) he will receive whatever funds are left.

Michael Schiavo says Terri is brain dead. He wants to remove her feeding tube and end her life. Her parents maintain that their daughter smiles, turns her head, vocalizes and tracks with her eyes. They say she would improve with treatment.

To date, the husband has refused to OK antibiotics or dental work -- "Her teeth are fine; she doesn't eat", he has said. She has not had physical, occupational, recreational or speech therapy for years. She has not had a mammogram or pap smear for four years. When a complete physical was ordered for her in preparation for the current hearing, a urinary tract infection was discovered.

The major issue involved in this round of the fight for her life is what is meant by "new" treatment. The hubby says it means untried, pointless care. The parents say they want the kind of care she hasn't gotten yet. The husband's doctors maintain that she does not feel pain, yet have prescribed pain medication for her to make the nurses feel better, they say. Terri's moaning and crying is only primitive brain stem activity, it's said. When she smiles at her mother coming in the room, it's just primitive stem cell activity, say the doctors hired by Michael.

I attended the hearing in Clearwater, Florida to determine whether Terri Schiavo should have her feeding tube removed. She is stable. She is not terminally ill. The hardest part of that first day was watching videos of Terri. "That could have been me", I thought. On one of the videos, a doctor asks Terri to open her eyes as widely as she can. While she was doing this on tape, I looked around the courtroom. Everybody in the courtroom was doing the same widening action ... including the husband, his attorney, the sheriffs and the judge himself.

In the videotape of Terri, she is responding to doctors and family. Sometimes she is responding to music. Frequently she can be seen clearly responding to spoken requests to move parts of her body. A snip of the tape was shown on Tampa's ABC-TV affiliate. At its end, the news anchor said, "I guess it seems a matter of semantics, but it doesn't look like a coma".

Throughout the hearing, Michael Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, has been trying to get doctors to agree that Terri is not "with it" enough to be allowed to continue her life. One of the doctors seemed to consider message boards a rare thing, and claimed to have never heard of the most famous computerized message board user of all -- Stephen Hawking. While examining Terri's videotaped interaction with her mother, he had to be asked twice to please look at his monitor, and to put his glasses back on so he could see his screen clearly.

And Ronald Cranford, a Minnesota neurologist known for his involvement in so-called "right-to-die" cases, seemed content to testify about the tapes without having viewed them.  Watching his own videotaped exam of Terri, I heard him first declare the woman could not hear him, and then giving her a series of very fast verbal commands. I've had neurological exams myself, but have never experienced one as physically brutal as the one I watched Terri receive on Cranford's videotape. He clumsily poked, prodded, thumped, shoved and pinched her -- she DID seem to pull away when he approached her, he testified. He thunked her hard between the eyebrows. She moaned. That was not a pain response, Cranford told the court.

On viewing a large photo of Terri and her mother joyously greeting, Cranford maintained Terri could not be recognizing her mother. It was only an "involuntary subcortical response", he said. The photo was "cheap sensationalism", he insisted.

Should the court base its decision as to whether Terri lives or dies on a nose count, asked Ms. Pat Anderson, attorney for Terri's parents, in her closing argument. No; credibility of the medical experts who'd testified was the key, she said.

Yet none of those saying Terri should die had any patients like Terri, she told the court, nor did they -- by their own testimony -- keep up on advances in rehabilitation. Anderson reminded the court that Terri's current attending physician has for years spent only spent ten minutes with her every four months.

What about the "untried" therapies for Terri? Much of the therapy Terri's parents want for her, Anderson said, has been standard therapy for a good while -- but somehow never for Terri. The experts speaking against Terri, she said, practiced an "intellectual disconnection" that filtered Terri's humanity through the sieve of what people with such disabilities are not expected to be able to do. "Is it fair or equitable to keep saying that we are not going to help you because 'you have brain damage'?" she asked the court. "Terri has shown us her spirit and tried as hard as she can under the circumstances to say, 'I'M STILL HERE!' "

After the hearing, I reflected. Those videotapes of Terri interacting with her environment had been both good and sad to see. Physicians who currently treat people with disabilities like Terri -- and everyone else in the courtroom -- can clearly see her voluntary responses -- to balloons, pain and humor. If you are fortunate enough to have a loving relationship with your mother, then it is very easy to see the love that passes between mother and adult child when Terri's mother enters the room.

The other side says that what we are seeing is merely an uncontrolled brain stem reflex -- that just coincidentally happens every time she sees her mother. Terri has never been given standard speech and communication therapy to enable her to tell us what she thinks. Because of that, she has lost the speech she is said to have had even after her injury. Now that same lack of therapy is being used against her.

The judge will wait until Thanksgiving to announce whether Terri lives or dies.

On January 3, 2003 at 3 pm there will be a international 24-hour vigil and fast to bring attention to the case of Terri Schiavo, whose feeding tube is scheduled to be removed at that date and time following the decision of a Florida judge.

The vigil and fast will be held regardless of the status of the legal appeal in commemoration of Terri's struggle to live as a person with disabilities.

For further information or to organize a vigil observance in your community, please contact Rus Cooper-Dowda or Roy T. Sniffen.

Rus Cooper-Dowda is a minister and freelance writer in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Reprinted with permission from the Ragged Edge magazine. All Rights Reserved. - posted 4-30-03

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