What You Need to Know About Terri Schiavo
by Carrie Gordon Earll
Terri Schiavo’s fight for life was widely publicized in the media but do you know the facts?
Terri Schindler Schiavo died on March 31, 2005 after 13 days of court-ordered dehydration. She was a 41-year-old disabled Florida woman at the center of an ongoing legal dispute between her estranged husband, Michael, and her parents. Here is part of her story written in the present tense before her death:
In 1990 at 26-years of age, Terri collapsed in her home when her heart temporarily stopped, cutting off oxygen to her brain and leaving her severely brain damaged.
Terri is not dying or terminally ill; she is not brain-dead or in a coma. She is an otherwise healthy mentally disabled woman. The diagnosis that she is in a “vegetative state” is disputed by many medical experts, including neurologists. Some neurologists believe it’s possible that Terri is in a “minimally conscious state” (MCS)— a neurological diagnostic criteria first defined in 2002.1 Researchers are beginning to test this criteria against that of “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) with other patients. 2
Terri breathes on her own without the aid of a ventilator. Her only dependency is on a feeding tube into her stomach for liquids and nourishment.3 She swallows her own saliva, a fact that leads some experts in speech pathology to believe that with sufficient time and therapy, she could regain her ability to swallow fluids by mouth.4 As recently as 1997, nursing staff who cared for Terri testified that she could swallow fluids and Jello-O, follow people with her eyes and even speak. 5
Barbara Weller, an attorney for Terri’s parents, has posted narratives on the Internet describing her recent visits with Terri. During these visits, Weller witnessed purposeful interaction between Terri, her parents and other visitors. 6
At the time of her collapse, Terri did not have a written advance medical directive. Since her disability, medical decisions have been made by her husband, Michael Schiavo.
Michael Schiavo won a medical malpractice case on Terri’s behalf in 1992, pledging to use the money for Terri’s rehabilitation and care for the rest of her natural life. 7 The court awarded more than $1 million: $300,000 directly to Michael for his loss and additionally, more than $700,000 for Terri’s care. 8 Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, claim that prior to the settlement a neurologist recommended progressive therapy for Terri and that Michael agreed to provide such therapy, only to deny it and confine Terri to a nursing home after receiving the jury award. 9
It was after the settlement that Michael first claimed that Terri had previously stated that she didn’t want to be kept alive by artificial means — a statement he never mentioned during the malpractice trial. 10
As guardian, Michael Schiavo controls the $700,000-plus trust fund awarded for Terri’s care. 11 As of fall of 2003, Michael Schiavo’s attorneys reported that the trust fund was down to $50,000, with more than $430,000 going to “pay for court costs associated with her husband’s legal battle to remove his wife’s feeding tube.” 12 Meanwhile, Medicaid helps to pay Terri’s $5,000-a-month nursing costs at a hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida. 13
Since 1995, Michael Schiavo has lived with a girlfriend, Jodi Centonze, with whom he has two children. 14 Michael remained legally married to Terri, as well as her guardian, until her death. (Then, he married Centonze.)
In 1998, Michael Schiavo petitioned the court to have Terri’s feeding tube removed.
Terri’s parents have offered to take care of Terri at their own expense, allowing Michael to keep all money remaining in the trust fund. Michael Schiavo refused, insisting that Terri die from dehydration.
Florida Sixth Judicial Circuit Judge George Greer set Friday, March 18 at 1:00 p.m. EST as “date and time” certain to remove Terri’s feeding tube — an act that will cause the painful death of an otherwise healthy disabled person whose body processes and benefits from the nutrients and fluids she receives daily.
On February 25, 1990, 26-year-old Terri Schindler Schiavo collapsed in her home when her heart temporarily stopped, cutting off oxygen to her brain and leaving her severely brain injured.
In November 1992, her husband, Michael, won a medical malpractice lawsuit after claiming that doctors failed to diagnose the chemical imbalance that caused the heart attack. The court awarded approximately $1 million in damages with $300,000 to Michael for his loss and another $700,000 to Michael for Terri’s guardianship and care.
In July 1993, Terri’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, petition the court to have Michael removed as Terri’s guardian — a request that is denied in August 2001.
In May 1998, Michael Schiavo petitions the court to have Terri’s feeding tube removed, claiming that Terri told him that she did not want life-sustaining intervention in the event of her incapacitation.
In February 2000, Florida Circuit Judge George W. Greer rules that the feeding tube can be removed.
After several court appeals, it is removed on April 24, 2001. Two days later, Florida Circuit Judge Frank Quesada orders doctors to reinsert Terri’s feeding tube.
In October, 2001, the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeals indefinitely delays the removal of Terri’s feeding tube pending the examination of Terri by five physicians: two selected by Michael, two by the Schindler’s and one by the court. The two doctors selected by Terri’s parents tell the court that she can recover; the remaining three stated that she is in a vegetative state with no hope of recovery. The following month, Judge Greer again orders the feeding tube to be removed again. More court appeals follow.
On October 15, 2003, Terri’s feeding tube is removed for a second time. It is later reinserted.
October 20-21, 2003: the Florida State Legislature passed legislation (dubbed “Terri’s Law”) allowing Governor Jeb Bush to intervene, ordering the reinsertion of Terri’s feeding tube — six days after it was removed.
May 6, 2004 — January 24, 2005: Various courts, including the Florida Supreme Court, strike down “Terri’s Law” as unconstitutional; the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear the case.
March 2005: Members of the U.S. Congress and the Florida State Legislature introduce legislation to intervene on behalf of Terri and other medically vulnerable patients.
March 18, 2005: Terri feeding tube is removed for the third and final time. That same evening, Congress passes “Terri’s Law II” authorizing Terri’s parents to seek federal court review of whether her federal rights were protected. Over the next week, both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene on Terri’s behalf.
On March 31, at approximately 9:05 am, after almost 14 days without nutrition or hydration, Terri Schindler Schiavo dies from severe dehydration.
This page was originally posted on March 7, 2005.
Carrie Gordon Earll is the Senior Policy Analyst for Bioethics at CitizenLink (an affiliate of Focus on the Family) and a fellow with the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.
1 Affidavit of Neurologist Beatrice C. Engstrand, M.D., March 3, 2005; Affidavit of Neurologist Jacob Green, M.D., February 22, 2005; Affidavit of Neurologist Lawrence Huntoon, M.D., March 3, 2005. Some affidavits may be accessed on-line at www.terrisfight.org 2 J.T. Giacino, et al., “The minimally conscious state: Definition and diagnostic criteria,” Neurology, February 2002; 58: 349-353; Melanie Boly, et al., “Auditory Processing in Severely Brain Injured Patients,” Archives of Neurology, February 2004, 61:233-238. 3Abby Goodnough, “Governor of Florida orders woman fed in right-to-die case,” The New York Times, October 22, 2003. 4Affidavit of Speech Language Pathologist Sarah Green Mele, July 25, 2003; Affidavit of Carolyn Heron, M.D., March 3, 2005; Affidavit of Neurologist Beatrice C. Engstrand, M.D., March 3, 2005; Affidavit of Speech and Language Pathologist Jill Joyce, PhD, March 3, 2005. Some affidavits may be accessed on-line at www.terrisfight.org 5Affidavits of Certified Nursing Assistant Heidi Law, September 1, 2003; Registered Nurse Carla Sauer Iyer, September 1, 2003. 6Narrative by Barbara Weller on visit with Terri December 24, 2004; Narrative by Barbara Weller on visit with Terri February 24, 2005. 7Vickie Chachere, “Michael Schiavo says money, activists motivate in-laws,” Associated Press, October 28, 2003. 8Patrick Kampert, “Parents or husband: Who decides?; Courts to choose victor in battle over woman’s life,” Chicago Tribune, October 12, 2003. 9Interview with Robert and Mary Schindler, Larry King Live, September 27, 2004. 10Kampert, Associated Press. 11Hugo Kugiya, “Decision for Death; Florida woman’s feeding tube pulled after court okays action, Newsday, October 16, 2003. 12William R. Levesque, “Schiavo’s husband says he’ll fight back,” St. Petersburg Times, October 24, 2003; Chris Gray, “Both sides in Schiavo fight point to control of money,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 29, 2003. 13Mary McFachlin, “Schiavo case a growing legal, moral morass,” Palm Beach Post, October 26, 2003; Levesque, St. Petersburg Times. 14Rich McKay and Maya Bell, “How to deal with Terri Schiavo’s tragedy splits family,” Orlando Sentinel, October 26, 2003; Warren Richey, “Can state intervene in medical decisions?” Christian Science Monitor, August 3, 2004. 15With assistance from “Key Dates in the life of Terri Schiavo,” Associated Press, January 24, 2005.