A decade later, Schiavo family still dealing with the pain
(NY Daily News) ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – On Terri Schiavo’s gravestone, it says she “departed this earth” on Feb. 25, 1990. Death, for most, is incontrovertible, but in Schiavo’s case, those words were the heart of an intense legal and social debate that divided a nation.
What happened on that winter morning in Florida was only the beginning of an odyssey of medical care, courtroom battles and political maneuvering that made her name synonymous with the words “right to life.”
Her feeding tube was pulled on March 18, 2005, more than 15 years after her husband found her unresponsive and without a pulse in their St. Petersburg home. The intensely public fight over Schiavo’s life culminated with her death on March 31, nearly two weeks later.
It was a day that never should have come, in the estimation of her parents and siblings.
“People have the impression that Terri was on machines. They think she was dying,” her brother, Bobby Schindler, told the Daily
News recently. But she wasn’t; she could breathe on her own, he said.
“We wanted to take care of her,” he said. “She was a living human being.”
Her parents and siblings argued that they spoke for her. But then there was Terri’s husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, who claimed he knew best and that Terri had often told him she would not want to be kept alive by artificial means.
The divide between the two sides was as wide as a canyon. And somewhere in the middle of all the bitterness, opinion, advocacy and publicity was Terri, unable to speak amid a prolonged war of words about whether she would have wanted to live or die in her current state.
Schindler said that the battle to keep his sister alive — she would be 51 had she lived — took an excruciating toll on him and his family. “It essentially killed my dad,” he said, noting that his father passed away in 2009 at age 71. “My dad could never live with the fact that he wasn’t able to stop his daughter from being killed in that way.”
In some ways, the fight never really ended. “We still haven’t gotten off the roller coaster,” said Schindler, 50, who runs a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit called Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, which aids the families of incapacitated individuals.
Bobby and Schindler’s mother, Mary, works at the foundation, as does his sister, Suzanne.
“It’s a lot of ups and downs. We didn’t really take the time to mourn because we pretty much jumped into this,” he said of the nonprofit work.
Theresa Marie Schindler was born on Dec. 3, 1963, in Lower Moreland Township, a suburb of Philadelphia.
She was overweight as a teenager and dieting was a central part of her life, Michael claimed.
She attended Bucks County Community College. She met Michael Schiavo in 1982. Two years later, they were married.
In 1985, they moved to Florida, following Terri’s parents, who retired there.
Five years later, Michael found his wife unconscious on the floor, her head in the hallway, her feet in the bathroom.
He called 911. Paramedics found her heart had stopped.
At the hospital, she was put on a ventilator to keep her breathing. She spent more than two months in a coma. When she emerged, she was unable to speak.
She was 26 years old.
Terri suffered severe brain damage because her brain was deprived of oxygen.
Multiple doctors diagnosed her as being in a persistent vegetative state.
But her family contended there were still signs that Terri was in there, somewhere.
Family videos showed her smiling and moving her head and limbs. She makes sounds, but not full words.
Hospital tests showed she had low potassium levels when she was admitted, which can cause seizures. Michael claimed Terri drank excessive amounts of iced tea, trying to keep her weight down, and that she suffered from bulimia, all of which can cause low potassium levels.
For three years, Michael Schiavo and Terri’s parents were on the same page about her treatment. They welcomed him to live with them.
Michael took her to California, where an experimental stimulator was placed in her brain. It didn’t change her condition.
Michael Schiavo did not respond to an interview request from the Daily News.
The Legal Fight
The bitter battle over Terri’s Schiavo’s life started with the fact that she did not have a living will, a legal document that stipulates one’s wishes for their medical care should circumstances render them unable to provide consent.
In June 1990, roughly four months after Terri’s heart attack, a court appointed Michael Schiavo as his wife’s legal guardian.
In 1992, Michael filed a malpractice suit against Terri’s obstetrician, saying the doctor failed to diagnose bulimia as the cause for her infertility. Michael eventually received about $300,000, and some $750,000 was put into a trust for Terri’s medical care.
By the mid-1990s, Michael Schiavo had moved on with his private life. He studied to become a nurse, and was living with Jodi Centonze, a woman he met in a dentist’s office.
When Terri developed a urinary tract infection in 1993, Michael did not want her to be treated with antibiotics. He tried to obtain a do-not-resuscitate order, but the Schindlers fought back in court.
And the battle was on to determine who would control the brain-damaged woman’s medical care — a question that would soon divide the country.
“Our case pertained to a medical patient’s right to chart their own medical care,” Michael Felos, an attorney who won a prominent right-to-die case prior to the Schiavo saga and who represented Michael Schiavo, told The News.
“No one has the right to say: ‘We don’t care what you want; here’s what we want,” Felos added. “When it comes to the Schindlers, many people saw it as their attempt to supplant Terri’s wishes with theirs.”
In 1998, Michael Schiavo filed a petition to remove Terri’s feeding tube, an act the Schindlers considered tantamount to murder.
Michael Schiavo and two others testified in court that Terri had said, on more than one occasion, that she didn’t want to be kept alive by “tubes” or other artificial means.
The Schindlers pulled out all the stops to keep Terri connected to a feeding tube, even eliciting the assistance of Florida’s then Gov. Jeb Bush. They argued that she was conscious, and responded to stimuli, using their home videos as evidence.
Jeb Bush’s staff did not respond to a request for comment from the Daily News.
“I don’t think that Terri would ever, ever, request that she be starved or dehydrated to death,” her brother said. “That’s quite different from being stuck on machines.”
The case grew into an ugly, drawn-out battle that featured years of procedural delays and legal maneuvering, 14 appeals and five federal lawsuits.
Congress got involved, as did Bush and his brother, George W. Bush, who was President.
The brothers spoke in favor of Terri’s parents and pushed through legislation at the state and federal levels to keep Terri connected to the feeding tube.
The legal fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused four times to hear the case. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the law which gave the governor power over Schiavo’s feeding tube was unconstitutional.
And the bill signed by the President, which moved the Schiavo case from Florida’s state court system to the federal courts, ultimately ended up with a federal appellate court ruling in favor of Michael Schiavo.
“What happens to your body is a personal right,” Felos said. “The court found that it was her right not to be tube fed.”
Along the way there were countless demonstrations over what became a cause celebre. Pro-life and right-to-life activists took up the cause on Terri’s behalf, as religious groups contended that removing Schiavo’s link to nourishment was the same as killing her.
“It was kind of a perfect storm,” said Schindler. “I don’t know why it received the political attention that it did.”
Michael Schiavo said he received death threats.
“It ended up having little to do with the issues at hand and the facts of the case,” Felos said.
Life After Terri
Ten years after her death, a terminally ill person’s right to choose death, under strict legal guidelines and with the help of a physician, is now law in four states, including Vermont and Oregon.
In the past decade, medical science has progressed, with new capabilities to monitor brain activity in trauma victims, which may have provided a clearer picture of Terri Schiavo’s brain functions while she was alive.
The Schindler family prays that someday Michael Schiavo will apologize.
“I pray that Michael will one day admit that what he did was wrong,” Schindler said.
That day will most likely never come.
Michael Schiavo, now 51, has said many times that he chose not to divorce Terri because he had promised her that he would never let her linger without quality of life.
And, he has said, he did not want to surrender legal guardianship to her parents, who would nullify that promise, he said.
The last words on her headstone: “I kept my promise.”
Those words infuriated the Schindlers, who say they weren’t told about their daughter’s burial until after it was done.
Michael and Jodi, now married, have two children.
Jeb Bush’s possible run in the 2016 presidential race has brought up old feelings of deep anger, Michael Schiavo has said.
In a recent interview with Politico, Michael said he is still angry at Bush, and plans to actively campaign against him should he become the GOP’s presidential nominee.
Life “was a living hell” after Bush waded into the raging rhetoric of Terri’s case, Schiavo said. “And I blame him.”
Calling Bush’s actions “unspeakable,” Schiavo said he’d like to question the former governor.
“Why? Give me an answer. Why? Why? What was Terri Schiavo to you? Why? Tell me why. Why do you think you had the right to be involved? Why would you put me and my family through hell?”