Terri Schiavo Fights For Life

Suppose you woke up one day and found yourself laid up on hospital bed surrounded by machines. Nurses, doctors, and family members in shocked surprise are glad to see your eyes come alive. You are told that you were in a coma due to a serious accident and that you've sustained a brain injury from severe head trauma. You gather enough of the details to know that something major has happened and that things will never be the same before slipping back into unconsciousness.

You wake again staring off into the sterile blank that is the ceiling of your hospital room. A frenzy of activity is happening around you. Doctors and nurses are busy assessing disposition. You feel stronger, present, more cognizant of reality and being back in body. You can make out shadows as passing glances of people, family members concerned for being, trying to will you into recovery.

Still fuzzy on the details, you hope that you'll be able to take care of yourself and not be a burden on anyone else. You decide to try to communicate with someone to let them know, you're aware of external proceeding. It is then that you learn that not only can you not speak clearly, but you can't maneuver your arms or hands in such a way as to be able to write down things you want to say. Desperation mounts, not only are you unable to speak, but doctors, nurses, and family have no idea whether you are coherent and just not responding to outside stimulus or unconscious to outside activity.

Like a scene from the Twilight Zone, one would never expect this kind of scenario to become a reality and yet this month, Terry Schiavo, a 38-year-old severely brain damaged woman for the past 12 years, is fighting for her life in Clearwater, Florida. Terri's tragic story stems from her trying to maintain a weight control problem. On February 25, 1990 she suffered cardiac arrest and slipped into a coma. She came out of the coma two months later and was severely brain damaged and unable to walk, talk or eat.

She never committed a crime or ever intended any harm upon society and yet she is in deliberation for her right to life, fate to be decided November 22nd, by Judge Greer who has already ruled in favor of Michael Schiavo in February 2000 calling for Terri's feeding tube to be removed for three days in April 2001 before a series of appeals put his order on hold. Terri's parents won court's approval for more medical tests and it was reinserted.

Her husband has been trying to convince the court that his wife has been and will continue to be in a 'passive vegetative state' with no promise of getting better. After receiving the award money in 1992, her husband ceased and prohibited any new or aggressive treatment for Terri. He has maintained her at a nursing home totally ignoring or denying rehabilitation therapy that could possibly assist Terri with recovery. He has even transferred her from the confined setting of a nursing home to one that offers even less in the way of therapy and rehabilitation. She's now in a hospice facility.

Since 1992, Terri's husband has consistently and deliberately withheld all medical information and data from Terri's family. Over the past seven years he has ordered Terri's caretakers not to reveal any medical or neurological information. He has fought hard to prevent examination of Terri by any physicians other than the ones who are aligned with him in killing Terri off. Physician's chosen by Terri's parents have found that she recognizes and interacts with her parents and could do better with actual rehabilitation.

At one point, she got a large amount of money for malpractice. The money handled well could have met her needs for the rest of her life. She is expected to live a very long time if the current judge does not starve her to death. Her husband's doctors are outspoken right-to-die doctors that have previously testified about the duty of doctors to terminate patients without quality of life as determined by the physician. In 1996, the British Medical Journal published a study authored by professionals from a leading neurological medical facility in Great Britain. The authors of the study found that fully 43% of the individuals referred to their facility diagnosed as being in PVS had actually recovered. The trouble, the authors said, was that it took time and effort to really assess a patient's ability to react, communicate, and interact with others. Some came out of PVS after entering the unit. Others had already come out of it, albeit unnoticed by the referring physicians.

The courts, the medical profession, and her husband seem to be in a rush to kill Terri Schiavo, while significant questions remain regarding her own wishes in the matter, her own level of awareness, and her prognosis for further recovery. Fortunately, her execution was put off the "fast track" by the Court of Appeals, which granted her a reprieve. Disability advocates have sided with Terri's parents, who have fought long and hard for Terri to be examined by qualified medical professionals of their choosing. The physicians who were finally allowed access to Terri have found that she recognizes and responds to her parents and would benefit greatly from rehabilitation.

Terri clearly reacts to stimulus and is by no means unresponsive or locked into a passive state. Her husband wants the legal right to disconnect food and nourishment intake by disconnecting her feeding tube so that she dies slowly from malnutrition and dehydration (a harsher penalty than nation allows for their most dangerous criminals.) The Schindler's (her parents) would like to give her rehabilitation, but cannot since her husband is her legal guardian. Although Michael Schiavo is still married to Terri, he's also engaged to another woman and has a newborn daughter of his own. Now her fate lies with Circuit Court Judge George Greer who will ultimately make that life or death decision by the end of the month.

A Tampa ABC affiliate showed coverage of a video of Terri interacting with her mother. The video played in court shows the Terri blinking her eyes, moving her head from side to side and appearing to smile when she hears her mother's voice and some piano music. It is having a dramatic impact on people who thought that Terri was totally incapacitated, unresponsive, and unspeaking. It shattered their personal opinion about what they had been led to believe was "PVS." Many were now disturbed that someone like Terri Schiavo could even be in court to be sentenced to starve to death. There is a changing public perception of what Terri Schiavo and other people with disabilities like her can do. The videotape shows Terri responding to doctors, family, music, and spoken requests. A lot of people who didn't "know" before know now.

Dr. Hammesfahr (neurologist who practices in Clearwater) asserted to the court that Terri is aware and could communicate. Also on video, He was able to help Terri extend her severely contractured arm to an amazing degree after only about five minutes of amateur physical therapy. Her face bloomed in happiness, peace and relief as her arm also opened up. According to Rus Cooper Dowda of Not Dead Yet, the courtroom was packed with at least 200 visibly disabled people in attendance. The few people supporting the husband sat on one side of the court. The larger number supporting Terri at every break surged around her parents to show their support. The husband wanting to discontinue Terri's feedings was strangely alone. Thanks to the hard work of advocates and a strong circle of friends and family, Terri has a chance. Thousands of times cases like this are judged with no family members or authority present to fight for the patients rights against what would be a doctor or judge's order to terminate life support. If not for the public out cry and community involvement, Michael Schiavo may have gotten away with something obviously wrong.

Community support for her right to life is what's keeping her alive, making this trial real in importance, affecting people on a deeper level. Thank God there is enough focus on this trial that everyone knows there will be repercussions. The court decision November 22nd will set precedence that will affect people with disabilities for generations to come. If the court endorses Terri Schiavo's execution, the decision will be used to justify further murders of disabled individuals at the "mercy" of the medical system. The current cultural bias is that people with disabilities and especially with severe disabilities are better off aided with suicide than aided in living. Most everything I read up until a few years ago was written in a way that demeaned the disability experience or was written by someone who had no authority on disability through direct experience themselves.

People with disabilities must band together to affect decisions that will have impact on our lives as well as the lives of future generations. We cannot allow trials like this to go unnoticed. I am glad that many with disabilities are there to make a point that we will not allow such decisions to be made unnoticed. Please if you live in the Clearwater, Florida area or anywhere near, show up at Pinellas County courtroom and lend your support. There is not a more important place to be.