tampabay.com

For two families, even grief is divided

By TOM ZUCCO, JAMIE THOMPSON, WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, KELLEY BENHAM, LEONORA LaPETER and THOMAS FRENCH
Published April 1, 2005


In the two weeks after her feeding tube was removed, the struggle over Terri Schiavo's life and death was waged at the Governor's Mansion, in a handful of courthouses, on the floor of the Florida Legislature, in both houses of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the White House, even the Vatican.

But in Schiavo's final few hours, as her breathing grew more labored, the conflict edged its way inside the stillness of her Pinellas Park hospice room.

At dawn Thursday, Bobby Schindler and Suzanne Vitadamo - Terri's brother and sister - fought for more time at their sister's side. They had sat with her the previous evening and wanted another chance before she died. They needed permission from Terri's husband, Michael Schiavo, still in the room with his dying wife.

"Can you ask him to leave for like half an hour?" a visibly angry Bobby Schindler asked a Pinellas Park police officer. "Ask him that. Give us a half hour."

The officer nodded. For years, the estrangement between Michael Schiavo and the Schindler family had prevented them from seeing Terri together. Michael could be in the room, or the Schindlers. But not at the same time.

Now, as Terri neared the end, the divide between her husband and her family only seemed to widen.

* * *

The circle around Terri Schiavo, already secure, tightened Thursday. Many of the people involved retreated behind closed doors, preferring to grieve in private. The details of Terri's last hours and death emerged in bits and pieces, from different voices, different corners of the debate.

Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers were both desperate for as much time as possible with Terri before she died. And just as the two sides had fought in court for years, they now maneuvered inside the relative quiet of Hospice House Woodside.

The routine, established in the harried days before, took on a heightened urgency Wednesday night. Unless the Schindlers were visiting, Michael Schiavo stayed in Terri's room, accompanied by his brother Brian and often his attorneys George Felos and Deborah Bushnell.

In an interview late Thursday, Brian Schiavo said he and Michael had stayed up all night, sitting with Terri except when the Schindlers came in. As the night wore on, Brian said, he and Michael talked to Terri and rubbed her arms and legs, which were cold and mottled. They traded stories about the old days with the girl they used to know.

Brian told the one about the time when Michael and Terri were dating and Brian went into the dry cleaner where she worked. He took off his pants and handed them to her. Said he'd wait. Brian stood there in his white briefs while Terri ran to the back, screaming and cracking up.

They told the one about Brian and Michael spoofing a synchronized swimming routine in the pool, and Terri laughing her huge, infectious laugh.

Most of the time, during the vigil of the past two weeks, the Schiavo brothers did not hear the protesters outside. They kept the blinds closed in case people tried to sneak around the building and look in at her. They heard a bit of a horn; it sounded like a bagpipe. They'd go to the room across the hall and look out the window at the scene outside. It reminded them, Brian said, of the St. Michael's Fair back home in Pennsylvania.

"It was a carnival," Brian said. "Did you see they had jugglers there?"

As Wednesday night blurred into Thursday morning, Michael and Brian knew it was Terri's last night. Her breathing had grown rapid and erratic. Her eyes were open, but like always, Brian said, she seemed to look right through them.

Outside the hospice, Bobby Schindler was pleading with the Pinellas Park police officer for another visit. An officer knocked on the door of Terri's room and told Michael that Bobby wanted to see her. Michael and Brian, groggy, got themselves together and said okay, then went to another hospice room down the hall where they'd been living for days.

Just after 7:30 a.m., Bobby Schindler and his sister Suzanne - accompanied by a priest, Father Frank Pavone - were led to Terri's bedside. They stayed in the room for about an hour and a half.

According to Pavone, Terri could not focus her eyes and was breathing with difficulty. The hospice workers, he said, told him and the Schindler siblings that Terri wouldn't make it through another day.

They prayed over Terri, held her hand, stroked her hair. Pavone sang hymns in Latin, including Hail Holy Queen , a chanted version of Ave Maria and Veni Creator Spiritus . They recited the rosary and delivered the chaplet of divine mercy, a series of prayers asking God's mercy.

"For the sake of his sorrowful passion," they said, "have mercy on us and on the whole world."

While Bobby and Suzanne said their goodbyes, Michael and Brian Schiavo waited in the room down the hall. What happened next is unclear. According to Brian Schiavo and Felos, a hospice worker told them that Bobby Schindler had argued with an officer outside Terri's room. Apparently, a nurse had asked everyone to leave the room so Terri's condition could be assessed.

Bobby, Felos said, didn't want to leave and suggested he and Suzanne be allowed to stay until Terri died, even if Michael Schiavo was inside the room. If necessary, he said, an officer could supervise.

Michael Schiavo decided against it.

"Mr. Schiavo's overriding concern here," Felos said, "was to provide for Terri a peaceful death with dignity."

Paul O'Donnell, a Franciscan friar who was a spiritual adviser to the Schindlers, acknowledged later that the police had asked Bobby and Suzanne to leave. But O'Donnell denied that there'd been a problem.

Just before 9 a.m., a hospice nurse hurried into Michael's and Brian's room.

"If you want to see Terri," the nurse said, "you need to go now."

Michael Schiavo went to his wife and cradled her. Terri lay on her left side, wearing a pale nightgown. The covers were pulled up. She had stuffed animals under her arms. Four hospice workers in the room were crying.

Michael held his wife and talked to her. Brian stood next to Michael, massaging his back.

"Michael," he said, "it's going to be all right."

Almost immediately, Terri stopped breathing.

"We were there about 60 seconds," Brian said, "and she was gone."

The lawyers and nurses left Michael and Brian alone with her after a while. Terri's hands were still wrapped around pads to protect her palms; Michael removed the pads and tossed them into the trash. Her hands, curled tighter and tighter into fists over the years, had relaxed a little. Michael took a red rose from a vase by her bed and put it in her hands.

By now, Terri's parents had arrived at the hospice. Knowing they were on their way, Michael and Brian Schiavo went back to the room down the hall. Both of them were crying.

Brian turned to his brother.

"Michael, I have to tell you I am very happy for her right now. I feel this happiness inside me that she is no longer locked in that existence."

Terri's siblings, waiting in a shop across the street, learned of her death from the family's attorney, David Gibbs III. They waited for Terri's parents at the hospice entrance. Mary Schindler, Terri's mother, entered first. Gibbs had the sense she knew her daughter was gone, even before a hospice worker spoke.

"Terri's passed this morning."

Mary Schindler wept and walked down the hall to Terri's room. Bob Schindler, about 30 seconds behind his wife, heard the news as he followed.

The Schindler family - Mary, Bob, Suzanne and Bobby - gathered around Terri's bed. Gibbs stood in the hall. He could hear the family's sobs.

Pavone stood in the doorway and recited a prayer in Latin:

"May the angels lead you into paradise. May the martyrs greet you upon your arrival. May the choirs of angels welcome you."

After the Schindlers left, Terri was bathed. Michael and Brian Schiavo returned to her room. Terri was wheeled out on a gurney. In a hallway, about three dozen hospice workers circled her, holding hands. A hospice pastor said a prayer.

For years, as the lawyers and politicians argued, the hospice workers had cared for Terri, watched her, done whatever they could for her and her family.

On this morning, many had stayed after their shifts ended, just so they could say goodbye.

* * *

Two white vans left Hospice House Woodside for the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office about 11:25 a.m. One transported Schiavo's body; the other, police acknowledged, was a decoy.

One headed east on 102nd Avenue N, past the protesters. The other headed west, through a mobile home park and onto Belcher Road. Michael Schiavo followed the one traveling west, avoiding the cameras.

Back at the hospice, the news washed through the demonstrators and media crews. Soon the crowd swelled to more than 50. When O'Donnell came out to tell them Terri was gone, a woman leaned against a fence and wailed.

Some wept inconsolably. Others threw away their signs.

Representatives from both families later held news conferences.

Reading from a statement, Bobby and Suzanne thanked everyone who stood by them: the volunteers, doctors, lawyers. They made a thinly veiled jab at Michael Schiavo, saying: "After these recent years of neglect at the hands of those who were supposed to protect and care for her, she is finally at peace with God for eternity."

Speaking before reporters, Felos said he was sorry for everyone involved.

"I just want to express my condolences to the entire Schiavo and Schindler family and all those in the country and around the world who are grieving Terri's loss."

* * *

Shortly before 9:30 a.m., the news reached the chambers of Circuit Judge George Greer, the man who ordered Terri's feeding tube removed. The call came from Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats, who heard it from deputies on the scene.

"He just thanked me for letting him know," Coats said.

Greer, whose life has been threatened several times as a result of his rulings, proceeded with the day's hearings under guard.

The judge politely declined to comment on Schiavo's death. "I don't think it would be appropriate," Greer said.

In Tallahassee, Senate President Tom Lee interrupted the Florida Senate about 10:10 a.m. "It would be appropriate to have a moment of silence in her honor," he said.

A few minutes later, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, announced Schiavo's death in a quivering voice to the House of Representatives.

"Terri Schiavo," he said, "is now a martyr."

Baxley supported a bill that would have allowed her feeding tube to be reconnected. It was rejected by the Senate.

A somber Gov. Jeb Bush, who had tried legal and legislative maneuvers to prolong Terri Schiavo's life, said he was "heartbroken."

His brother, President Bush, was careful to extend condolences to Schiavo's "families" - both Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers - even though he backed efforts to reconnect her feeding tube.

"I urge all those who honor Terri Schiavo to continue to work to build a culture of life where all Americans are welcomed and valued and protected, especially those who live at the mercy of others," Bush said.

A Vatican spokesman called the removal of the feeding tube "an attack against God."

"A death was arbitrarily hastened because nourishing a person can never be considered employing exceptional means," said Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

Pope John Paul II himself began receiving nutrition through a feeding tube Wednesday. The 84-year-old pontiff had a high fever Thursday and was being treated with antibiotics.

* * *

Late Thursday, both the Schiavos and Schindlers retreated to grieve.

Michael Schiavo's whereabouts was kept secret. His family said he planned to spend some time with his girlfriend, Jodi Centonze, and their two young children. Michael had not seen them in two weeks, since Terri's feeding tube was pulled.

"I brought him pictures of his kids from Easter," said Jodi's brother, John.

Thursday evening, Bob Schindler attended a memorial for his daughter at Praise Cathedral Renewal Center, a church near the hospice.

"I was compelled to come here," Terri's father told the congregation. "Terri thanks you."