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Before the circus

By Anita Kumar
Published April 3, 2005


The courtroom was mostly empty Monday, Jan. 24, 2000. The quiet wasn't remarkable that morning, but five years later, the quiet is what I hear.

A handful of Terri Schiavo's immediate family members and a few close friends sat in the first few dark wooden benches. I was the only reporter there.

There were no cameras, no curious spectators, no protesters.

Nobody accused Michael Schiavo of abuse.

Nobody appealed to the Pope.

Nobody proclaimed that Terri was trying to talk.

No politicians were grandstanding, no special interest groups were shouting, nobody was invoking God's will.

The once-close family had battled about what to do with Terri for years. That's why they were in court, to ask a judge to determine what someone they all loved would have wanted. But no one disputed that they all loved her.

Back then, I remember thinking Judge George Greer had to deliver a hugely complicated, life-or-death verdict. With time, though, I've come to see how his decision was free of so many of the complications that have multiplied across the years.

After five days of trial, the judge said he would issue his ruling in a couple of weeks. Bob and Mary Schindler suggested I visit Terri for myself. I asked Michael Schiavo for permission. He said okay.

* * *

A nurse at Palm Gardens nursing home in Largo walked me to the large, private room and left me alone with Terri. The room was filled with teddy bears, big and small, plants and flowers. A TV was mounted to the wall. A window, fastened with curtains, opened up to a lawn.

At the trial that week in 2000, witnesses - even family members - used the words "coma" and "comatose" to describe Terri. We had used those words in the newspaper. I expected she would look like she was sleeping, her body still.

But she was awake. She lay in bed, her head slightly elevated. Her brown eyes darted about the room.

She blinked. And blinked again. She constantly opened and closed her mouth, often leaving it slightly ajar. She turned her head. She moaned softly.

I called Terri's name while sitting to her right. No response. I called her name while sitting to her left. No response.

I detected no reaction, no turn toward the voice. Minutes went by, and she remained still and quiet.

She was dressed in pants and a blouse. Her brown hair, cropped close around her face, had been washed. She wore blush and eye shadow.

She breathed by herself. She slept at night and woke in the morning. She wore diapers. She got her menstrual period each month. She received a nutrition drink, similar to Ensure, through the feeding tube attached to her stomach.

Nurses alternated between laying her on her bed or propping her in a chair, keeping her head at a 45-degree angle. Contractions caused her to ball her hands into a fist so tightly that she wore special padding to protect her palms.

The only sound was the ticktock of a house-shaped clock mounted on her wall. A note informed nurses to keep her TV turned on in the evening because it might stop her from moaning.

Five years ago, not even the Schindlers disputed that Michael insisted on the best care for his wife, making demands on the home that it was not accustomed to providing.

Terri was bathed and her hair shampooed every day, instead of the standard twice a week. Her legs were shaved and makeup applied each morning. She wore regular clothes, not a hospital gown.

Seeing her that day, I could understand how people could come away with opposite impressions. Michael Schiavo saw eyes that did not focus, with no recognition or glimmer of understanding. The Schindlers took her smiles and moans as reactions to them.

Michael never let another reporter see Terri. Not even after the whole world wanted in.

* * *

After the early coverage of the trial, People magazine and Dateline NBC showed up, and everything and everybody changed. The quiet was gone, replaced by noise.

People who did not know anything of Terri, who couldn't even pronounce her name correctly, made her into whatever they wanted.

She became a poster child for abuse of the disabled. And for a nation that had lost its moral compass. And for the importance of living wills. And for judges and lawmakers overstepping their bounds. For whatever cause anybody wanted to advance.

She was a right-to-die case. She was a right-to-life case.

The attention, from the media, the politicians, the special interest groups, changed the people who gathered in that quiet courtroom more than five years ago.

Back then, both sides were civil to one another. No one disputed that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state and had been for a decade. Or that an eating disorder probably had led to Terri's cardiac arrest and collapse, not physical abuse by Michael as some now contend.

Nobody was a murderer, an abuser, an adulterer, a fanatic, a liar. They were just family, trying their best to do right by their daughter, wife, sister.

Once the spotlight shone upon them, they started Web sites. They became regulars on national TV. They lobbied the governor, Congress, the president.

Both sides talked about what was best for Terri, but it seemed winning had trumped all.

After all these years, what haunts me is something Terri's brother once said: "If Terri knew what this had done to this family, she would go ballistic."

And he told me that before things spun out of control.

Terri Schiavo unwittingly became everyone's cause, a sad fate for a shy, small-town girl who loathed being the center of attention. The quiet suited her.

Times staff writer Anita Kumar covered civil courts in Pinellas County and wrote about the Terri Schiavo case for two years. Now she works in the Times Washington bureau and can be reached at kumar@sptimes.com or 202-463-0576.

[Last modified April 3, 2005, 00:10:19]


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