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Amid emotion is heard science's voice

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times TV columnist
Published June 16, 2005

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin explains the results of his autopsy on Terri Schiavo at a press conference. At left is Dr. Stephen J. Nelson, a medical examiner from Polk County.
Jon Thogmartin, Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner
AGE: 41, born in Texas
EDUCATION: Received bachelor's degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and M.D. from University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
EMPLOYMENT: Worked at Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office on cases that included the 1996 ValuJet crash in the Everglades. Also worked in Broward and Palm Beach counties before becoming chief Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner in 2000. Runs a 40-person office and is paid $170,000 a year.

Only the most intensely and emotionally involved would have watched all of Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin's news conference as he painstakingly detailed the autopsy of Terry Schiavo.

But for more than an hour Wednesday, it seemed that was exactly whom he was talking to. The shy, behind-the-scenes man of science stared patiently into a bank of television cameras from behind a wall of microphones. He was blunt, but gentle. Understanding, but clear.

His words, and the way he delivered them, stood in stark contrast to the insistent, even shrill voices heard during Schiavo's last days. Where Schiavo's advocates on both sides had appealed to emotion, Thogmartin called for reason. Where they cried and prayed, he explained.

Please, his words implored, listen. There are things that science can reveal and things that are unknowable. There is nothing left to uncover, no tissue left to dissect, nothing more to fight over.

There were allegations of abuse and claims that Schiavo might someday have recovered. Theories that she could follow a balloon with her eyes, and heartfelt offers to feed her by hand after her feeding tube was removed, if only the law had allowed.

"Certain issues have repeatedly surfaced during this investigation," Thogmartin said, carefully peering into each camera lens. "I will attempt to address these issues here."

The conference was carried live on cable news and on the Internet through WTSP-Ch. 10, but most people would likely see only snippets later on the evening news. Printed words and sound bites can't hope to convey Thogmartin's patient intensity.

Cloaked in a white lab coat, gazing through wire-rimmed glasses, he addressed and debunked what he could:

Terri Schiavo's bones were not broken by abusive trauma, but they softened over time; she was not poisoned or drugged; she did not starve, she died of dehydration.

Her brain was wasted beyond repair; she was blind and (though he did not spell it out) could not see that balloon in the video image played on TV over and over during the debate.

"I'm making myself available to you," he told reporters when he was done. "I'm hoping that you'll let us go on after this and do our job and serve the citizens of Pinellas and Pasco."

He expressed sadness at Schiavo's case. He acknowledged that she was loved. He detailed in clinical terms how the damage was done when her heart stopped suddenly, 15 years ago. But he said science may never know why it stopped.

"I did my best," Thogmartin said. "That's all I can do."

[Last modified June 16, 2005, 08:35:58]

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