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Comments on Schiavo unpunished

With Bush on her side, a panel drops action against a nurse who went on TV.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published August 18, 2006


After Gov. Jeb Bush's office got involved in the case, a state nursing panel Thursday dropped a complaint against a nurse who spoke publicly about Terri Schiavo's care.

Registered nurse Carla Sauer-Iyer, 42, of Plant City was accused of improperly disclosing patient information about Schiavo on CNN last year.

In interviews, she said Schiavo, far from being in a vegetative state, was responsive, spoke, laughed and even ate pudding and milkshakes. That prompted another nurse to complain that Sauer-Iyer violated Schiavo's privacy.

The state Health Department had pursued a complaint against Sauer-Iyer for several months and initially urged the nursing board's Panel of Probable Cause to authorize a complaint that could have cost Sauer-Iyer her license.

But the Health Department changed its position in July after the governor's office sided with Sauer-Iyer. In response, three members of the Senate Health Care Committee questioned Bush's involvement in the case.

On Thursday, the nursing board's two-member panel reversed itself, dismissing the case after the Health Department said it had new information, including a response from Sauer-Iyer and a copy of an affidavit she provided Bush's legal team in its defense of Terri's Law.

Kathryn Price, assistant general counsel representing the department, told the panel that Sauer-Iyer disclosed information to protect Schiavo and did so without malicious intent.

"Calling for discipline in this case would create a chilling effect on the reporting of abuse in cases such as this," she said.

Schiavo, the center of national controversy for years, died March 31, 2005. She had been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state since collapsing at her home in 1990.

The state investigated allegations of abuse before and after Schiavo's death and found none.

Michael Schiavo, who was Terri's husband, said the panel merely was responding to pressure from the governor.

"When the governor who commands the Department of Health tells his people to get this case dismissed, it's going to be dismissed," Schiavo said.

Sauer-Iyer said justice was served.

"I would do it again under personal risk," she said.

In her affidavit for Bush's legal team, Sauer-Iyer, who worked for Palm Garden of Largo as a licensed practical nurse while Schiavo was there, claimed Schiavo said "Mommy" and "Help me," told nurses she was in pain and chuckled when Sauer-Iyer told her humorous stories.

That's largely what she said later when interviewed on national TV.

The case against Sauer-Iyer began on March 28, 2005, when the Health Department received a complaint from a Massachusetts registered nurse who said Sauer-Iyer made "unsubstantiated comments" on CNN "that with 'just a little bit of therapy' Mrs. Schiavo could be rehabilitated."

In May 2006, the Health Department filed an administrative complaint against Sauer-Iyer for disclosing confidential information about Schiavo.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com.