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Deciding the fate of Terri

When Michael Schiavo decided to take his comatose wife off life support, her parents saw things differently.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 25, 2000


Michael Schiavo thought he had done everything he could to save his wife.

In 1990, after she lapsed into a coma from a loss of potassium, he took her to California for experimental treatment. He hired an aide to take her to salons for a beauty make-over. He took her to the mall to buy new clothes, the museum to look at art. He even made tapes of her family and friends, hoping to find a stimulus that would lift her from the coma.

After three years, Schiavo stopped waiting for a miracle. He decided it was time to take his wife, Terri, off life support.

Terri's parents see things differently.

Bob and Mary Schindler say their daughter, now 36, can still feel and understand. She laughs at her dad's joke. She cries with her mom. And, they think, she could get better.

The Schindlers think that Michael Schiavo is after as much as $700,000 he would inherit if his wife dies and that he is eager to remarry.

"We're fighting for her," said Bob Schindler, who is opposing the withdrawal of life support. "We want her to live. It's as simple as that."

Now, nearly a decade after Mrs. Schiavo's accident, the matter is before Pinellas Circuit Judge George Greer, who could decide as early as this week whether Mrs. Schiavo can be taken off life support.

Tragic fall

The Schiavos had been married five years when Terri started having abdominal pains and missing her menstrual periods, family memberssay

Her doctors never tested her blood or told her what was wrong, Mrs. Schindler said.

On Feb. 25, 1990, Michael Schiavo woke up about 5 a.m. to use the bathroom. That's when he saw his wife fall on the floor. Her heart stopped beating and she was deprived of oxygen for five minutes before she was taken to the hospital.

Terri Schiavo has not awakened since and currently lives in Palm Gardens nursing home in Largo.

Family members say doctors never discovered why Mrs. Schiavo suffered the loss of potassium that caused the heart attack. Despite several theories, including one that she had an eating disorder, no one has given the family a clear answer.

Terri, meanwhile, has remained in a coma through about 100 doctors visits and countless hospital and nursing homes stays. She breathes and sleeps, blinks and smiles. But she cannot talk and has to be propped up in a chair during the day.

In 1993, a Pinellas County jury awarded Terri about $700,000 in a malpractice suit her husband filed on her behalf against two of her doctors. Michael Schiavo also received $300,000 for loss of consortium.

Today, much of the $700,000 used to help pay for Mrs. Schiavo's care still remains.

The Schindlers question Michael Schiavo's motivation in seeking the withdrawal of life support. They think money, and marital freedom, are behind his request.

Michael Schiavo, a nurse at Morton Plant Mease Hospital, has been engaged to another woman for four years. He declined to comment Monday.

'No treatment'

In testimony Monday before Judge Greer, a Dunedin neurologist testified that Terri Schiavo is in a "persistent vegetative state" and any movements or sounds she make are just reflexes

"There's no treatment, no cure," said Dr. James Barnhill, who said Terri Schiavo would die in one to two weeks if the feeding tube was removed. "Nothing known to science will help this woman."

But Pamela Campbell, the Schindlers' attorney, responded at Monday's trial that Terri's parents have seen her laugh, cry and smile in reaction to specific things.

The Schindlers, of St. Petersburg, visit Terri a couple times a week and believe they are communicating with her.

"Doctors aren't gods," Mrs. Schindler said. "They don't know."

Legal fight

Mrs. Schiavo, 25 when she had the accident, never wrote a will

Under Florida law, her hus-band is able to make decisions about her care. But her parents protested, saying they want to give their daughter a chance to live.

Michael Schiavo testified Monday that his wife told him several times that she would not have wanted to be kept on life support.

His brother, Scott, and his sister-in-law, Joan, also gave similar testimony and said Terri told them the same thing in the years before the accident.

"Terri didn't want to live like that," said Joan Schiavo, Terri Schiavo's best friend, who also testified Monday. "She didn't want people to see her like that. She didn't want to do that to her family and friends."

George Felos, attorney for Michael Schiavo, says Terri would not have wanted to live that way.

"Should she be kept alive when she didn't want to be?" Felos said. "Should she be kept alive to keep her parents happy? This is about letting go."

But the Schindlers don't see it that way.

They say their son-in-law never brought it up until the litigation began in 1993. Before then, her parents and her husband agreed to keep Terri Schiavo on life support.

That changed in 1993 when Terri got an infection. The Schindlers wanted to treat it; Michael Schiavo did not.

Schiavo eventually agreed his wife should have the medication, but the two sides have been battling since.

The Schindlers have tried unsuccessfully to become their daughter's guardian. They have accused Michael Schiavo of withholding medical records from the couple and refusing to allow their doctor to examine her.

Perhaps underscoring the rift between the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo is the caution taken during visits to Terri's nursing home.

The Schindlers and Schiavo are never there at the same time.

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