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A family divided

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 30, 2000


It was Valentine's Day 1993, and Michael Schiavo planned on an evening of dinner and dancing with his in-laws.

They had grown close after Michael married Bob and Mary Schindler's oldest daughter, Terri. A testament to their friendship, their bond had continued to strengthen even after Terri inexplicably collapsed three years earlier.

The Schindlers and Michael Schiavo continued to share a home in St. Petersburg after they moved Terri -- left in a vegetative state from brain damage -- into a nursing home. Mary Schindler had grown to love Michael like a son.

But the holiday festivities never happened. A fight that day in Mrs. Schiavo's room between her father and husband caused a rift in the family that has lasted seven years.

Michael wanted to stop treating his wife by artificial means, ensuring she would die in a matter of weeks. The Schindlers wanted her kept alive, in the hope she might one day get better. Doctors say that would take a miracle.

For years, both sides have insisted they were trying to carry out Mrs. Schiavo's wishes. But each says the other only wants to control her fate to get their hands on $700,000 she received in 1993 from a malpractice suit.

The feud that developed was in evidence this week, a decade after the heart attack that led to the brain damage. Anger and accusation dominated a weeklong trial at which a Pinellas judge considered Michael Schiavo's request to remove his wife's feeding tube. These once private families found themselves battling each other in the glare of the national media, in People magazine and on NBC's Dateline.

The judge promised Friday to reach a decision in two weeks. But prospects for healing remain unlikely. In separate interviews after the trial, both the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo indicated they would appeal an unfavorable decision.

"I won't let my daughter die," Mrs. Schindler said. "Honestly and truthfully, it's never entered my mind."

But Schiavo, who still visits his wife twice a week although engaged to another woman, says he has no plans to divorce her and let her parents take over her medical care.

"It's an awful thing to see someone you love live like that," he said. "The Schindlers had 10 years, and I'm sorry they couldn't come to terms with it. . . . But I have the right to make those decisions for her."

Transformation for Terri

She was heavy as a child, with curly brown hair framing her face and glasses resting on her nose. She was happy growing up, her family says, but always bothered by her weight

Optimistic and giggly but insecure, she had a few close friends but never had a boyfriend or even really dated.

Then she signed up with Nutri/System in her senior year of high school outside Philadelphia and started to lose weight. When the pounds melted away, her self-esteem grew.

The transformation did not go unnoticed. She started drawing men's attention, something she wasn't used to, said her brother Bob Schindler Jr.

One of those men was Michael Schiavo. They met at a community college in Philadelphia, and after a year together, they were married one November day before 200 guests.

The Schindlers said they thought their 20-year-old daughter was too young to marry, but knew the couple loved each other, and so embraced Michael.

After her marriage, Terri's transformation continued. She lost even more weight, reducing her size-12 wedding day figure to one she proudly displayed in a bikini for the first time after she moved to Florida in 1986. She dyed her brown hair blond.

The Schiavos had been married five years when Terri started having abdominal pains. She and Michael had been trying for more than a year to have a baby but hadn't been successful.

Terri had been missing her menstrual period and started seeing doctors. They never diagnosed what was wrong, Mrs. Schindler said.

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

Ever since, Terri Schiavo has been in a vegetative state. She lives in Palm Gardens nursing home in Largo.

A loss of potassium caused the heart attack, but family members say doctors never discovered why. The only theory was that she might have had an eating disorder.

Her family now agrees there might have been a problem they missed. She didn't eat much, and her sister suspects she threw up after meals. They say she worried about gaining the weight back.

But Michael Schiavo insists she had a healthy appetite and said he never noticed anything wrong. He said doctors have never been sure she had an eating disorder, and he considers her condition a mystery.

Today, Terri Schiavo, 36, breathes and sleeps, moans and smiles. Her brown eyes dart around her room between blinks, but doctors say she can't think or know what is around her. She can turn her head and constantly opens and closes her mouth, but doctors say the movements and sounds are caused by reflexes, not emotions.

Her large, private room is filled with teddy bears, big and small. The only sound is the ticktock of a house-shaped clock mounted on her wall. A note on the wall informs nurses to keep her TV on in the evening because it might stop her from moaning.

Nurses alternate between laying her on her bed or propping her in a chair. Contractions cause her to ball her hands into a fist so tightly she wears special padding to protect her palms.

The Schindlers acknowledge that Michael Schiavo insisted on the best care for his wife, and made demands on her nursing home that they are not accustomed to providing.

Michael, 36, a respiratory therapist, said he spends a few hours a week there, picking up her laundry to wash at home and making sure she gets the "good diapers."

Beginning of feud

Their versions of what happened next couldn't be more different

Michael Schiavo said Schindler immediately asked how much of the malpractice money he would receive. Schindler said the two started arguing about an infection Terri had contracted that Michael did not want to treat.

Schindler said Schiavo pushed a table and threw some books across the room. Schiavo said Schindler left and stood in the hall with his fists clenched. Mrs. Schindler prevented the two men from going after each other.

That fight began the intense feud that has only grown stronger through the years. They haven't spoken since that day. They avoid each other at the nursing home. They hired attorneys.

In separate interviews Friday, the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo answered questions about Terri, but repeatedly steered the conversation back to each other -- and the lies each says the other uttered on the witness stand last week.

At the root of their dispute is $1-million.

Bob Schindler, 62, and his wife, 58, claim Schiavo wants to remove his wife's feeding tube to inherit $700,000 a Pinellas jury awarded her for medical care after a malpractice suit in 1993. They say they don't fault him for moving on with his life, but say he refuses to divorce their daughter because he would lose rights to the money.

Schiavo, who personally received $300,000 in the suit, insists that's not true.

He says he has offered to donate the $700,000 to Hospice of the Florida Suncoast if the Schindlers agree to removing the feeding tube. He renewed that offer last week. "The money means nothing," he said. Schiavo accuses the Schindlers of wanting the money out of spite. He described them as a financially strapped couple who blame Schiavo for not monitoring his wife's health and for not sharing the settlement money with them.

He said Friday he is sure the Schindlers just want to become their daughter's guardians so they can take her off life support themselves and inherit the money. The Schindlers say they want to use the money to give their daughter the best medical care available.

They acknowledge that Michael Schiavo tried for years to find a stimulus that would cure their daughter -- from experimental care in California to beauty make-overs. They just say he gave up too soon. "She never had the opportunity to make the recovery," said Mrs. Schindler. She says her son-in-law aggressively pursued treatment for his wife for years until the jury award.

The Schindlers say they visit their daughter on the weekends. Schiavo, who replaced his wedding band with a gold ring fashioned with the diamonds from Terri's wedding ring, says he goes twice a week on his days off. They never see each other there. Since 1993, the Schindlers have tried unsuccessfully to become their daughter's guardians. They hired lawyers to try to get Schiavo to turn over medical records. Finally, after seven years, Michael Schiavo moved the fight to the courtroom.

Wait for resolution

They didn't sleep. They didn't eat. And they said they had to relive the awful day in 1990 when Terri Schiavo became lost to them

Now, they'll wait.

Circuit Judge George Greer promised the families Friday he would take no longer than two weeks to determine whether the feeding tube can be removed.

Legally, the burden is on Michael Schiavo, who initiated the trial. If the judge does not find "clear and convincing evidence" that Mrs. Schiavo opposed life support, he would allow the feeding tube to remain.

Family members of both Terri and Michael Schiavo presented conflicting testimony on what they believed her wishes would be.

But everyone agreed on one thing: They wished the fight had never grown so bitter.

"It didn't have to get to this," Bob Schindler Jr. said. "It could have been solved amicably . . . If Terri knew what this had done to this family, she would go ballistic."

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