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[Times photos: Jim Damaske]

Photo above:
Her daughter's condition is similar to that of Terri Schiavo, whose fate may be decided today. But Lillian Menchion says she couldn't imagine removing her daughter's feeding tube. "I consider that murder in the first degree."
By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2000


CLEARWATER -- It's after 6 a.m. when Lillian Menchion pulls up a soft, mauve chair to the foot of her daughter's bed and lays rosary beads in Mick's hands.

A narrow tube already has started pumping Pulmocare, a vitamin-enriched liquid, into Mick's stomach when Mrs. Menchion begins praying aloud.

Mick, 40, is silent, often moving her head or darting her eyes, but Mrs. Menchion is sure her daughter comprehends her.

photo
Mick's movements and facial expressions -- she seems to be smiling -- are involuntary, doctors say. Her parents disagree. They say she has become more active and responsive with time. Here she sits in a wheelchair.

[Times photo: Jim Damaske]

photo Mick before the accident

"We know she understands, but we just don't know to what degree," she said.

Mick's life changed on Jan. 10, 1984, the night a pickup truck slammed into her car on a snowy New Hampshire road.

The crash transformed Mick from an athletic young woman to a helpless person with severe brain damage -- much like Terri Schiavo, the St. Petersburg woman whose family is divided over whether to remove her feeding tube and let her die.

The more the Menchions hear about the feud engulfing Terri Schiavo's family, the more they find themselves reliving Mick's 16-year ordeal and praying for Terri's life.

A Pinellas judge is expected to rule today whether Terri Schiavo, 36, should be kept alive almost a decade after the heart attack that left her brain damaged.

Her husband said she would not have wanted to live in what doctors describe as a vegetative state; he wants her feeding tube removed. Her parents are fighting him, saying they hope Terri will improve.

In the Menchion home, there is no such bitter debate. Mick's parents, Lillian and Mick, and their seven other children never considered removing Mick's feeding tube or taking her life into their own hands.

"It never entered my mind to do that," Mrs. Menchion said from her Clearwater home. "I can understand wanting to remove a respirator but not a feeding tube. I consider that murder in the first degree."

Mick's typical day
  • 6 a.m.: Mother wakes her
  • 6:15 a.m. Mother changes her clothes, turns her body in her bed starts her first feeding and prays with her
  • 10 a.m.: Nurse gives her a shower, washes her hair and brushes her teeth
  • 11 a.m.: Physical therapy
  • 12 p.m.: Second feeding
  • 2 p.m.: Third feeding
  • Afternoon: Different activities, such as a nurse reading to her, television on, time in a swimming pool
  • 5 p.m.: Fourth feeding
  • 9 p.m.: Sleep
A routine of living

Dianne "Mick" Menchion, 24, decided to drive 20 miles to her sister's house in Epping, N.H. on Jan. 10, 1984, despite freezing rain and snow. About 7 p.m., she ran into trouble.

Her Plymouth Horizon was broadsided by a pickup truck, throwing her through her car's windshield. The accident was blamed on the weather.

Mick suffered numerous injuries, including fractured ribs and a fractured pelvis in addition to severe brain damage. The Menchions were told Mick, a bank teller in Derry, N.H., probably would not survive the night.

The doctors were wrong.

Mick spent almost a year in New Hampshire until she was able to be transported to her parents' Clearwater home. There, the Menchions added a special bathroom for Mick so she could be bathed and a huge window in her room to let the sunshine in. They bought wheelchairs and a hospital bed.

Mick and Lillian Menchion did not want to put their daughter in a nursing home. Instead, along with a nurse, they committed to caring for her around the clock. Medicare and Medicaid pay for most expenses.

Each day, Mick gets a bath and shampoo. Her teeth are brushed. Her long, dark hair is combed and styled, sometimes in a braid that falls down her back. She is fed Pulmocare four times a day, along with water and cranberry juice. Her diaper is checked and changed.

She is never left alone. Some days, she goes to Sunday Mass with her family. Other days, she is taken to Clearwater Beach. Most afternoons, her nurse reads to her, the television in her room is turned on or she is lowered into the swimming pool.

Although Mick sleeps and wakes, breathes and moans, doctors have told the Menchions that their daughter can't think or know what is around her. Her movements are involuntary, caused by reflex, not emotions.

The Menchions disagree.

They say she laughs when she watches Comedy Central, smiles when her father teases her and watches her mom walk across the room. And, they say, she has become more alert, more responsive and more active over the years.

photo
Mick Menchion's daughter Dianne "Mick" Menchion now lives with her parents in Clearwater. If they die, or are no longer able to care for her, Mick's sister has agreed to step in. "I don't see her life as being nothing," her sister says. 

Holding out hope

Neither Mick Menchion nor Terri Schiavo signed a living will telling their families what they wanted if they ever needed to be on life support.

But both sets of parents, both Catholic, said they had no doubt that their daughters would want to be kept alive.

"We're not God," Mrs. Menchion said. "Only God has the right to take a life."

Every day, families throughout the nation make decisions about whether to remove loved ones from artificial life support. Rarely do they end up in court.

But after feuding for seven years, that's exactly where Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, and her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, are. During their trial two weeks ago, they presented conflicting testimony on what they thought Terri's wishes would be.

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 could allow the feeding tube to remain.

The Menchions can't believe the Schiavo case has gone this far.

Like the Schindlers, they have hope their daughter will improve and maybe, one day, be cured.

"You never know what's around that corner," Mrs. Menchion said.

The Menchions, who are 68 and 69 years old, have made arrangements for Mick's care if they die or can no longer care for her. Mick's older sister, Jackie Yost, 46, who lives in Clearwater, has agreed to move into her parents' house.

"I love my sister and I don't see her life as being nothing," Mrs. Yost said. "There's a reason she is here . . . God will take her when God is ready."

* * *

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