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Judge: Schiavo's life can end

Her shocked parents plan to appeal the decision allowing the removal of her feeding tube. The judge, like her husband, says that is what she would have wanted.

By ANITA KUMAR

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2000


Hours after a judge decided Friday that Terri Schiavo's feeding tube could be removed, her husband asked her devastated parents to help him do the one thing they have fought for seven years:

Plan their daughter's death.

Michael Schiavo asked his attorney to contact Bob and Mary Schindler and seek their help in preparing for their daughter's final weeks.

That's not likely any time soon.

Through tears, the financially strapped Schindlers vowed to appeal the ruling that permits the tube to be removed after 11:59 p.m. on March 12. The appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeal would postpone her death -- at least for now.

But Judge George Greer's decision still brings Mrs. Schiavo -- left in a vegetative state from severe brain damage a decade ago -- one step closer to death. It also may widen the familial rift that played out last month in a bitter, weeklong court battle.

In the 11-page ruling, Greer said he was persuaded by Michael Schiavo's testimony about how his wife, now 36, would not want her life prolonged by life support. He said that testimony, combined with statements of other family members, reached the legal level of "clear and convincing evidence."

He said statements by the Schindlers and their witnesses had changed over time, and in some cases were clearly biased.

Bob and Mary Schindler, shocked by the judge's decision and his stinging words, sat in their attorney's conference room Friday, unable to read the entire ruling.

Mrs. Schindler was unable to speak as tears rolled down her cheeks. Bob Schindler took one look at his wife and broke down too, along with the couple's other two children, said the Schindlers' attorney, Pamela Campbell.

In the past two weeks, the Schindlers and their attorney said they had been bombarded with supportive calls and letters from lawyers, doctors and families across the nation. They took it as a sign they would probably win.

"They're disappointed in the legal system," Campbell said. "They believe Terri should live."

The Schindlers, who had been accessible to reporters, could not face the cameras Friday.

Michael Schiavo declined to comment. His attorney, George Felos, said he was overwhelmed by the decision, coming after a decade of caring for his wife and battling with in-laws.

"I think for the first time he can see the light at the end of the tunnel," Felos said.

Since 1990, when his wife suffered the heart attack that caused her brain damage, Michael Schiavo tried to find a stimulus that would reverse her brain damage.

He tried experimental treatments, salon make-overs, new clothes, even museums. He made tapes of her family and friends.

Now, years after he stopped praying for a miracle to cure his wife, Schiavo is grateful she can die in peace, Felos said. Doctors say she could live for many more decades with the feeding tube.

If it is removed, Mrs. Schiavo would die painlessly in a week or two. She does not feel hunger or thirst, and she would just drift away, doctors say.

"Now, she can finally be at rest," Felos said.

Mrs. Schiavo collapsed at her St. Petersburg home on the morning of Feb. 25, 1990. Her heart stopped beating, and she was deprived of oxygen for five minutes. She has been in a persistent vegetative state ever since and now 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 Schindlers and Schiavo have been feuding since 1993, when Michael Schiavo and Bob Schindler got into an argument at the nursing home. The two have not spoken since.

Schiavo wanted to stop treating his wife by artificial means, but the Schindlers wanted her kept alive, hoping she might improve.

Both sides have accused each other of trying to control Mrs. Schiavo's fate to get their hands on $700,000 she received in 1993 from a malpractice suit.

In his ruling, Judge Greer acknowledged that money overshadowed the case. But he insisted that money and emotions played no role in his decision. He said his ruling was based on what Terri Schiavo would have wanted.

Under Florida law, the judge was charged with deciding whether Mrs. Schiavo, who did not write a living will, would have wanted to prolong her life artificially.

"I applaud the judge. He made a very wise decision," said Dr. Lofty Basta, a cardiologist at the University of South Florida and author of Graceful Exit: Life and Death on Your Own Terms. "I think it will set a precedent of courage, sensibility and wisdom."

Thomas Marzen, general counsel for the National Legal Center for the Medically Dependent and Disabled, said he agreed that the judge followed the law. But he questions the law. "I'm not sure the law should be as permissive as it is," he said.

The legal battle over Terri Schiavo's life will continue this month as the Schindlers appeal the decision, a move that could take months.

Campbell, the Schindlers' attorney, said her appeal may focus on the varying definitions of persistent vegetative state.

Mrs. Schiavo's doctors say that she is unaware of what is happening around her and that her motions and sounds are based on reflex, not emotion. They say she will never improve.

But the Schindlers insist their daughter has improved since 1990 and can communicate with her mother through crying, laughing and moaning. They may already have help in their appeal.

A group of doctors, lawyers and other professionals called Professionals for Excellence in Health Care say it plans to help fight for Mrs. Schiavo's life.

"We're committed to helping," said Jana Carpenter, a nurse and secretary of the group. "It's not right to starve someone to death."

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