Health & Medical

Terri Schiavo: A Cautionary Tale

She seems to look out at us, half-smiling, mouth agape, voiceless. Her eyes are wide open, but her thoughts and words were frozen the hour her heart stopped beating 131,500 hours ago.

25-year-old Terri SchiavoIn 1990, a heart attack caused by a potassium deficiency felled beautiful, 25-year-old Terri Schiavo. Her empty shell continues to function due to a feeding tube inserted shortly after the attack.

While most examining physicians agree that Mrs. Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state, and that any physical responses are reflexive, circumstances have trapped Terri in a purgatory of the living dead.

Like most things American, money plays a part in this tragedy.

Terri SchiavoWhen Terri’s husband, Michael, won a million-dollar award for the malpractice that robbed him of his wife, Terri’s parents wanted a share. Refusing, Michael spent the money for Terri’s care. She couldn’t swallow and lacked cognitive function, but there was hope.

Isn’t there always hope?

Sometimes, no, there is not. Besides, according to Michael, Terri would never have wanted to be kept alive by artificial means. She told him so. As she told his brother and sister-in-law.

But Terri’s parents – with love, I’m sure – turned the case into a conservative cause célèbre. When, in 2003, legal wrangling finally allowed Michael to remove the tube, Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush quickly passed a law forcing caregivers to reinsert it. That law, Terri’s Law, was eventually found to be unconstitutional.

Now representatives in Washington who pander to the same vocal minority that pushed Jeb’s bill are stepping in to delay the removal of the feeding tube.

Meanwhile here in Florida, there is a rush to craft new legislation that would retroactively allowing anyone, even a stranger, to seek a court order requiring a feeding tube to remain in a person of persistent vegetative state. Previous verbal declarations would be insufficient to avoid this arrogant invasion of privacy in time of death.

In the current circus atmosphere of posturing politicians, familial press conferences and legions of marchers against what is now dubbed “a culture of death,” the real loser is Terri Schiavo.

And, of course, the rest of us.

Twenty-five years ago I watched in horror as a nursing home fought for and won the right to keep my Uncle Herb alive, long after he had gone. When I saw him last, his flesh rotted while bedsores ate to the bone. Then as now, there was no principle involved but profit.

This is a cautionary tale for us all.

Ask most seniors and you will hear that we fear not death, but dying. We crave dignity – in death as in life. Twice citizens in Oregon voted in favor of a Death with Dignity law involving assisted suicide if necessary. Better to take a pill than die a slow death by starvation and dehydration. But with the same disregard for voters’ wishes as my state and federal legislators, ass-kissing politicians like John Ashcroft have all but overturned Oregonians’ wishes.

Of course, it’s relatively easy to avoid this ultimate intrusion: Sign a living will. Clarify your wishes into writing. An advance directive will preserve your dignity and protect your financial legacy. Yet very few of us have executed this document.

As there is no better time, do it now!

Call your lawyer today. Or download the living will form at Free Downloads. Although it’s written to fit Florida law, I’m told that it will do in any state to legally determine your wishes.

Fill it out. Be sure it is witnessed and notarized. (Uncle Herb went through his ordeal because his living will had been signed but not notarized!) Then make copies, giving them to your physician, members of your family, your lawyer, your neighbor, your preacher, to anyone who may be around when they attempt to hook you up with “life-prolonging” machines and procedures.

It’s your life. Make certain it’s your death as well.

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