“I Thirst:” A Lenten Reflection on Terri Schiavo Ten Years Later

It is a yearly custom for Catholics to reflect, during Lent, on the Passion and death of our Divine Savior. He was entirely innocent of wrongdoing, yet was ignominiously subjected to a show trial and condemned to a brutally painful death. This year many Catholics will also be thinking of the strikingly similar demise of an innocent woman named Theresa Marie Schiavo. March 31, 2015 is the ten year anniversary of her final agonizing breath which brought to an end a 15 year saga summarized best in a three word bumper sticker: Terri Was Murdered.

The Mysterious Fall and “Severe Physical Abuse”
The drama began in the early morning of February 25, 1990 when her husband Michael described coming home late from work. Terri, as she was commonly referred to, was already resting. She would later get up, according to Michael Schiavo, and leave the room at which time he heard her fall. He said he walked into the hallway and found his wife’s lifeless body lying face down. In one of varying accounts of what transpired, Terri’s husband described turning her over and “cradling” her in his arms. Terri’s brother Bobby who lived close by was the first to arrive on the scene followed later by paramedics. He described the horrifying scene of his sister’s motionless body lying face down.

Sign this Prayerful Petition to Pope Francis to save the family

Terri was subsequently rushed to the hospital. Whereas doctors were able to stabilize her, the ultimate reason for her collapse, heart stoppage and brain damage due to prolonged oxygen deprivation, remained a mystery for many years. In fact, the all-important question of why she collapsed got overlooked during the 11-year court battle, which later occurred between Michael Schiavo and Terri’s parent’s Robert and Mary Schindler.

The struggle between both sides centered on Terri’s feeding tube. Michael desired not only to remove the feeding tube, however, but also wanted all rehabilitative therapy stopped. This naturally collided with the wishes of Terri’s parents. The details of this emotional drama are documented in the book, Terri’s Story: Court Ordered Death of an American Woman by Diana Lynne[1]. She bases her work largely on court documentation and expert testimony from medical professionals, and nurses who loved Terri.

What was the mystery? It was a very revealing total-body, nuclear imaging bone scan that had been done on Terri 53 weeks after her collapse. The scan was discovered years later buried in a mountain of legal and medical information. This proverbial “needle in a haystack” was found by a volunteer assisting the Schindler legal team. Examining the bone scan and follow-up x-rays, three doctors “concluded Terri was the victim of ‘severe physical abuse.’”[2]

In 2002 Dr. William Hammesfahr conducted physical and sensory examinations of Terri’s “rigid neck”[3] and suggested she had a “vertebral injury and likely… a spinal cord injury.”[4] He was a neurologist practicing in Clearwater Florida at the time and during direct examination –done by the Schindler family attorney Pat Anderson—he explained his experience with patients he had treated with similar injuries.

“You said that you had never felt a neck like [Terri’s],” Mrs. Anderson asked, “except in one other patient, right?”

“Correct,” Dr. Hammesfahr responded.

When asked what the cause of injury in the other patient was, Dr. Hammesfahr responded: “anoxic encephalous [brain injury due to lack of oxygen].”[5]

Testimonies like these raise serious question. However, to date, no one has either been convicted or even charged with wrongdoing.

So it was that this helpless woman began her prolonged agony not unlike that of Christ.

“Veronicas” Heroically and Defiantly Console Terri

“Iconic photo”, from 2002, showing Terri’s physiognomy brighten at the sound of her mother’s voice. Her eyes truly do provide a window to the soul of a person whom some callously referred to as a “plant.” Photo credit Bobby Schindler

“Iconic photo”, from 2002, showing Terri’s physiognomy brighten at the sound of her mother’s voice. Her eyes truly do provide a window to the soul of a person whom some callously referred to as a “plant.”
Photo credit Bobby Schindler

Besides the doctor who provided the professional analysis of the bone scan, there were three nurses who were virtually prohibited by the legal guardian, Terri’s husband, from providing basic pain-relief and rehabilitative therapy such as range of motion exercises to prevent muscular atrophy.

“I learned as part of my training,” said nurse Carolyn Johnson, in a sworn affidavit, …”that the husband, as guardian, wanted no rehabilitation for Terri.”[6] According to her, everyone at the facility “knew we would lose our jobs if we did not do exactly what Michael said to do.” She then sorrowfully admitted being “so disillusioned with the way Terri was treated,” she quit her job.[7]

Nurse Carla Sauer Iyer’s sworn affidavit was equally disturbing.

I became so concerned because nothing was being done for Terri at all –no antibiotics, no tests, no range of motion therapy, no stimulation, nothing. Michael said again and again that Terri should not get any rehab.[8]

These nurses were like human angels. As regards Carla Iyer, she heroically defied the guardian’s commands and behind his back gave Terri the comfort she needed and deserved. This included, on one occasion, putting a washcloth in Terri’s hands to keep her fingers from curling together. “Michael saw it and made me take it out saying that was therapy.”[9] It would be understandable for the reader to imagine a similar cloth used by Veronica to wipe the Divine brow of our Savior as He majestically walked along His Via Dolorosa.

Nurse Heidi Law echoed the same details in her sworn affidavit.

“I was personally aware of orders for rehabilitation that were not being carried out,” she stated, “even though they were ordered.” Like Carla Iyer, she stepped up to the plate and offered therapy for this helpless woman “in secret,”…”doing it behind closed doors” because “we were fearful of being caught. Our hearts would race,”[10] for fear of being discovered.

Nurse Iyer suffered even greater concern when the Department of Health (DOH) launched a campaign to strip her of her nurse’s license after her CNN interview with Bill Hemmer which aired on March 22, 2005.[11] In this interview, seen by millions, Carla revealed what were considered, by some in the DOH, to be inflammatory remarks. She explained to Mr. Hemmer how she “went to the police regarding possible injection marks of regular insulin injected into Terri.”[12]

She went into more detail about this in her affidavit when she describes entering the room after private closed door visits from Terri’s guardian.

…Terri would be trembling, crying hysterically, and would be very pale and have cold sweats. It looked to me like Terri was having a hypoglycemic reaction, so I’d check her blood sugar. The glucometer reading would be so low it was below the range where it would register an actual number reading…This happened about five times on my shift as I recall. Normally Terri’s blood sugar levels were very stable due to the uniformity of her diet through tube feeding. It is my belief that Michael injected Terri with Regular insulin, which is very fast acting.

This information should have at least raised an eyebrow, but no investigation was done. Carla’s career was nearly ruined, but she deserves a medal for her courageous actions.
The doors which might have led to an end of Terri’s ordeal among the medical community were thus slammed shut. The judicial community acted in like fashion.

This photo taken during a trip to the mall a year after her incapacitation clearly shows a person who is anything but a “vegetable,” as the term Persistent Vegetative State at least implies. Photo credit Bobby Schindler

This photo taken during a trip to the mall a year after her incapacitation clearly shows a person who is anything but a “vegetable,” as the term Persistent Vegetative State at least implies.
Photo credit Bobby Schindler

“Persistent Vegitative State”
We can simplify what occurred in this arena with the term frequently applied to Terri –and thousands of others like her– during the court battle to remove her feeding tube: Persistent Vegitative State (PVS). The key word in this not-so-scientific term, which implicitly devalues human life, is vegetative. Why? For this reason: word association would naturally lead one to think vegetable. Michael Schiavo’s attorney George Felos made such an obvious link when he referred to Terri as a “plant.” Michael’s brother Scott dipped below even the vegetable world when he likened Terri to a “beat up old car.”[13]

The term PVS was first coined by Drs. Bryan Jennet and Fred Plum in 1972. This expression is undeniably useful for the euthanasia movement, liberal lawyers and activist judges. However, besides de-humanizing a living human being, PVS is, according to the British Medical Journal, misdiagnosed 43% of the time.[14]

While it would be unjust to judge the intentions of the gentlemen who created this term, Terri was anything but a “plant.”

Nurse Iyer revealed, in her affidavit, how Terri would say things like “mommy,” but “help me” was one of her most frequent utterances. “I heard her say it hundreds of times.” Terri would also “laugh” and “giggle” when nurse Iyer would tell her something humorous.

Nurse Iyer maintained that over four hours of videotape from 1995-96 prove this.[15] Terri’s mother Mary heard her daughter say such things on numerous occasions. In other words this “plant” actually talked and furthermore she showed other irrefutable cognitive abilities until the end of her life.

“The Eyes are the Windows of the Soul.”
Her progress was such that Sara Green Mele declared, in yet another sworn affidavit, that Terri was a “suitable candidate for speech-language therapy.” As a language pathologist, who also practiced cognitive therapy at Baylor Institute for Rehabilitation in Dallas, Texas, she recommended a system she felt could permit Terri to more effectively communicate.[16]

The most illustrative refutation of the PVS diagnosis was not necessarily what Terri said but rather her facial expressions. It is a fairly common expression how “the eyes are the window to the soul.” This is what can be seen in the iconic photo –seen round the world– of Terri’s eyes lighting up and her glowing physiognomy upon hearing her mother’s voice. If the reader needs more proof to refute the absurd “plant” designation, click on the video tab at The Terri Schiavo, Life & Hope Network website.[17]

One cannot help but make a link between Terri’s gross misdiagnosis of PVS to the completely un-scientific “brain dead” term so commonly used today. Whereas the latter diagnosis allows organ harvesting (some of which ultimately ends the patient’s/victim’s life) the former term implies the patient is already dead.

Misdiagnosing a person as being in a Persistent Vegetative State, dehumanizes the individual and at least “implies the patient is already dead.” This is exemplified very clearly in Terri’s epitaph engraved on the bronze marker that covers her grave.

Misdiagnosing a person as being in a Persistent Vegetative State, dehumanizes the individual and at least “implies the patient is already dead.” This is exemplified very clearly in Terri’s epitaph engraved on the bronze marker that covers her grave.

This is clearly spelled out in the epitaph on Terri’s bronze marker that covers her grave. It gives her correct birth date, but her “Departure From This Earth,” as the marker reads, is February 25, 1990: the date of her mysterious collapse. At the very bottom is the enigmatic phrase, “I KEPT MY PROMISE.”

The judicial tragedy would not be complete without mentioning Judge George Greer’s astonishing response to the above mentioned testimonies of the three nurses. He summarily dismissed their eyewitness accounts as being “incredible to say the least.”

Dying of Thirst: A “Painless Death”?  
Terri’s legal guardian finally got his wishes and her feeding tube was removed on March 18, 2005. The public was soothingly assured that such a measure, for a cognitively disabled person, was a painless way to die.

During a 2003 interview on Larry King Live, Michael Schiavo gave credence to this “peaceful” death myth. He assured King’s listening audience that “removing somebody’s feeding tube” is a very “painless,” “easy,” and “probably the most natural way to die.”[18]

Wesley Smith and others tell a completely different story. He is the author of Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder.

He asked St. Louis neurologist William Burke what non-terminally ill people with cognitive disabilities suffer when a feeding tube is removed.

Dr. Burke explains how such a person:

…would feel it just as you or I would. They will go into seizures. Their skin cracks, their tongue cracks, their lips crack. They may have nosebleeds because of the drying of the mucus membranes, and heaving and vomiting might ensue because of the drying out of the stomach lining. They feel the pangs of hunger and thirst. Imagine going one day without a glass of water! Death by dehydration takes ten to fourteen days. It is an extremely agonizing death.[19]

The skeptical reader who possesses reasonably good health might want to actually do what Dr. Burke asks us only to imagine. Deny yourself a glass of water for one day. Terri was forced to endure it for two weeks.

Opponents of the Death Penalty Remained Silent
There is another link that must be considered in Terri’s case that some might not have considered. As Terri began her slow agony, opponents of the death penalty were marching forward with the abolition of a form of punishment which Saint Thomas Aquinas most eloquently argues can at times be both just and necessary.[20]

Activists took full advantage of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett who reportedly “writhed and groaned in pain” for 43 minutes before eventually dying. Whereas Terri was entirely innocent of crime, Lockett has a rap sheet that would make the most hardened criminal blush. His follies include, but are not limited to: forcible sodomy, rape, first-degree murder, and kidnapping.

In spite of his crimes Lockett is a “rock star” for those who oppose the death penalty. We merely cite him by way of contrast, as we lament Terri was not afforded even a fraction of the fame, judicial uproar, and compassion as this murderer.

The saddest part of this argument is the telling fact which pertains to Terri’s Bishop, Robert E. Lynch, the prelate who was entrusted with the shepherd’s crozier in the dioceses of St. Petersburg at the time and remains in office today. This crozier, with the hooked end, symbolizes the staff of a sheep herder, who protects his flocks from wolves that would devour them. It is a very apt symbol for a bishop who is like the Good Shepherd that watches over his flock.

In October of 2002, Bishop Lynch signed a statement, put out by the Florida Catholic Conference, in opposition to the death penalty.[21] This would not be so bad if he had made the slightest effort to defend Terri. Instead he clearly sided with the guardian in a statement, released one month before Terri’s death.

“Normally, at the end of life,” writes Bishop Lynch, “families of the person in extremis agree that it is time to allow the Lord to call a loved one to Himself, feeling that they have done all they possibly might to provide alternatives to death, every possible treatment protocol which might be helpful has been attempted.”[22]

It is with sadness that we must point out that the “alternatives to death” were by no means exhausted which has been painstakingly pointed out early on in relation to the nurses who were forbidden to do “all they possibly might” to help Terri.

Why was Terri Schiavo Denied the Sacraments?
An even greater perplexity than this statement is the apparent lack of care for Terri’s spiritual needs. Pete Vere, who is a canon lawyer and contributor to the blog “Catholic Light (but not lite),” wrote an article[23] about Terri being denied communion during the first attempt to starve her to death in 2003. He found it “troubling that Michael Schiavo and his attorney George Felos –neither of whom were Catholic”—simply trampled upon “Terri’s constitutional freedom to practice her religion.” They would not allow Terri’s priest, Msgr. Thaddeus Malanowski, to “administer the sacraments to a dying woman.” Like the nurses, this former military chaplain, who reached the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army, was forced to bow down to the police.

And even more troubling, Mr. Vere point outs, “was the diocese of St. Petersburg’s apparent refusal to back Monsignor up.” He finishes by asking the painful question, “Where was Bishop Lynch when the police threatened this eighty-year old priest with arrest?”[24]

There is abundant documentation and eyewitness testimony to the effect that Theresa Marie Schiavo was also denied the comforts of the sacraments in her final hours.

“Jesus is Always Here, You Can Talk to Him.”
With what has been seen so far one can better understand the passionate homily given by Fr. Phil Wolfe on Good Friday, March 25, 2005 at Blessed Sacrament Church in Kansas City, Kansas.[25] The link he makes between Terri’s death and our Lord’s is what inspired this article. Keep in mind, Terri’s feeding tube had been removed five days prior to this sermon.

“It’s Good Friday,” Fr. Wolfe says, “we have someone who has been found innocent and sentenced to death. She has been betrayed by more than a kiss, there are at least two children by her husband’s concubine. We’ve got all these judges like Greer [and others] playing handball back and forth: Heroding to each other. We’ve got our leaders Pontius Pilating. Washing their hands of it. ‘I have done all I can, I can do no more.’ We have her poor family being held at bay by police. They [the police] were only following orders. We hung people for that in Nuremberg.”

The most moving part of the sermon is where he cites the Schindler family lawyer Barbara J. Weller. She was an attorney for Gibbs Law Firm, at the time, and visited Terri on the day her feeding tube was removed.[26]

She describes, in a sworn affidavit,[27] speaking with Terri for over an hour. Mrs. Weller tells of opening the window so Terri could see the sun, “after several days of rain” and how “Terri’s eyes widened” with the pleasing sight. During a humorous part of their conversation she described how “Terri laughed so hard that for the first time I noticed the dimples in her cheeks.”[28]

During a phone conversation with the author, Mrs. Weller says Terri would cry when her mother would leave the room.

“I would stay behind and remind Terri how Jesus is always here and you can talk to Him.” Mrs. Weller then explained how, at the mere mention of the sweet name of Jesus, Terri would have this laugh which she was only able to describe as “heavenly”. It reminded her of an innocent baby.

This photo of Terri, in elementary school, shows a vibrant little girl full of life. What might this innocent child have accomplished, in adulthood, if she had not been abandoned by legal, medical and judicial authorities, then summarily sacrificed on the altar of Euthanasia? Photo credit Bobby Schindler

This photo of Terri, in elementary school, shows a vibrant little girl full of life. What might this innocent child have accomplished, in adulthood, if she had not been abandoned by legal, medical and judicial authorities, then summarily sacrificed on the altar of Euthanasia?
Photo credit Bobby Schindler

“I Will Tell the World you Wanted To Live”
In his sermon Fr. Wolfe describes how Mrs. Weller held Terri’s hands and pleaded, “Terri, if you could only say ‘I want to live’ this whole thing would be over.”

To my enormous shock and surprise, Terri’s eyes opened wide, she looked me square in the face and with a look of great concentration said, AHHHHH [I]. Then, seeming to summon up all the strength she had, she virtually screamed, WAAAAAAA [want]. She yelled so loudly that Michael Vitadomo, Suzanne’s [Terri’s Sister] husband, and a female police officer who were standing together outside Terri’s door, clearly heard her. At that point, Terri had a look of anguish on her face that I had never seen before and she seemed to be struggling hard, but was unable to complete the sentence. She became very frustrated, and began to cry.”[29]

Mrs. Weller tells of being “horrified” for “causing Terri so much anguish.” She stroked her face to comfort her and solemnly promised Terri that she “would tell the world that she had tried to say, ‘I want to live.’”[30] It is worth noting how several others, including Terri’s parents, heard her say the same thing.

Later in the day Terri’s bed was turned toward the door so that armed guards could see her and make sure no one went against court orders, said Mrs. Weller in the above mentioned phone conversation. She sensed Terri’s disappointment and lamented their inability to do more for her. This wonderful lawyer then, very inaccurately, stated, “We let her down and she knew it.”

Theresa Marie Schiavo died of thirst and, we could add, a broken heart also. It is therefore appropriate, during this Lenten season, to end this narration as Fr. Wolfe did. During the story of our Lord’s passion, you will hear our Savior say, “I Thirst.”

[1] Diana Lynne, Terri’s Story: The Court Ordered Death of an American Woman, (WND Books 2005) Nashville, Tennessee (Cumberland House Publishing, Inc., 2005) Hereafter referred to simply as Terri’s Story.
[2] Terri’s Story, Pg. 57
[3] While this examination occurred in 2002 it is worth mentioning that Terri already had a “somewhat stiff” neck when she was first admitted to the hospital in 1990.
[4] Terri’s Story, p. 96
[5] Ibid., p. 54
[6] Ibid., p 53, 54
[7] Ibid., p. 97
[8] http://www.hospicepatients.org/iyer-carla-12-15-03-affidavit-re-terri-schiavo-michael.pdf
[9] Terri Schiavo Nurse Keeps License, Complaint About Interview Dismissed, http://archive.lifenews.com/bio1715.html
[10] Terri’s Story, P. 98
[11] See, Nurse Who Testified Against Michael Schivo Has Nursing Licence Revoked,
[12] http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0503/21/ltm.02.html
[13] Terri’s Story, P. 124
[14] IBID, Pgs. 124-125
[15] CIT.OP., Nurse Who Testified Against Michael Schivo Has Nursing Licence Revoked
[16] Pathologist’s Statement in Terri Schiavo Case, http://www.wnd.com/2003/08/20075/print/
[17] http://www.terrisfight.org/about/
[18] A “Painless” Death?, http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/003/370oqiwy.asp#
[19] Ibid.
[20] He wisely likens human society to a body and an impenitent criminal to an “infectious part.” Who would hesitate to cut off a gangrenous arm in order to save their own life? Regardless of the depravity of the individual however, the sacraments of the Church should always be made available to the condemned, so he lose not his soul with his body.
[21] Statement of the Catholic Bishops of Florida In Opposition to Constitutional Amendment No. 1,
[22] Terri’s Bishop Issues Bizarre Statement, https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/terris-bishop-issues-bizarre-statement
[23] See, Why Was Terri Denied Holy Communion?, http://catholiclight.stblogs.org/index.php/2003/10/why-was-terri-d/
[24] Ibid
[25] http://files.audiosancto.org/20050325-I-Thrst-Some-Remarks-on-Terri-Schindler-Schiavo.mp3
[26] In a phone conversation with the author she described how it was the “first time in our nation’s history where a person was condemned to death by a civil court, without the opportunity for an appeal to a federal court.”
[27] See, Declaration of Barbara Weller, http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/summaries/briefs/05/05-497/Filed_03-26-2005_AllWritsPetition.pdf
[28] Ibid
[29] Ibid
[30] Ibid

You may also like:

Comments Policy: TFP.org reserves the right to edit messages for content and tone. Comments and opinions expressed by users do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of TFP.org. TFP.org will not publish comments with abusive language, insults or links to other pages.