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Legal Fight Clouds Comatose Woman’s Fate

The Associated Press

For years, a woman’s husband and parents have fought over what she might say if she only could.

Terri Schiavo was 26 when she collapsed in her St. Petersburg home in February 1990 and fell into a coma. She remains in a Pinellas Park hospice, receiving a liquid nutritional supplement and water through a feeding tube. She is on no other type of life support.

Her husband, Michael Schiavo, wants the tube removed, saying his wife would not want to be kept on life support. Her parents say she would. The dispute has divided euthanasia opponents and those who say they support death with dignity.

After more than three years of court wrangling, Michael Schiavo, his wife’s legal guardian, won an order to remove the feeding tube on Jan. 3, 2003.

But a judge has postponed his ruling until an appeals court hears from Terri’s parents, who want her kept alive. Doctors say Schiavo, 39, would likely die within two weeks if the tube is removed.

“This is a nightmare of a case,” said Dr. Bill Allen, director of the University of Florida’s program in bioethics, law and medical professionalism. “The way it’s gotten caught in the legal system … there’s no closure for anybody here.”

He said the Schiavo case is a prime example of why people should make their end-of-life wishes known early.

Doctors believe a potassium imbalance caused Terri Schiavo’s heart to stop, temporarily cutting off oxygen to her brain and causing her to collapse into the coma.

An attorney for her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, recently alleged that domestic abuse may have been the cause, an accusation vehemently denied by Michael Schiavo and his attorney, George Felos.

The Schindlers say their son-in-law is motivated by money and personal desire. They say he would inherit the remainder of a $700,000 medical trust fund awarded to his wife in a 1992 malpractice lawsuit and wants to marry another woman, with whom he had a baby girl in September.

Michael Schiavo sued the doctors who did not diagnose the potassium imbalance, and the money from the suit was supposed to pay for Terri’s lifelong treatment and care. Only about $140,000 would remain after Michael Schiavo pays his lawyers, according to court documents.

Separately, Michael Schiavo received about $300,000 from the malpractice award.

He denies he’s motivated by money and says he simply wants to carry out his wife’s wishes.

“Everybody has lost sight about what this whole court case is about,” Schiavo said in a recent interview. “And that’s what the frustrating part is, because it’s about Terri. This whole thing is about Terri.”

Michael Schiavo once had a close relationship with his in-laws, even living in their home for two years. Bob Schindler said everything changed once the money from the malpractice suit came in February 1993; he said Michael didn’t appear to be rushing to seek new treatment for Terri.

“I finally confronted him and we had a violent argument about Terri and he said he’s making the decisions and whatever he decides to do, he’ll do and it’s none of my business,” Schindler said. “It only got worse from there.”

Michael Schiavo said Terri once told him that she would not want to be kept on life support. The Schindlers say Schiavo didn’t mention their daughter’s wishes until after he won the money.

Michael Schiavo first filed a petition to remove his wife’s feeding tube in May 1998.

Circuit Judge George W. Greer ruled in March 2001 that the tube should be removed. The feedings stopped for two days before another judge ordered them to resume.

Last month, after hearing testimony from five doctors, Judge Greer ruled again that the tube should be removed.

Two physicians selected by the parents testified that Schiavo could recover with specialized therapy. A video shown in court showed Schiavo’s eyes open. Her parents say it also shows her apparently tracking movement.

Doctors selected by Michael Schiavo said no treatment would ever help her. A court-appointed physician said Terri Schiavo would never recover a meaningful life.

Jana Carpenter, a registered nurse who has organized protests against the removal of the feeding tube, said providing nutrition to someone is a basic need. Her group, a right to life organization of doctors and nurses, Professionals for Excellence in Health Care, opposes euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.

“If the Humane Society were starving animals to death, people would be going berserk,” she said. “Yet because Terri makes other people uncomfortable because she doesn’t have the quality of life you and I have, fellow humans have no problem getting rid of her.”

Felos, Schiavo’s attorney, said a feeding tube can be as much an invasive form of life support as a ventilator.

In the late 1980s, Felos was involved in the right-to-die case of Estelle Browning, a Clearwater nursing home resident who wanted her feeding tube disconnected. Despite her living will, a trial judge refused to let the tube be removed.

A 1986 stroke left Browning paralyzed and attached to feeding tubes, and Browning’s guardian began a legal battle in 1988 to remove the tubes. Browning, 89, died still connected to the tubes before the case was settled.

Two years later, the Florida Supreme Court cited a state constitutional right to privacy and ruled caregivers may withhold food and water from an incapacitated person even when death is not imminent.