Terri Schiavo: Why you should care, what you can do


Next week, a Florida hospice may stop giving food and water to a young woman who, because of injuries to her brain suffered 15 years ago, cannot feed herself. They will let her starve to death, because her husband wants her dead, and because a judge will tell them that it is OK to starve her, because her husband says so.

I say "young" -- she's my age, 41. Her name is Terri Schiavo. You have probably read about her in the news or heard about her on TV, but what you have read and heard is probably wrong.

Terri Schiavo is not comatose, nor is she in a "persistent vegetative state". She is awake, and she responds and interacts with those around her, although her ability to express herself and to interact is limited by her injury.

Terri Schiavo is not on life support. She is not on a ventilator, a heart machine, or dialysis. Her autonomous bodily functions all work without assistance.

Terri Schiavo does not have a terminal illness. She doesn't need anything more than you or I do to keep on living. She just needs help getting food and water in her.

Terri Schiavo is not a burden to her husband; at least she need not be. Her parents made a very generous offer that would keep him financially whole and allow him to "move on," if only he would commit her to their care. He rejected the offer. He just wants her dead.

Because of her injuries, Terri cannot speak and she cannot feed herself, but it's possible that some of that ability could be restored with proper therapy, creating new pathways in the brain to replace those that were damaged. That seems to have happened for Sarah Scantlin, a Kansas woman with similar limitations, who began speaking again last month after being unable to speak for 20 years. Sarah had a nurse working with her to encourage her to try to speak. Terri has been denied access to therapy by her husband, who simply wants her dead.

I have had nightmares -- maybe you have, too -- where I find myself in a dangerous situation and I try to shout for help, but I can't. For all my exertion, no sound comes out of my mouth.

Imagine that situation in real life. You are completely aware of your surroundings, but for some reason are unable to move, unable to speak. You are hungry and thirsty, but no one is coming to feed you, and you have no way of summoning help. You are as helpless as a baby, more helpless really, because Mama isn't coming to see what's wrong. She would if she could, but Mama isn't being allowed to come and help, and you are fully aware of this.

We don't know Terri's degree of awareness, although the videos of her reactions to her parents and other loved ones makes it apparent that she is aware. We learned recently that some brain-injured patients who appear oblivious to their surroundings are in fact hearing and understanding what's happening around them. Brain imaging revealed the same sort of activity in these patients' brains as in a healthy person's brain when the patient was listening to a loved one recount memories of shared experiences. The same sort of test could reveal Terri's degree of awareness, if only her husband would permit it.

Someday it could be you -- fully aware but unable to communicate. Wouldn't you want someone to speak out on your behalf if they tried to starve you, to cause you to suffer a prolonged and agonizing death?

You can speak out for Terri and others like her. If you're from Florida, contact your state legislators and urge them to expedite passage of HB701, the Florida Starvation and Dehydration of Persons with Disabilities Prevention Act. If you're not from Florida, you can help, too: pray, urge friends and family in Florida to act, and correct misstatements about Terri's condition in your local media.

You'll find much more information and points for action on blogsforterri.com and terrisfight.org.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 19, 2005 5:18 PM.

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