Richard Jerome
February 14, 2000 12:00 PM

Ten years ago, Michael and Terri Schiavo were just beginning their young lives together. Raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, they’d left four years before for St. Petersburg, Fla., where Terri’s parents planned to retire. They worked long hours, Michael as a restaurant manager, Terri as a Prudential secretary who spent much of her free time at the beach. “She was a sun goddess,” says Schiavo, 36. A fan of singer George Michael, she also “liked action movies,” he says, “adventures, romance and mysteries. She loved to read books.”

But that life was suddenly undone. On Feb. 25, 1990, Schiavo awoke to use the bathroom and heard a thud. “I saw Terri on the floor, facedown,” he recalls. “I was shaking her. I heard a rush of air come out of her mouth.” Her heart had stopped. After a rescue squad performed CPR and rushed Terri, then 26, to a hospital, her heartbeat was stabilized. “I thought, ‘Good,’ ” Schiavo recalls, ” ‘I can take her home now.’ ”

But he could not, for Terri’s still-unexplained heart attack had robbed her brain of oxygen for five critical minutes and left her in what is described by doctors as a persistent vegetative state—neither comatose nor brain-dead, yet so badly brain-damaged that she seems unaware of the small, unchanging world she inhabits. At 36, Terri now lives in the Palm Gardens nursing home in Largo, Fla., the unwitting center of a moral and legal storm over the parameters of human life. Convinced by doctors that she will never recover, her husband has, since 1994, sought to let Terri die rather than linger in her twilight. At a January bench trial before Pinellas County circuit court Judge George Greer, he petitioned to remove her feeding tube. (She breathes on her own.) But Terri’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, are fiercely opposed. “I stroke her cheek, I kiss her face, and I can hear her laugh or moan,” says Mary, 58. “If I move around the room, her eyes follow me. There is a life there.” In fact the Schindlers would like Schiavo, as Terri’s legal guardian, to continue to pursue experimental therapy intended to stimulate her brain with electrodes. “She deserves a chance,” says Robert Schindler, 62. Adds Terri’s sister Suzanne Carr, 31: “She’s only 36 now. What if they find something to help in a few years? In 10? In 20?”

Doctors have said that Terri’s prognosis appears hopeless. But what of the laughs and moans that the family videotaped and played at the hearing? James Barnhill, a neurologist who examined Terri, characterizes them as mere reflexes. “I can’t get inside her head,” he says, “but by every test you can do, there was no discernible response.”

With a ruling expected by mid-February, the case hinges largely on the intent of the patient. Terri left no living will ordering that her life be ended should she be reduced to a vegetative state. But Schiavo insists she did express that intention after watching a documentary about people on life support. “She said, ‘Don’t ever let me live like that,’ ” he says. Her parents counter that while discussing the landmark 1976 Karen Ann Quinlan case, Terri said it was wrong for the family to have taken her off a respirator. Robert Jarvis, a professor at Nova Southeastern University Law Center near Fort Lauderdale, suggests that such conflicting hearsay weighs against Schiavo. “You have no way of knowing what the patient wanted,” he says. “If nobody can know, there’s nothing to be done.”

Casting a cloud over the medical issues at play is the specter of money. In 1993 the Schiavos won a $1 million-plus malpractice settlement against a gynecologist who had failed to administer a blood test when Terri complained of menstrual problems. Had the doctor done the test, it was alleged, he might have found that her potassium levels were low, a possible cause of her heart attack. Schiavo received $300,000; the rest was awarded to Terri and placed in an account administered by a bank for her care. Should she die, Schiavo, now a respiratory therapist who has been dating a woman for five years, would inherit that money. But Schiavo has said he would donate it to charity if the Schindlers allow him to end what he feels is Terri’s needless suffering—an offer they have refused. Should Schiavo divorce Terri, her parents would be granted guardianship and control of her estate, which they say they would use to find Terri new treatments. If she were to die, the Schindlers would inherit the money.

Now bitterly divided, the two sides were once united. Michael and his in-laws used to take turns dressing Terri, changing her diapers and taking her to specialists. Now they make sure to visit on different days. The Schindlers bring tapes of George Michael and other pop stars. Schiavo buys Terri clothes, jewelry and perfume. Whatever their differences, the parents and husband share an intense devotion to the stricken woman, who now has so little to offer in return. Declares Mary: “She has a feeding tube; other than that, she’s perfect.” Says Schiavo: “I love Terri deeply. It’s my job to see this through.”

Richard Jerome

Lori Rozsa in Clearwater and Don Sider in West Palm Beach

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