RESTRICTED: Schiavo Speaks

Michael Schiavo first laid eyes on Theresa Marie Schindler in a psychology class at a community college in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

I heard this laugh behind me. It was sort of muffled, as though the laugher had placed a hand over her mouth. When I turned around I saw a young lady with big brown eyes, soft shoulder-length brown hair and a beautiful olive complexion. When she removed her hand from her mouth, I could see a radiant smile. This was a smile I couldn’t resist. After class, we met outside and talked until we were both almost late for our next classes.

They dated for just over a year and married on Nov. 10, 1984. They soon moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., down the street from Terri’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler. Terri got a job as a claims clerk for Prudential while Michael hired on as a manager for Agostino’s, a popular restaurant. On Feb. 25, 1990, Michael returned from work well after midnight.

As usual, Terri had left the stove light on, and that was bright enough for me. I ate the peanut butter and crackers snack she always left on the counter, then brushed my teeth and crawled into bed. Terri turned toward me and mumbled a sleepy “Hello,” adding, “See you in the morning. I love you.” We kissed, said good night and in seconds, were both asleep.

Sometime after 5:30 a.m. I woke up to go to the bathroom. As I got out of bed, it didn’t even register that Terri wasn’t there. And then I heard a thud. I ran into the hall. The bathroom lights were on and I could see Terri on the floor. She had one arm by her side and the other over her head—almost in a ballerina’s pose. I scooped her into my arms. “Terri, Terri, are you all right? What’s going on?”

She didn’t respond. All I heard were noises coming out of her mouth. Then I heard this sharp intake of breath and it scared the crap out of me. I dialed 911, frantic, just screaming something like, “Get here!” I called less than a minute after finding Terri. I did not delay—no matter what Gov. Jeb Bush apparently still believes.

The paramedics arrived moments later. “What kind of drugs does she take?” one asked. “She doesn’t,” I said, getting angry. He continued pressing, saying, “Don’t make me search this house.” “Search the f—— house!” I yelled. “There aren’t any drugs.” Next thing I knew I heard, “No heart rate, start CPR.” They cut her tank top open. To see a couple of guys pounding on Terri’s chest was a shock. You could see her collarbones and ribs. My mind was racing. I was crying, shaking all over.

Terri was rushed to nearby Humana Northside Hospital. A frantic Michael met her parents in the waiting area.

Part of me was still saying, “They’re going to fix her and I’ll take her home.” Mary came up and started rubbing my back, saying it would be all right. After what seemed like hours, I heard someone say, “Mr. Schiavo?” He told me Terri was in very critical condition. The next 24 hours would be touch-and-go. Finally they told me I could see her. If it was possible to get even more terrified than I’d been in the apartment, I did. She needed a ventilator to breathe; she had IVs dripping into her. A nurse asked, “Do you want a priest?” Talk about a sucker punch. A priest came and I stood there with Mrs. Schindler, while he administered last rites to my wife. It was so unreal. We were 26-year-old kids. Your wife says “Good night” and “I love you,” you kiss and 10 hours later there’s a priest at her bedside.

Terri had suffered cardiac arrest, depriving her brain of oxygen. The attack, doctors suggested, was caused by potassium deficiency—most likely brought on by a previously undiagnosed case of bulimia. Michael says he was shocked, though he knew she’d been vigilant about her weight—now 120 lbs. on a 5′5″ frame.

Terri had been very heavy as a kid—in high school she topped out at around 250 lbs., and she never went to dances or proms. When we met, she [weighed about 160 lbs. and] was probably a size 14 or 16. I could see she was still self-conscious. She watched everything she ate, but never gave any indication she was doing anything unhealthy. Terri continued to lose weight in the three months between her first and last fittings for her wedding dress. In some of our pictures you can see the dress was just floating on her. But [years later] my brother’s wife, Joan, told me this story. Joan, [who had been] suffering from morning sickness, “told Terri I was sick to my stomach,” she recalled. “Terri said, ‘Why don’t you put your finger down your throat? I feel so much better when I [do that] and throw up.'”

For several weeks Terri stayed in a coma. Then, suddenly, she opened her eyes.

I thought, She’s awake! But all I got in response was the moan we would become so accustomed to. If I’d see her hand move, a leg, even a toe, I’d get excited. But doctors said these movements weren’t significant. Mrs. Schindler spent a lot of time at the hospital. In those early years, we would hang out. She used to tell me things like, “Terri loved you a lot. She knows you’re doing the proper thing for her.” We’d try the “blink once for yes, twice for no” thing and there’d be moments when I’d say, “Gosh, she did it.” I’d get psyched.

But doctors told Schiavo that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state, retaining a sleep-wake cycle and some instinctive movements, like blinking, but unaware of her surroundings. She was kept alive with a feeding tube inserted in her abdomen. She was transferred to a care facility where she received neurological testing, speech and physical therapy.

It had been a year and a half since her collapse. I missed everything about her. I missed the way she smelled; I missed the back scratches; I missed the way she would sit with the cats; I missed slipping into bed with her and just spooning. It felt as though there was a hole in my soul.

In 1992 Michael won more than $1 million in a malpractice suit against two of Terri’s doctors for failing to test her for eating disorders, despite the weight loss and menstrual problems that had plagued her; more than 70 percent of the award went toward her medical expenses. By then Michael had studied to be an EMT. (He would go on to become a respiratory therapist and registered nurse.) According to Michael, the Schindlers had begun “urging me to begin dating and getting on with my life,” and though it had been difficult, in July 1993, in the office of an orthodontist pal, Michael met a woman he felt truly drawn to.

A couple of [my friend’s] assistants told me there was a patient in the waiting room I’d really like. Her name was Jodi, and like high school girls trying to fix up a friend for the prom, they almost pushed me through the door. “Is Jodi here?” I asked. “Here,” came the rather shy reply. I introduced myself. I tried not to stare as she walked to the treatment room. She had long, beautiful legs. I’m thinking, Gorgeous girl. She was dressed in a business suit. Later I learned she was an agent with a large insurance agency. Jodi had been divorced since ’89. I followed her into the back, enduring giggling from a small pack of dental assistants. I started asking questions and she was a good sport, trying to give me answers, which was difficult with her mouth filled with instruments. Afterward I asked if we could get together. She said, “I don’t date or anything like that.” But, as Jodi recalls, “I told him we could meet for lunch. It was nice, nothing spectacular. We were just two hurt souls who needed someone to talk to. Not a sexual thing or an in-love thing. I never paid much attention to the fact that Mike was the poster boy for Guys with Baggage.”

We went out several times, and talked on the phone a lot before I even kissed her. She knew that I wasn’t capable of getting into any serious relationship.

Not long after Michael and Jodi met, Terri’s internist, Dr. Patrick Mulroy, delivered a crushing assessment:

“This is the way Terri is going to be the rest of her life. Why don’t you let her go? Why don’t you stop her feeding?” Oh, God. Stop her feeding? He told me it would be painless. Her organs would gradually shut down. My mind was reeling. I felt empty and alone.

Terri’s neurologist was even blunter.

He smacked me with the medical equivalent of a two-by-four: “Why do you let her live? She died three years ago.” Can you imagine how it feels to get asked that question? Later I thought about the time Terri spoke of her uncle Fred, who’d lost his wife and child in a train wreck. Distraught, he got drunk and wrapped his car around a telephone pole. He was never the same, unable to walk or do things for himself. That’s when Terri said, “I would never want to live like that. I would want to just die.”

Schiavo transferred Terri to a Largo, Fla., nursing home. The Schindlers began a decadelong effort to have him removed as Terri’s legal guardian. Along with that battle, he was fighting his increasingly strong feelings for Jodi.

As our friendship started to grow into something more, I just could not handle the guilt inside me for having strong feelings for two women. It began a pattern of breakups over the next years. Our next breakup was around Valentine’s Day. I sent red roses to Terri’s room, went to visit her, and sat and cried. Jodi and I reconciled, and by 1995 had built a house together.

In 1997 Michael’s mother, Claire, died of cancer of the gallbladder. Watching her lie helpless in her last days was a turning point. In May 1998 Michael petitioned to remove Terri’s feeding tube. The Schindlers contested, igniting a tortuous battle over Terri’s life played out through a series of lawsuits and appeals, emergency federal legislation and much media debate.

Now, you may be thinking the Schindlers were only trying to save their daughter. I do have sympathy for them. Terri was their daughter. Losing Terri would be extraordinarily painful. But when the personal attacks on me and, later, on Jodi and my children grew, and I was accused of murder, abuse, negligence and a host of other horrible things, I could not just let those attacks roll off my back.

Schiavo kept fighting, and on Oct. 15, 2003, Terri’s feeding tube was taken out.

No one was admitted in the room as a doctor and nurse removed the tube. I arrived shortly thereafter and remained in the hospice until the evening after Terri passed away. In front of the hospice, it sounded like a rowdy tailgate party. There were all sorts of demonstrators, ranging from elderly women who prayed silently to a raucous group shouting “Let Terri live!” For everyone who didn’t know Terri, this was a theatrical moment filled with political drama. For me, it meant my wife was going to die.

In fact, she wasn’t—not yet. A week after the tube was removed, Gov. Jeb Bush signed Terri’s Law, enabling him to order it reinserted. The legal and political wrangling continued, but Michael ultimately prevailed.

Walking into Terri’s room on March 30, 2005, I could see the end was close. She looked peaceful. She’d breathe very fast, and then break out of it. She wasn’t blinking regularly, and her eyes were sunken. There were purplish blotches on her legs and arms. Her skin wasn’t shriveled, in fact, it was very smooth.

That’s what Michael Schiavo, the registered nurse, could see. But Michael Schiavo, the husband, was going through an emotional upheaval. A numbing pain deep inside. An aching in my heart. We used to be a couple and now we weren’t going to be one anymore. That evening, I camped in the room with Terri, whose breathing was becoming more labored. We were playing Celine Dion, then some soft background music. I held Terri’s hand most of the night.

[The next morning] Terri’s breathing pattern started to change. [Then] it stopped. It was 9:05 a.m. I was kneeling next to the bed, cradling Terri. I was sobbing as I tried to tell her it was okay, it was over. I remember saying “you can be at peace now.” The hospice workers bathed her, then I went back into the room with her. I knelt down, gave her a final kiss, and whispered that I love her, and we’d see each other again.

As strange as it seems to say it now, I was happy for her. She was finally free.

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