'My Father Wasn't There'
October 26, 2003
By DUDLEY CLENDINEN
TERRI SCHIAVO'S eyes are often open,
and, in photographs,
seem clear. She smiles. When her parents, Bob and
Schindler, look at her face, they think she is still
That is how we try to measure people. The stranger we
encounter. The salesman. The actor on the movie
boyfriend. The wife or husband. The child -
it is our child. Especially if the child is hurt, and
think we can help.
We look into their eyes, because we
expect to find truth
there, information - or at least some indication that
know we are with them, trying to know what they are
experiencing. What they need. What we can do.
Sometimes the eyes tell us. When my
father opened his eyes,
three days after a massive cerebral hemorrhage, they
weren't clear and hazel as usual, but wild and black.
was like looking into a storm at night, or a
brain. My father wasn't there. We asked the hospital
disconnect his hydration and feeding tubes. As I've
learn, a person can live for a month or more without
but only 8 to 14 days without water. Nine days later,
in a coma, he died.
Sometimes the eyes deceive us. I saw
the same wild black
emptiness in my mother's eyes, 36 hours after the
of stroke. She was in a coma, too. Experience told me
was gone. We were about to disconnect her when she
going, in minutes, from comatose to a critic of the
hospital room décor.
"That picture really is dreadful,"
she said, pointing. "I'd
like it taken down."
She was back. Then seven days later,
she had another
stroke, a clot. That was five and a half years ago.
eat when fed, but now she says nothing, smiles less
Terri Schiavo and just looks at me with clear eyes.
The victims of strokes can be
terrible puzzles, a torture
to families, and sometimes an ordeal for the courts.
Schiavo, 39, is not in a coma. Since her heart
1990, depriving her brain of oxygen, she has been in
something slightly less severe, a persistent
"There may be facial expressions,"
said Michael A.
Williams, a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins medical
school. "If something hurts, they may grimace. They
cry. And they look for all the world as if they are
right at you."
It is all involuntary, he said, and
can occur even if the
thinking, experiencing part of brain has been
"It makes it much harder" to accept that the patient
responding, he said.
Michael Schiavo, who married Terri,
has said that he used
to hope for her recovery, but years ago accepted that
wife, whom he said once told him she would never want
maintained in such a state, wasn't there anymore -
should be allowed to die. But the Schindlers, who
her, see the promise of recovery when they look at
five years, Mr. Schiavo, her court-appointed
sought to disconnect her tubes, fought every step of
way by his in-laws.
It is understandable. One person who
loves her could wish
to let her die. Another who loves her could
want to keep her alive. That is what the courts are
and since the decision of the New Jersey Supreme
the case of Karen Ann Quinlan 25years ago, a body of
has developed consolidating the right to die. Mr.
finally won an order to have her tubes removed on
But by then, fired by the appeals of her parents,
prayer vigils, demonstrations and a global e-mail
his wife's case had acquired the kind of political
steam associated with fights over abortion.
Last Tuesday, after one day of
debate, dramatized by videos
of Terri Schiavo's smiles and open eyes, the
Republican-controlled Florida Legislature passed a
allowing Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, to order her
returned. He did. She was about half-way to death
nourishment was restored.
The action is said to appeal to the
conservative Christian base. But the voters most
by this issue are those most prone to stroke - those
65, and particularly over 75, a huge population in
They're not all happy with their Legislature and
and some of them are consulting their children and
"I think it's perfectly dreadful,"
said Lucile Foster, 78,
who lives in an apartment at Canterbury Tower, a
for the elderly in Tampa. "I'm a born-again
know where I'm going when I die. And I have already
my oldest son and said I just want to be sure that
pull the plug on me if I get like that."
Her son told her not to worry. She
has a living will, and
he knows how she feels. But when a friend of hers
about the Schiavo case and decided to check with her
daughters, one said, "Mother, I would never pull the
"Don't worry, Mother," the other
daughter said. "I would."
"She gave her power of attorney to
that daughter," Mrs.
When people are young, it is hard to
seriously. At the Johns Hopkins medical school in a
classroom filled with more than 80 students and
members last week, a speaker asked how many had
wills. Not one student raised a hand. But many of the
faculty did. The Schiavo case may make them wonder if
can count on the established case law. It was the
Beth Cruzan case in Missouri, in 1990, that began to
establish the right of family or friends to speak for
wishes of those who hadn't signed living wills. At
medical school at the University of South Florida,
LaCivita Nixon an ethics and humanities professor,
her first-year students, aged 22 and 23, to be the
medical school class in the country to sign living
That is young, but Karen Ann Quinlan,
whose case opened
this subject, was only 21 when she fell into a coma.
Beth Cruzan was 33 when she died. They were both,
Schiavo, in permanent vegetative states. Politicians,
not the courts, forget that we've been through this
and that otherwise healthy young people can live a
long time on feeding tubes.
Terri Schiavo has already lived a
third of her life on
tubes. If she can avoid bedsores and infections, "I
think anyone can put a limit on how long she can
said Robert Walker, director of the division of
ethics and humanities at the University of South
College of Medicine.
The law passed by the Florida
Legislature, and Governor
Bush's order, do not seem likely to stand in court.
they do, or if Michael Schiavo decides to relinquish
guardianship, Bob and Mary Schindler could very well
their daughter for the rest of their lives.
As Mrs. Foster said, "You need to be
careful what you pray
Dudley Clendinen, a former national
editorial writer for The New York Times, is at work
book about life in the new old age.