Terri Schiavo The lessons learned

Posted: June 17, 2005

Terri Schiavo lived in darkness while so many were so sure that her future was bright.

At her death on March 31 - from dehydration, not starvation - the former Montgomery County resident was blind and suffering from massive and irreversible brain damage.

The Florida woman's autopsy results, released Wednesday, serve as a rebuttal to those who doubted long-held views of doctors who examined Schiavo in life. There was no cure for her condition - that is, none known to medical science.

The Florida medical examiner's verdict repudiates the appalling overreaching by Republican leaders in Congress and President Bush. Had their unprecedented, last-ditch effort to restore Schiavo's feeding tube not been rebuked as illegitimate ad-hoc lawmaking by the federal courts, Bush and lawmakers merely would have delayed the inevitable.

With the autopsy results known, consider how ludicrous - if not cynical - it was for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) to argue in mid-March that doctors had erred radically. Frist said that Schiavo was not in the "persistent vegetative state," as diagnosed. And how did physician Frist examine the woman who collapsed mysteriously in 1990? By watching a videotape.

Maybe more Americans should have heeded the plea of one blogger, who urged online readers to snap a picture "of your medical problem - tennis elbow, acne, runny nose, hemorrhoids, or whatever ails you - and send it to the doctor in charge of the U.S. Senate."

For the quiet man in the Schiavo maelstrom - her husband, Michael Schiavo - the post-mortem results offer some consolation. They vindicate his decision to respect what he said were his wife's expressed wishes not to be kept alive beyond hope of recovery.

The autopsy also debunked the claims of Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, and allies that Michael Schiavo abused his wife.

According to a family spokesperson, the Schindlers still aren't willing to accept the hard, scientific facts of their daughter's terminal condition. That's understandable. Most parents in their tragic position would want to believe their child could recover.

Yet the rest of us and our elected leaders must acknowledge lessons from the Schiavo saga. For one thing, it's clear that the millions of dollars that would have been needed to sustain Schiavo could otherwise benefit thousands more patients with treatable conditions.

The events also show that families need to discuss end-of-life issues before a crisis hits. When families cannot agree, they should respect the decisions of those caregivers - often a spouse - given the legal authority to make wrenching decisions.

Finally, government needs to step back from this arena when possible. Families need to be assured that they can face up to the anguish of a loved one's last days without fear of becoming a sound bite in a partisan, political circus like the one that attended Terri Schiavo's death.

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