APRIL 23, 2001 VOLUME 8, NUMBER43
Theresa Marie Schiavo was only 27 in 1990 when a potassium imbalance led to her cardiac arrest. Although her husband, Michael Schiavo, called 911 and Ms. Schiavo was rushed to the hospital, she has never regained consciousness.
Ms. Schiavo remains in a persistent vegetative state. Although she goes through cycles of apparent wakefulness and sleep, she does not respond to stimuli and appears to have no cognitive function. Her breathing is often accompanied by moans, but she has no ability to understand any aspect of her condition.
Even if by some miracle Ms. Schiavo’s physical condition were to improve dramatically she would remain a total-care patient—her cerebral cortex has deteriorated and the resultant void has filled with cerebral spinal fluid. In short, Ms. Schiavo is completely incapacitated and will never recover, unless by miraculous means.
Michael Schiavo has remained closely involved in her care. Mr. Schiavo was appointed as his wife’s guardian and has managed her care for over a decade.
Ms. Schiavo has concerned, actively involved parents. Robert and Mary Schindler are devoted to their daughter and maintain as much contact as possible. They are clearly very concerned about her.
Unfortunately Ms. Schiavo’s husband and parents disagree. Mr. Schiavo believes that continued tube feedings are pointless, and that his wife would not choose to be maintained in her current condition. Mr. and Mrs. Schindler believe that she should be kept alive and as healthy as possible, in the hopes that her condition might somehow improve.
Complicating this family drama is a large settlement obtained for Ms. Schiavo in a personal injury lawsuit filed on her behalf. Her husband and her parents each appear to believe that the other is motivated by a desire to control—or even to inherit—that settlement.
Ms. Schiavo never executed an advance directive, so there is no clear indication how she actually felt about the prospect of being kept alive in her current condition. Without that guidance, the Florida courts have been called on to make the final decision in a heated contest between parents and husband.
Last month the Florida Court of Appeals granted Mr. Schiavo the authority to withdraw the feeding tubes keeping his wife alive. The judges decided that there was no evidence that his decision in the matter was affected by the possibility of inheriting her settlement funds upon her death, and ruled that he was acting in her best interests. In re Schiavo, January 24, 2001.
Ms. Schiavo’s parents have already appealed the decision to Florida’s Supreme Court. Although the human tragedy may have been unavoidable, the legal uncertainty might have been prevented if Ms. Schiavo had simply signed a living will or health care power of attorney.