Nearly two decades after her death, Terri Schiavo documentary falls short on the facts

By Cassy Fiano-Chesser 

A new documentary about Terri Schiavo, “Between Life and Death,” is streaming on Peacock, released on December 4th — Terri’s birthday. Years later, the debate about her life — and death — is still getting the facts wrong.

Terri Schiavo was 26 years old when she suffered massive cardiac arrest, and due to oxygen deprivation, was left with severe brain damage. The story was revisited in the documentary, and her family slammed the end result in a press release from the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network.

“[I]t failed to capture the real human tragedy that was a woman being forcibly starved and dehydrated to death over 13 agonizing days. Further, it was quite unfortunate that the producers chose to frame this story of horrific abuse through a false lens of supposed ‘compassion’ instead of portraying the real story of what transpired,” the statement said of the documentary, adding, “The final product does not present even a fair portrayal of the brutality that Terri had to endure at the hands of Michael Schiavo and the Florida courts, which enabled his actions.”

TERRI’S CONDITION

Terri has frequently been described as being in a “vegetative” state, but that is not accurate; she was known to show awareness of her surroundings and respond to the people around her. Videos of her being examined are still available on YouTube; you can see Terri following verbal commands and responding appropriately. Terri did need to be fed through a tube, but she was not sick or dying. She had no condition, beyond her disability, that would have caused a premature death.

Dr. William Hammesfahr, a neurologist who specializes in treating stroke victims, is the physician seen in some of the videos with Terri. He had testified that he believed Terri’s condition had the ability to improve. Ten other physicians testified or submitted statements saying that she was not unconscious or unaware or her surroundings. She did not require mechanical ventilation, was able to breathe on her own, and had since 1990.

Furthermore, in 1991, Terri was speaking during physical therapy sessions, saying things like “No,” “Stop,” and “Mommy.” Sadly, 1991 was the last year in which Terri would be provided any kind of therapy or rehabilitation, according to her family.

Numerous doctors testified that Terri was not in a persistent vegetative state; instead, she was in a “minimally conscious state,” a condition discovered later in the Schiavo-Schindler court battles. Many of them recommended specific treatment plans or, at the minimum, that Terri be given the opportunity to undergo therapy and rehabilitation.

Terri died, not due to her condition, but because she was slowly starved and dehydrated to death for 13 agonizing days.

TERRI’S HUSBAND

Her husband, Michael Schiavo, originally vowed to stand by her side, no matter what. He even filed a malpractice suit on her behalf, and was awarded $2 million, which he said would go towards her care. He also claimed he was dedicated to caring for her throughout the rest of her life — which was predicted to be a normal life span, according to an expert who testified in the malpractice case.

But within just one year, his tune had already changed.

Michael Schiavo refused to let doctors treat Terri with antibiotics when she got an infection. Her teeth weren’t cleaned, leading to the removal of multiple teeth. He also refused doctor recommendations for rehabilitation and therapy. Instead, he put Terri’s two cats to sleep and had her wedding rings melted down.

He met another woman, became engaged to her, lived with her, and had two children with her — all before Terri died. As Wesley j. Smith dryly noted at the time, “The couple would like to marry, but Michael’s wife, inconveniently, is still alive.” And he stood to gain $700,000 with her death.

It is seemingly no surprise, then, that Michael Schiavo suddenly “remembered” that Terri told him she didn’t want to live with a severe disability. The money he gained from his malpractice suit was then used in his legal battle to kill her.

As Wesley J. Smith reported,

In the mid 1990s, according to another nurse’s affidavit filed under penalty of perjury, Michael [Schiavo] was overheard saying things such as, “When is she going to die,” “Has she died yet?” and “When is that bitch going to die?” (This affidavit was only recently filed. Michael has not yet filed a response.)

A clip of Michael Schiavo in court was played in the documentary. “Terri’s very difficult to take care of,” he testified. “She needs a lot of care.”

It is true that someone with a severe disability requires serious care — care that Terri’s parents were willing to provide. They had even sued to replace Schiavo as Terri’s legal guardians, but that request was denied. In the documentary, Schiavo said he changed his mind about keeping Terri alive after she got an EEG; he claimed a neurologist told him she had died “four years ago.”

After Terri’s death, Schiavo again centered himself above his wife: the inscription on the tombstone read, I kept my promise. He later created a political action committee, TerriPAC, with the goal of raising money for pro-assisted suicide candidates; it was dissolved in 2007 after he was forced to pay a fine to the Federal Election Commission for not providing the required records.

The documentary featured an interview with a hospice worker who said she told Schiavo he was a good man for his efforts to kill his wife, and that she would want the same thing.

TERRI’S FAMILY

Terri’s parents wouldn’t let their daughter die without a fight. “When I would go see her, I used to stand by her door,” her mother, Mary Schindler, said in the documentary. “And if she was looking the other way, I would stand there and say, ‘Terri, it’s Mommy,’ she would turn right around and look at me. Right at me. And nobody believed me.”

Terri’s family battled tirelessly to save her life, offering to take over her care from Schiavo and have the couple’s marriage dissolved, so he could remarry. Her family is also still questioning why Terri became injured to begin with.

“Somebody doesn’t just fall down and collapse without a reason,” Mary Schindler said in the documentary. Yet the family — Mary, and Terri’s siblings Bobby and Suzanne — all agreed in the documentary that Schiavo remained devoted to his wife until he received the malpractice settlement. “The relationship with Michael abruptly changed after the settlement came in,” Suzanne said. “Michael felt differently about Terri’s care, and decided that he wasn’t going to spend any more money on Terri’s rehabilitation.”

An interview with Schiavo from 2001 was included in which he ridiculed the Schindlers’ hope for Terri’s improvement, saying, “Mr. and Mrs. Schindler, they’ve had 10 years to grieve. They talk miracles — if God wanted to create a miracle, he would’ve done it a long time ago.” Another clip was aired in which Schiavo was asked why he couldn’t simply divorce her and let her parents care for her; his reply was that Terri’s parents wouldn’t carry out her wishes.

Yet an ex-girlfriend of Schiavo’s, Cindi Brashers, who dated him after Terri’s injury, said he admitted to her that there was no conversation about her wishes should she become incapacitated, that they had been too young to ever even think about it.

“Everybody looks at the Schindlers, the poor Schindlers,” he said in an interview with a local news outlet, the clip of which was included in the documentary. “What about me?”

TERRI’S DEATH

Judge George Greer ultimately ordered Terri to be slowly killed through deprivation of food and water, a process that took 13 days. He also did not mandate any comfort care to alleviate Terri’s suffering, meaning she felt the pain of slowly dying from being starved and dehydrated to death.

Her brother, Bobby Schindler, described the horror of her final days:

These are the hard facts my family and I will have to live with for the rest of my life: After almost two weeks without food or water, my sister’s lips were horribly cracked, to the point where they were blistering. Her skin became jaundiced with areas that turned different shades of blue. Her skin became markedly dehydrated from the lack of water. Terri’s breathing became rapid and uncontrollable, as if she was outside sprinting.

Her moaning, at times, was raucous, which indicated to us the insufferable pain she was experiencing. Terri’s face became skeletal, with blood pooling in her deeply sunken eyes and her teeth protruding forward. Even as I write this, I can never properly describe the nightmare of having to watch my sister have to die this way.

What will be forever seared in my memory is the look of utter horror on my sister’s face when my family visited her just after she died.

An image of Terri’s face when she died, provided by her brother, can be seen here.

THE COURTS

Judge George Greer, who was interviewed for the documentary, refused to provide a guardian ad litem — someone appointed by the court with the sole purpose of representing Terri’s interests — as legally required. He also repeatedly allowed Schiavo to skip out on his responsibilities as Terri’s guardian, including providing yearly reports and updates on her condition and the care he was providing for her. He granted Schiavo’s extension requests six times, altogether leading to the required reports being three years late.

Greer ignored the numerous affidavits stating that Terri was not in a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS), as well as those agreeing that Terri would have significantly benefited from the care and therapy denied to her by her husband. Schiavo was also represented by George Felos, an attorney specializing in right-to-die cases.

Felos seemingly had a vested interest in this case, as it would further his assisted suicide advocacy. The documentary features interviews with Felos and gives him space to spread his pro-assisted suicide propaganda, boasting that he handled Florida’s first case allowing someone’s feeding tube to be removed.

“Until that case, it was virtually impossible to remove a feeding tube in the state of Florida,” he said, adding, “That’s why Michael came to me.”

In the documentary, Greer said that all it took to persuade him beyond a reasonable doubt that Schiavo was telling the truth about Terri’s supposed wishes was testimony from Schiavo’s brother — even though he acknowledged there was nothing anywhere to indicate what her actual wishes were. His own mindset may have influenced his ruling on the case.

“I think most people don’t want to be kept alive until the second coming,” he said. “If there’s no hope of recovery, let me go.”

Yet Terri wasn’t simply “let go.” She had no artificial machines helping her heart beat or ventilators helping her breathe. She was intentionally denied food and water, which caused her death.

The exact same result would happen to any human being, regardless of whether or not they were disabled.

Yet because Terri had a severe disability, she was sentenced to a horrific death.

Editor’s note. This appeared at Live Action News and is reposted with permission.