There is virtually no one in America (maybe in the world) who hasn’t heard about Terri Schiavo. Terry is the 41-year-old woman who has been in a “persistent vegetative state” for the last 15 years. Her husband wants to pull the plug because he knows she would not have wanted to live this way. Doctors have testified to her persistent vegetative condition and its irreversibility after 15 years. However, Terri’s parents disagree -they believe that since her eyes open, there are facial movements they interpret as smiles, and they believe her garblings can be interpreted – they think she can wake up.
Terri’s husband and parents couldn’t agree and went through the Florida court system. Its highest court finally ruled, and a week ago the feeding tube was removed. Three days later, the President of the United States and Congress decided this was a Federal case, and then it became a Conservative, Liberal, Right-to-Life, Libertarian, or Feminist issue. People were taken into police custody for trying to enter the hospice, wanting to give her water; others, to perform a “citizen’s arrest” on those involved in withholding food.
Everybody understands that it is impossible for parents to let go of their children. The idea that our child is brain-damaged beyond recovery is almost impossible to comprehend. The decision to suspend life-saving measures is no less gut wrenching for children, husbands or wives, but let’s not make this serious debate a media circus. The politicization, partisan debate and TV reality show that this case has become disgusts me.
Healthcare professionals, who deal with end of life issues, have watched individuals and families deal with their feelings of guilt, psychological projections, personal needs, and religious convictions, all of which make these end-of-life decisions painfully difficult. But this is an intensely private matter, and decisions about when to withdraw medical treatment ought to be made by individuals and families. Only in hopelessly irreconcilable cases must state courts be involved.
My heart goes out to the husband, parents, family and to the hospice and homecare workers who took care of Terry for the last 15 years. They come to their work from a place of loving kindness that exceeds most ordinary people’s capacity. They get so little visible return from these patients that their reward must come from touching them at a spiritual level. Hospice and homecare workers do this important work because it fills them with meaning and purpose. It troubles me that they have been screamed at, jostled, and reviled as murderers by enraged picketers. Hospice workers do sacred work and we ought to be thanking them for their commitment and love.
What Terri’s case means for all of us is that it’s critically important to put in writing what we want done if we end up in a similar situation. With extraordinary medical advances, these situations will become more common place. Go to your state’s website and look under “seniors” or “life care” to find documents for: 1) a durable healthcare power of attorney (which give somebody the right to speak for you); 2) a medical care directive (what you want done in certain situations). Do it now and talk to the people you love the most about what’s important to you.
Terry Schiavo, rest in peace, with the grateful appreciation of a world that is better off because you were here.