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Family members, saying Schiavo ‘at peace,’ voice gratitude

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (BP)–In a message of bittersweet resignation, Terri Schiavo’s siblings read a statement to reporters March 31 outside the hospice where their big sister was starved to death in what has become the most litigated right-to-life case in American history.

“As you are aware, Terri is now with God and she has been released from all earthly burdens,” Suzanne Vitadamo said quietly. “After these recent years of neglect at the hands of those who were supposed to protect and care for her, she is finally at peace with God for eternity.”

Vitadamo joined her brother, Bobby Schindler Jr., in making a statement on behalf of the entire family, while her father, Bob Sr., stood just behind the two fighting back tears amid a scattering of aunts, uncles, cousins and other relatives. Their mother, Mary, remained in seclusion at the family home throughout the day.

Thanking volunteers, doctors, lawyers, government officials and others who waged a “courageous battle” in an unsuccessful attempt to save the 41-year-old disabled woman from death by starvation and dehydration, Vitadamo acknowledged their “kindness,” and also urged supporters to follow the example of Jesus in handling adversity.

“Our family abhors any violence or any threats of violence,” Vitadamo said. “Threatening words dishonor our faith, our family and our sister, Terri.”

To religious leaders who “tried to help Terri,” Vitadamo commended them for their stand. “Thank you to all people of faith who demonstrated love for Terri and strength of conviction to defend the sacredness of all human life as a precious gift from God,” she said.

Standing before microphones and a crush of television cameras, photographers and reporters, Vitadamo recognized them for taking “Terri’s case to the nation” -– but also asked them to give the family time to grieve in private.

For nearly two weeks, as a battle over Terri’s life raged in the state and federal courts, the Florida state legislature and in Congress, representatives and crews from local and network news stations, cable network news, radio stations, newspapers and magazines throughout the world have sought to provide moment by moment coverage of Terri’s ordeal.

Dozens of media crews set up quarters dubbed “Camp Terri” outside the hospice March 18, the day Terri’s feeding tube was removed to comply with a court order issued Feb. 25.

Hastily erected studio equipment, awnings and folding chairs baked under the Florida sun across the street from the hospice, while Terri clung to life inside.

Supporters and protestors also gathered outside the hospice in what turned into an around-the-clock vigil — sometimes like a quiet, reflective prayer meeting and at other times erupting into an emotional, chanting crowd.

Pinellas Park Police public information officer Sanfield Forseth told the Florida Baptist Witness that 53 orderly arrests had been made since March 18, with a constant police and county sheriff presence posted to keep people safe and deter violence after several bomb threats were intercepted.

“Overall the crowd was wonderful,” Forseth said. Students from an elementary school next to the hospice were relocated after the first several days due to limited sidewalk access and because the hospice is located on a dead-end street.

A trumpet played the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” March 31 after the news of Terri’s death spread through the crowd, while the steady beat of a drum that had mimicked Terri’s heartbeat fell silent.

Bobby Schindler Jr., who throughout the 13-day standoff, strode through the crowd repeatedly thanking supporters and asking them to be prayerful and calm in their vigilance out of respect for those dying inside, said the family also had a message of forgiveness.

“Throughout this ordeal, we are reminded of the words of Jesus on the cross: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,’” Bobby told reporters at the news conference. “Our family seeks forgiveness for anything that we have done in standing for Terri’s life that has not demonstrated the love and compassion required of us by our faith.”

Growing increasingly emotional, Bobby delivered a message to parents worldwide, as well.

“Our family would encourage parents to spend time with their children and to cherish each and every moment of each and every day with them as a precious gift from God,” he said softly.

And though Terri was not able to speak for herself, Bobby said she stood with “a grace and a dignity” that made her family proud.

“Terri, we love you dearly, but we know that God loves you more than we do. We must accept your untimely death as God’s will,” he said. “Terri, your life and legacy will continue to live on as the nation is now awakened to the plight of thousands of voiceless people with disabilities that were previously unnoticed.

“Your family intends to stand up for the other ‘Terri’s’ around this nation and we will do all that we can to change the law so others won’t face the same fate that has befallen you,” Bobby said.

Finally, Bobby asked, “What would the Lord Jesus ask us to do in a moment like this?”

Referring to the Gospel of John, Bobby spoke of how God’s work can be seen through the healing of a blind man.

“God’s plan for Terri is unfolding before our eyes,” Bobby concluded. “Our prayer at this time is that our nation will remember the plight of persons with disabilities and commit within our hearts to defend their lives and their dignity for many generations to come.”

Terri had been in what some doctors consider a persistent vegetative state since 1990 when she collapsed in her home. Her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo — who has fathered two children with his live-in girlfriend while remaining married to Terri — sought the removal of her feeding tube for nearly a decade. He told the court Terri would not want to live in her physical condition although she had left no written directive concerning her end-of-life wishes.

Bob and Mary Schindler had long argued that Terri was not in a persistent vegetative state and had never received the rehabilitation provided for in a medical malpractice settlement her husband received. They also cited a conflict of interest in his remaining as her guardian.

Speaking to the media March 31, before Bobby and Suzanne made their statement, Frank Pavone, president of Priests for Life and a family adviser, told reporters that Bobby was ordered to leave Terri’s bedside about 10 minutes before she died and was threatened with arrest when he said he did not want to leave.

Forseth, the local police spokesman, confirmed the information and said that despite a court order that the Schindler family be given access to Terri, Michael Schiavo “set the rules” for her family’s visitation and he and George Felos, Schiavo’s attorney, asked police to prevent Bobby and Suzanne from being in the room at that time. He told reporters later in a press conference “Mr. Schiavo’s overriding concern was that Mrs. Schiavo die in peace.”

Bobby later told the Witness both he and Suzanne had been in the room earlier singing softly and praying for Terri. He said he questioned police orders only after being told he had to leave, despite knowing his sister literally was in her last moments of life without any of her blood relatives present.

A short while after Terri was pronounced dead, Pavone said her family members were allowed in and finally embraced her body “with tears and with great grief.”

Terri is to be cremated according to her husband’s wishes and her ashes will be buried at an undisclosed location in Pennsylvania, again overriding the Schindlers’ wish for a burial in Florida.

At the hospice, some supporters appeared bewildered at what to do next.

Aaron Shoua, a 9-year-old Orthodox Jew from Miami, wearing both a yarmulke and a prayer shawl, said he woke up in the wee hours of the morning to accompany his father to Pinellas Park in hopes of being able to speak up on behalf of the disabled woman, and pray — but had arrived a few minutes after the announcement that Terri had died.

“It’s not good that Terri died,” the youth said. “It would be better if she was dying with food in her mouth, rather than she was starved to death.”

His father, Ray Shoua, told anyone within earshot that he wanted to support Terri on behalf of other Jewish people because the issue supersedes all faiths and is a question of humanity.

“It’s really bad what happened here,” Shoua said. “There should have been an outrage. This is inhumane.”

Eileen Killeher, a 72-year-old Pinellas Park woman perched on a stool holding a sign, “Thou shalt not kill,” said she wondered if anyone really considered Terri’s young age.

“How do you know in 10 years what will they come up with in medicine?” Killeher asked. “They should have just given her a chance.”

Even living wills are not the answer because people change their minds all the time, especially as they get older, Killeher said.

Especially troubling is the court’s finding that “he said, she said” information should determine Terri’s wishes, Killeher said. “It’s a tragedy.”

Thaddeus Malanowski, a Schindler family priest and retired military chaplain who served 30 years in the Army, appeared shaken and worn after learning of her death. He said he had visited Terri every week for five years and was threatened with arrest when he visited Tuesday and asked to administer communion since she continued to fight for her life.

“We are sad, but she has gone to a beautiful place of eternal happiness,” Malanowski told the Witness. “No more pain, no more suffering.

“She’s left us a wonderful legacy, a wonderful witness and I was glad of the privilege week to week to provide for her religious and spiritual needs,” Malanowski said.

David Gibbs III, an attorney who represented the Schindlers in the last leg of their legal fight to save their daughter, told the Witness March 31 the situation is “heartbreaking.”

“God in His providence took Terri home at 9:05 a.m. this morning,” Gibbs said. “While we never wanted this day to come, we have to accept the fact that indeed God is ultimately always in control and we have to accept this as His will, even though it wasn’t our will.”

Gibbs called for healing for the nation and for the family and said it’s time to think about “Terri’s legacy.”

“God put her here for a reason. God gave her a divine purpose on this earth and I think that Terri may well through her example and through what she had to go through may spare the lives of literally tens of thousands of people across America who are at this point voiceless,” Gibbs said.

Terri may have become the symbol for which the laws are changed to not starve people and to protect life, as intended by the Constitution, Gibbs said.

Terri’s death might cause Americans to “find a better way to deal with these complicated end-of-life issues and to look back to the biblical model which is that God is the giver and God should be the taker of life.”
–Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com. For more information about memorial services, go to www.terrisfight.org.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan