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FIRST-PERSON: Meet Jean-Dominique Bauby

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–There is no doubt you are at least somewhat aware of the plight of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who became severely disabled as the result of a mysterious collapse 15 years ago.

Approximately seven to eight years after her collapse, Terri’s husband began to assert that his wife had communicated that she would not want to be kept alive by a gastric feeding tube.

Why it took Michael Schiavo some 84 months to articulate Terri’s wish to die, rather than be fed through a tube, has been the subject of much speculation. If his wife’s desire was to have “no tubes,” as he recently stated on “Larry King Live,” why did he not seek to have Terri’s feeding tube removed much, much sooner?

Terri’s parents do not believe Michael’s assertion. They are convinced that with proper therapy she could improve. Do they believe Terri could regain normalcy? I don’t think so. However, they do believe she could swallow and take nourishment by conventional means, and they also believe she could become more responsive.

Complicating matters is the fact that Michael Schiavo has been living with another woman — by whom he has fathered two children — for several years. There are many people who believe that in violating his marriage vows, Michael has forfeited the right to act as Terri’s guardian. I happen to be one of them.

The judiciary is not bothered by the absence of a document expressing Terri’s wishes, nor is it fazed by a husband’s brazen infidelity. The courts stubbornly support Michael’s “right” to allow Terri to starve to death.

One thing is for certain — on the plight of Terri Schiavo, public opinion is divided. Some believe Michael Schiavo and are sympathetic to his cause. Others feel the parents anguish and can’t understand why they are not allowed to care for their disabled daughter. Still, others try to crawl into Terri’s skin and assert that they would not want to be kept alive in what has been termed a “persistent vegetative state” (even though many doctors say she is not in such a condition).

To those who are in favor of terminating Terri’s life — for whatever reason — allow me to introduce you to Jean-Dominique Bauby.

Bauby was the editor of the French edition of “Elle” magazine. In December 1995, at the age of 43, he suffered a massive and rare stroke to his brain stem that left him completely and permanently paralyzed.

After 20 days in a coma, Bauby awoke to find himself in a body in which only his left eye functioned. Not only did the unaffected eye allow him to see, but by blinking Bauby was able to communicate and make it clear that his mind was unimpaired.

Amazingly, Bauby expressed himself by blinking to select letters, one by one, utilizing a special alphabet set up by a speech therapist. Even more amazing, he “dictated” his thoughts one letter at a time and eventually composed a 131-page book.

Bauby’s memoir, titled “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” was published two days before he died. In it he compares his own body to a diving bell — a mere container, providing only life support — in which his mind exists as a caged butterfly.

Of his condition, Bauby wrote, “In the long term, I can hope to eat more normally: that is without the help of a gastric tube.” He continued, “Eventually, perhaps I will be able to breathe naturally, without a respirator, and muster enough breath to make my vocal cords vibrate.”

In page after page Bauby describes the delight of simply being alive. He relished time spent with his family. Some days were described as good and some days were articulated as being bad, but to Bauby most days were an adventure.

To those who referred to him as a “total vegetable,” Bauby expressed disgust. He wrote, “The tone in the voice left no doubt that henceforth I belonged on a vegetable stall and not to the human race.” He mused, “France was at peace; one couldn’t shoot the bearers of bad news.” Bauby concluded, “Instead I would have to rely on myself if I wanted to prove my IQ was still higher than a turnip’s.”

Bauby’s book begs the question: How cognizant are individuals whose bodies deny them the ability to communicate?

How aware is Terri Schiavo of her situation? I do not know. However, I do know this: Her parents believe she is of infinite more worth than a turnip. And, in the absence of written documentation expressing Terri’s wishes, it is a miscarriage of justice to allow an unfaithful husband to remove her only source of nourishment.
Kelly Boggs is pastor of the Portland-area Valley Baptist Church in McMinnville, Ore. His column appears each Friday in Baptist Press.

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  • Kelly Boggs