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Medical examiner’s Schiavo report deficient, Gibbs writes

SEMINOLE, Fla. (BP)–The independent medical examiner’s report released nearly three months after the death of Terri Schiavo was supposed to illustrate that the Florida woman was in a persistent vegetative state, but a new book authored by the attorney who represented Schiavo’s parents claims the report produced more questions than answers.

David Gibbs recounts the findings of the report and conversations with the medical examiner in “Fighting for Dear Life: The Untold Story of Terri Schiavo and What It Means for All of Us.” Gibbs notes that the medical examiner, Dr. John Thogmartin, was unable to answer questions about Schiavo’s brain function, in spite of the fact that the media reported he had confirmed the diagnosis of the patient’s vegetative condition.

“I know many were led to conclude the IME report cleared everything up,” Gibbs writes. However, many of the report’s important comments were “lost on impatient analysts, pundits and those of the public who prefer to view things in black and white,” Gibbs writes, and nowhere was that more evident than in the media.

Across the nation newspapers and networks seemed to want to vilify Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, for fighting to preserve their daughter’s life. A June 16, 2005, headline in the New York Post, for example, read, “Terri had no hope — Autopsy supports husband.” MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann said on his television program that the medical examiner’s report had “vindicated” Michael Schiavo. And a New York Times editorial claimed that right-wing “agitators” had meddled in Terri Schiavo’s “right to die case.”

Were the reports accurate? Not according to Gibbs.

Gibbs, who was briefed on the contents of the 39-page report before it was released publicly, writes that one example of the media reporting incorrect information centered around the examination of Terri Schiavo’s brain. Media were quick to report that the brain weight was “approximately half of the expected weight.” But none of the media outlets asked why this was so. Gibbs instead asked questions about how dehydration, the primary cause of Schiavo’s death, would affect the brain. The medical examiner had no answer.

“I’ve been told by one neurologist that the brain is highly susceptible to serious medical complications from dehydration,” Gibbs writes. “Since 77 to 78 percent of the brain is normally composed of water, shrinkage from such severe dehydration should be expected.”

One of the few places Schiavo’s story was reported accurately was in the Florida Baptist Witness, which had informed readers of the implications of the case beginning in 2002. Managing editor Joni Hannigan provided extensive coverage of court appearances and interviews with the Schindler family. She also camped outside Woodside Hospice with other reporters in the final 13 days of Schiavo’s life.

“Most of the reporters out here, at least at the end, had to be conflicted about what they were witnessing,” Hannigan told Baptist Press. “There were plenty of tears to go around on our side of the street. It was a death none of us wanted — a brutal story that was intended to bring peace, ultimately, to only one very selfish man,” Hannigan said, referencing Michael Schiavo.

In all, the Florida Baptist Witness printed more than 130 commentaries, news articles and photos about the case. A number of Hannigan’s photos appear in Gibbs’ book. When news of Schiavo’s death broke, the Witness’ website crashed for 40 minutes because of the number of readers trying to access the news story and previous reports.

“Terri Schiavo had loving parents who pledged to take care of her,” Hannigan said. “Their commitment was obviously less conflicted than that of her spouse who knew her for only a few years and had determined she needed to die.”

Schiavo died of complications from dehydration after husband Michael Schiavo and pro-euthanasia attorney George Felos successfully argued before a Florida court to have her feeding tube disconnected. She had been receiving nutrition and hydration through a tube since her collapse and subsequent brain injury in 1990.

Initially, Michael Schiavo promised to care for his wife for the remainder of her life, but when he received a $1.2 million medical malpractice settlement in 1992, he refused to provide Terri with further rehabilitative services. In 1998, he filed suit in court to have Terri’s life ended, arguing that he had suddenly remembered Terri’s statement that she would not want to live in a persistent vegetative state.

But Gibbs argues that Schiavo was not in such a state. She was “minimally conscious,” he writes.

“Regarding the damage to Terri’s brain, Dr. Thogmartin said she was brain-injured, not brain-dead. Many fail to understand that absolutely critical distinction. He described the damage as ‘irreversible’ and concluded ‘no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons.’ That is not, however, the same as saying that Terri didn’t have the ability to think, hear, or communicate,” Gibbs writes.

In fact, she just may have, according to Gibbs and the Schindler family. In several eyewitness accounts in the book, Gibbs writes that Schiavo recognized visitors, smiled at guests, kissed her mother and, on one occasion, attempted to speak a sentence. Media outlets and medical specialists never saw the extent of this behavior, Gibbs writes, because Michael Schiavo forbade contact with the outside world. Terri was not allowed to leave her hospice room for five years, and the only doctor to see her was the one chosen by Michael Schiavo and his attorney.

Gibbs writes that the Schindler family was under no delusions about Terri’s potential recovery. They were aware that she had been severely brain-injured but was otherwise healthy.

“They didn’t expect that she would one day jump around and sing in the Sunday choir. Throughout the ordeal, the family’s position was that the degree of disability is NOT grounds to end life — especially in the absence of a written advanced directive,” Gibbs writes.

Elsewhere in the medical examiner’s report, the examiner notes that Terri Schiavo was blind at the time of her death. Gibbs believes that this condition, too, was a result of the dehydration Schiavo suffered in her final days. Before her feeding tube was removed, she was able to track objects visually.

Sadly, the medical examiner’s report also did not include information about the reason why Schiavo collapsed in 1990. Her heart was strong, the report noted, and there was no evidence of bulimia, as claimed by Michael Schiavo. Any evidence of strangulation would have long since vanished over time.

The reason for her collapse, Gibbs writes, may never be known. And without all the information, people will assume that the courts and Michael Schiavo did the right thing in letting Terri Schiavo die. But the decision, the author claims, casts long shadows over the future of the country.

“While the nation’s editorial pages may have led us to the tempting conclusion that Judge Greer did Terri a favor when he ordered her to die, there’s much more to the story,” Gibbs writes. “When the courts consign innocent lives to death by dehydration and starvation against the wishes of loved ones without objective and current medical investigations documenting the absence of consciousness, there will be far-reaching negative consequences for the weak, helpless, voiceless members of society.”

Hannigan echoes that sentiment. “There was a lot of politics at play that I knew nothing about back then,” she said. “Now I realize that, especially here in Florida, the pro-euthanasia movement is very, very strong, and we have a lot of elderly and disabled who might fall into a fate similar to Terri’s.”

Hannigan said that those who are still unsure about the facts of the Schiavo case should read Gibbs’ book. “David is not just a lawyer, but indeed, as he told me in the many interviews I’ve had with him, he is a missionary as well. His analysis does give special insight into the many twists of the legal aspects of the case, but it also reminds us to look hard at what this type of case bodes for America.”
David Gibbs defends the rights of churches and Christians through the Gibbs Law Firm and the Christian Legal Association. “Fighting for Dear Life: The Untold Story of Terri Schiavo and What It Means for All of Us” is available from Bethany House Publishers at www.bethanyhouse.com.

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  • Gregory Tomlin