PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (BP)–A doctor close to the Terri Schiavo case told the Florida Baptist Witness that the 41-year-old disabled woman could actually be fed orally if it were allowed.
“The important thing for people to understand is that she can eat and swallow right now,” said William Hammesfahr, a neurologist who has examined Schiavo. He is in many of the videos circulated through the news media showing that Schiavo is at times responsive and aware.
“They are truly withholding food from a person who is awake, alert, and can eat and swallow,” Hammesfahr said. After spending at least 10 hours with Schiavo several years ago, he told Florida Judge George W. Greer that she can improve with therapy.
Hammesfahr said his credibility had been questioned at the time, but he has since been vindicated in court and currently maintains a thriving private practice in Clearwater, Fla. Despite reports attacking him, he said he has never lost his license to practice medicine and currently is involved in litigation surrounding the ordeal.
Hammesfahr was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1999 for his work in brain injury and stroke. He is a recognized expert in treating neurological disorders, having successfully treated thousands of patients using vasodilator therapy, which increases blood flow to the brain, thus healing conditions previously thought to be untreatable.
Standing with a handful of supporters outside of the hospice late in the evening Mar. 19, Hammesfahr told the Witness Schiavo previously has swallowed pudding and daily swallows almost two liters of water by virtue of being able to process her own saliva and sinus drainage.
“That’s liquid and that’s the most difficult thing to swallow,” Hammesfahr said of her saliva. “If she can swallow that she can swallow food or pudding.”
Other doctors who testified before Greer in 2003 had limited exposure to Schiavo and did not complete standard evaluations for brain injuries, Hammesfahr said. The court-appointed doctors maintained Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state (PVS), with no chance for recovery.
“Terri’s not that bad,” Hammesfahr said. “She is like a child with cerebral palsy. She can speak. At least when I saw her, she would speak very slowly. She would sort of form words, she would move her arms and legs at command. She could understand questions in English.”
Hammesfahr said there are at least 50 physicians he knows of, in private practice and related to medical universities who have said Schiavo is not in a PVS or in a coma.
In 1990 Schiavo suffered brain damage after her heart stopped. Nearly a decade ago, Schiavo’s husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo, petitioned the court to halt the dispensing of nutrition and hydration through a feeding tube to his disabled wife.
Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, as well as family and supporters have argued that she could improve were she provided rehabilitation services. Michael Schiavo has refused to provide those services since around 1993, they say.
Although Michael Schiavo says his wife would want to die, no written request from her exists. Terri Schiavo’s parents have challenged his continued guardianship of their daughter, citing conflict of interest. Michael Schiavo has lived with his girlfriend, by whom he has fathered two children, for 10 years.
Greer ruled Feb. 25 that Schiavo’s nutrition and hydration be discontinued and in subsequent decisions ruled she cannot undergo more medical testing and cannot be fed by mouth. Greer also rebuffed a request by Florida’s Department of Children and Families for a 60-day stay of his motion so that they could investigate allegations that Michael Schiavo has abused and neglected his wife.
Hammesfahr said that about 30 percent of his cases are more severe than Terri Schiavo’s, and that she most likely could improve, whether by his approach or another.
“You can get almost anybody with a brain injury or a stroke better,” Hammesfahr said. “I think that’s the long and short of it.
“It’s not that [Schiavo simply] deserves a chance, she deserves rehabilitation,” Hammesfahr continued. “She’s not going to get the rehabilitation if she gets killed off here.”
Each day Schiavo is off the feeding tube increases the chance that she will end up in a coma, Hammesfahr said. He described what happens to the human body when it is deprived of food and water.
“People who die of starvation, their acid eats through their stomach, they develop infections in their body, their body starts to dissolve from the inside out, they develop seizures, [and] frequently it breaks their back,” he said. “They have to have medications to essentially put them into a coma to not have their body break their back or something of that nature.”
He explained that the process of putting someone in a coma after withholding nutrition and hydration is part of an “exit protocol” that involves delivering powerful drugs like Morphine and Valium to the patient when they are expected to die.
“The danger for Schiavo is that if she is in a coma, she will not have the type of monitoring that could help her recover if the feeding tube is reinserted.
“Putting a person in coma is very dangerous,” Hammesfahr said, and after 7-8 days she might end up in an irreversible coma or with further brain damage.
Angel Watson, a Pinellas Park, Fla., resident who works with the Caring and Sharing Center for Independent Living, said she once was considered to be in a PVS, after a skiing accident left her paralyzed, but that she made remarkable improvements because of her strong will to live.
Referring to the two other times Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed and surgically re-inserted, Watson said it is wrong to treat Terri as if she would not want to live.
Watson questions Michael Schiavo’s insistence that he loves his wife and cares deeply for her. Michael Schiavo, Watson said, has had ample proof that his wife wants to live.
“She’s the embodiment of a living will,” Watson said. “She is a living will. He’s tried to kill her twice and she has the will to live.
“What more [evidence] could you possibly want?”