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Stroke victim’s case recalls Schiavo controversy

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. (BP)–Just a few years ago, 57-year-old Karen Weber sat at the kitchen table, talking about the Terri Schiavo case with her husband, Ray, and her mother, Martha Tatro, 80. None of the three could have anticipated the chain of events that began in November when Karen Weber suffered a seizure and then a paralyzing stroke.

Now in a nursing home in Okeechobee, Weber is at the center of a dispute between family members over whether she is competent to make her own decisions about basic medical care.

Karen Weber breathes on her own, but the stroke paralyzed her left side, leaving her unable to speak or swallow.

Terri Schiavo is the brain-damaged, disabled Florida woman who died in 2005 in a Pinellas Park hospice after a Florida judge ordered her nutrition and hydration withheld. It took Schiavo 13 days to die. Her husband prevailed in a polarizing court case that reached Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ray Weber, Karen’s husband of 34 years, sought to have her feeding tube removed in March and have her transferred to hospice. Weber’s mother says her daughter is alert and responsive and has indicated she does not wish to go to hospice.

Okeechobee Circuit Court Judge F. Shields McManus in March issued an initial injunction to block the removal of the feeding tube and in May appointed an attorney and three-member committee to evaluate her competency. A competency hearing has not yet been scheduled.

Weber’s husband, Ray, and Martha Tatro have remained cordial and visit together at the hospital. The Webers have three children, Nick, 27, and Kasey 25, who live in California, and Dusty, 33, who lives in Ohio.

Ray Weber told the Associated Press in early June, “I don’t want this to become a media event.”

Karen’s mother, Martha Tatro, who sought the court’s intervention, told the Florida Baptist Witness her daughter is not a “vegetable” and that she has been doing well, despite contracting a severe infection from a leaky feeding tube during the Christmas holidays.

“She’s been fighting for her life,” Tatro said. “She moved all of her limbs. It’s not the stroke that’s killing her.”

Tatro said Karen Weber suffered the seizure in November 2007 when she and her husband, Ray, were en route from Okeechobee to pick Tatro up at Orlando International Airport. Tatro had been visiting another daughter who had just given birth to a new baby.

Two weeks later, when it looked as if Weber’s condition was improving, she suffered a stroke and began an uphill battle for her life, fighting pneumonia almost constantly.

According to court documents, the nursing home was directed to place a “Do Not Resuscitate” bracelet on her wrist and then an order was written for Karen to be transferred to hospice, where her feeding tube was to be disconnected.

“She loves life,” Tatro said quietly of her daughter, discounting the notion that people might think she’s merely trying to prolong the inevitable. “She doesn’t want to go yet. When they ask her, she knows what hospice is. She is a very intelligent woman.”

Tatro-Manes, who attends Hope Baptist Church (GARB) in Toledo, said the Weber and Tatro families lived only blocks apart in Ohio and she has known Ray Weber since she was six years old.

Karen and Ray were married in Ohio but relocated to California where they raised their three children until they resettled in the Okeechobee area about seven years ago where Tatro and other extended family members live.

Although Ray and Karen Weber were guests in Martha Tatro’s house in Okeechobee for the past six years, Martha Tatro finally asked him to leave when the papers were filed in court.

Joyce Tatro-Manes, Karen Weber’s sister, who lives near Toledo, Ohio, said she fears Weber is not receiving rehabilitation appropriate for a stroke victim.

“To me, if she’s a stroke victim, she needs to be treated like a stroke victim instead of somebody who is waiting to die,” Tatro-Manes said. The siblings’ brother, David Kinser, 55, lives in South Dakota, she said, and visited in May.

Barbara Watford, an aunt who lives in Okeechobee, and at least one other relative have filed affidavits with the court recounting visits with Weber in the nursing home and noting her responses to their communication including “nodding her head from side to side, blinking twice, holding and squeezing hands, raising her hand, giggling and waving bye to myself.”

Tatro-Manes said she is baffled by controversy over what seems to her to be a simple case. “They’ve asked her, ‘Do you want to go to hospice?’ and she shakes her head ‘no,'” she said. “So I don’t really understand why we’re even having the competency hearing. I’m truly offended by this competency hearing.”

On the other hand, Tatro-Manes knows the prognosis is poor.

“We know that she’s sick. I don’t want anyone to think, ‘They’re just delusional,'” Tatro-Manes said. “We know that every minute that we have with her is a blessing from God. It’s borrowed time. We know that. But there is no way that we can just sit by and allow my sister — or my mother allow her daughter — to be starved to death at the hands of a man that she’s married to. A higher sense of order has to kick in at some point.”

Tatro-Manes said Ray Weber had been by his wife’s side when she was recovering after a stroke in the early 1990s. In the past several years, Karen Weber had begun to slow down after scar tissue caused a shunt at the base of her brain to begin leaking.

Karen Weber’s competency is the question, said Joseph Rodowicz, an attorney affiliated with the Alliance Defense Fund who is representing Weber’s mother. “Does she understand what’s going on and can she communicate her medical issues as to what she wants to do. Does she want to go to hospice? And we have several instances where she has indicated she does not want to go to hospice,” he said. “We submit that life support measures, which is really just a feeding tube and nutrition, shouldn’t be removed.”

In an Associated Press story, Ray Weber’s attorney, Colin Cameron, said his client “is of the opinion that Karen does not want to live as a vegetable.”

Bobby Schindler, Terri Schiavo’s brother and host of America’s Lifeline, an AM radio program in Tampa, Fla., told the Witness this case is a good example of what happens all around America every day.

“The disabled like Karen are being killed every day and the only time we hear about it is when family members object, as in this case, as in Terri’s case,” Schindler said. “The whole notion that feeding tubes are now considered medical treatment is unacceptable. And we’re seeing what’s happening because of the law. People with disabilities are potentially in harm’s way of being killed, because food and water, which should be basic care, is now being defined as medical treatment.”

Sympathetic to those who are facing deathbed decisions, but firm in his opinion of circumstances facing the disabled and patients who are not otherwise terminally ill, Schindler bristles at the notion that he is too harsh in characterizing the removal of nutrition and hydration in such circumstances as active euthanasia.

“You are killing someone by taking their food and water away,” Schindler said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t die. How else would you describe it if you are taking away her food and water?”

Martha Tatro said she clearly recalls a conversation at the kitchen table during the heat of the Schiavo controversy. She and Karen were on Terri’s side, while Ray sided with Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband.

“I said, ‘They should just leave her alone and let her mother take care of her,'” Tatro said. After Ray Weber left the room, Tatro said she leaned over and asked her daughter if she heard what Ray Weber had said and told her, “We best get a paper signed for you.'”

It never happened, Tatro said, wishing aloud that she had followed through. “I should have got that paper signed,” the woman sighed. “Everybody should get one.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness (www.floridabaptistwitness.com).

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