Madeleine Teahan talks to Bobby Schindler about his 15-year ight to save the life of his sister, Terri Schiavo In the small hours of February 25 1990, a bewildered Bobby Schindler awoke to a telephone call from his father. “Get over to your sister,” his father said. “Something’s happened.” Bobby was 25 at the time and lived in the same apartment building as his sister, Terri. As he wearily replaced the receiver, he could not have known that this one phone call launched a 15year battle to save his big sister’s life.
Terri had collapsed that morning at her home in St Petersburg, Florida, which she shared with her husband Michael Schiavo. The cause of Terri’s collapse remains unknown. Doctors discovered a serious brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen, but how this affected Terri’s health remains a point of controversy. When I spoke to Bobby recently his frustration at an inaccurate media portrayal is evident: “Terri’s condition is often classified as an ‘end-of-life discussion’ and it wasn’t an end of life discussion because Terri was never dying from a terminal disease,” he told me. “A lot of doctors believed that she would have lived a normal life span if her food and water were not taken away. She was not in a coma. She was not in a persistent vegetative state.” But if Terri was not terminally ill and showing signs of recovery how did legal action to remove her food and hydration even arise?
In June 1990, unbeknown to Terri’s parents, Michael Schiavo won sole guardianship of his wife. “At the time it was not a problem,” Bobby said, “but it later served to be a weapon against our family and against Terri.” According to Bobby, two significant events followed, tolling an ominous bell for the conflict that would follow. In 1992, Michael initiated a medical malpractice suit against Terri’s doctors and was awarded over $1.5m (£975,000). Disquiet about Michael’s guardianship of Terri increased the following year when Terri’s parents discov ered that Michael had instructed nurses not to treat her with antibiotics for a urinary tract infection. Had the nurses obeyed, Terri might have died and so her parents unsuccessfully fought for guardianship of their daughter. In May 1998, eight years after her collapse, Michael filed to have his wife’s feeding tube removed. According to him, Terri had said before her collapse that she would not want to be kept alive in a dependent state. Yet Bobby does not believe this. I asked Bobby why he thought that Michael fought for Terri’s death. He calmly and wearily pondered several possible reasons. In 1994, Michael Schiavo became engaged to another woman with whom he fathered two children during Terri’s lifetime.
“We were begging Michael,” Bobby recalled. “We wrote to him, saying: ‘Please give Terri to us. We are happy to care for her. Get on with your life. You’re dating now and you want to marry this other woman.’ ” I waited nervously for him to continue. But no outburst followed, no trace of fury surfaced. Bobby just patiently explains that he believes that the $1.5 million that Michael was due to receive on Terri’s death also posed a conflict of interest.
Despite these concerns, in February 2000 Judge George W Greer ruled in favour of Michael and ordered the withdrawal of Terri’s feeding tube.
“From the moment that judge made that ruling on February 11 2000 until the day she died our family did not stop for one second,” Bobby said.
It is hard to imagine the nauseating carousel driving the Schindlers’ emotions for the next five years. During that time Terri’s feeding tube was removed on three occasions, with her family seizing every scrap of legal and political armour to reattach the tube.
But by Palm Sunday 2005 the courts supported Michael for the third time and Terri’s food and water was withdrawn.
Bobby knew that time was running out for his sister.
Through the efforts of Florida governor Jeb Bush Terri’s case had reached the US Congress. As Christians worldwide commemorated Christ’s preparation for suffering and death, Congressmen worked throughout the night, postponing the Easter recess to pass a law that would grant Terri the right to a federal review. Just as prisoners on Death Row are entitled to a federal review before being executed by the state, Congress’s law would have allowed Terri the same right in an effort to save her life.
To drag his sister from the judicial quicksand that engulfed her all that Bobby now needed was support for the new law from a federal judge.
“It was so upsetting to our family because when they went to the federal judge to hear his verdict the federal judge actually said that he would rule later,” Bobby recalled. “I’m paraphrasing, but he said: ‘We’ll come back after everybody’s eaten a good breakfast.’ My sister had been starving for a week at that point.” The judge threw the bill out and Terri starved to death on March 31 at 9:05am. She had gone almost 14 days without food or water.
I asked Bobby, clearly a devout Catholic, if he could ever forgive Michael.
“I know that it’s something that I deal with every day, finding forgiveness,” he replied. “I know that it’s only through God’s grace where I can find that forgiveness.” Bobby has since established a foundation called the Terri Schiavo Life and Hope Network, which helps him in cultivating the “abundant blessings” stemming from Terri’s death because he can campaign for people like his sister.
I asked Bobby if there is anything else he wanted to say. Without hesitation he replied that death by dehydration is “barbaric” and what “nightmares are made of”.
“My Dad suffered a stroke shortly after Terri’s death,” he said. “He told me privately one time that he was never able to forgive himself for Terri’s death. He believed that as a father he should have been able to protect his daughter from what happened to her.
“I cannot imagine the guilt that he lived with through his life until he dies. It’s just absolutely heart-wrenching.
“Seeing my sister die this way was horrible enough but it ripped my heart out to see my mother and father having to stand by and there was nothing they could do to help her.” Bobby Schiavo now dedicates his time to supporting people like his sister. For more information visit, Lifeandhope.com