In early February 1990, Terri Schiavo was a vibrant young woman of 26. George H. W. Bush was President. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister of the U.K. Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned in apartheid-ridden South Africa. The price of gasoline hovered around $1 per gallon. The internet did not even exist.
On February 25, 1990, Terri collapsed without apparent warning from what later was diagnosed as a potassium imbalance. Terri’s heart stopped and her brain was deprived of critical oxygen for five minutes. As a result, Terri slipped into a persistent vegetative state, kept alive artificially with a feeding tube yet unable to move or communicate.
In the more than 15 years that Terri remained unconscious, life continued outside her world, as life does. The Cold War ended. Presidents came and went. Old empires crumbled while new nations were born. Technology marched ahead. Yet Terri remained the same.
While Terri’s world was relatively constant, her loved ones agonized. Her parents and her husband, who had had a warm relationship even after her collapse, eventually grew bitter and hurled accusations. They ended up in court again, and again, and again. Based on conflicting oral testimony, the trial court determined that Terri would not have wanted to be kept alive artificially and allowed Terri’s husband (and guardian) to have the feeding tube removed. However, Terri’s parents disagreed and fought that decision tooth and nail for over a decade. The case was appealed again and again. While such cases are normally the province of state courts, Congress enacted special legislation to allow the case to be brought before federal courts. In fact, the President flew back to Washington to sign the legislation. However, the federal courts refused to reverse the state court’s order. After one of the highest profile legal battles in American history, Terri’s feeding tube was removed. Within two weeks, on the morning of Thursday, March 31, 2005, Terri’s long struggle ended.
Why did Terri’s situation result in such protracted turmoil? The real problem was that both sides honestly believed they knew what Terri wanted under the circumstances. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, believed Terri would not have wanted to be kept alive artificially. Her parents and siblings, the Schindlers, believed Terri would want to be kept alive. They all had one thing in common: Their love for Terri and a willingness to fight for what they believed her wishes to be.
Whatever Terri’s true wishes, her clear, unequivocal expression of those wishes would have spared her family years of bitterness, strife, and public disharmony. Terri could have signed a document that expressed her desires regarding being kept alive by artificial means. In some states this is called a Health Care Directive, in others it is a Living Will, in yet others it may be combined with a Health Care Durable Power of Attorney. Terri could have indicated she wanted to be kept alive. In which case, the court would not have allowed the removal of the feeding tube. Conversely, Terri could have indicated she did not want to live with a feeding tube. In which case, the Schindlers would have been more likely to have been at peace with the decision, because they would have known it had been Terri’s choice. If only Terri’s voice could have been heard, her family could have remained united in the face of their common tragedy.
Let your voice be heard. An attorney focusing their practice in estate planning can help you express your choices so that everyone will know and respect whatever choice you want to make for yourself.
Morrison Law Group, PLC has devoted its practice to estate planning and elder law matters for more than 18 years and has been a Member of the American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys since 2017. Morrison Law Group, PLC is one of only three firms in Louisiana to be admitted to Academy Membership. The firm has helped thousands of clients meet their estate planning goals and pass on lasting legacies to their loved ones. To learn more about how you can achieve your estate planning goals, please call (504) 831-2348 or visit our website at www.morrisonlawplc.com.