Saturday, March 19, 2005

A New/Old Debate, Florida-Style

In a unique bit of irony, only a few days after my rumination on the McDonald's/Super-Size Me issue, another nutrition/government clash is occurring in Florida, though with a decidedly different twist: this struggle concerns Terri Schiavo, the woman who, in 1991, had heart failure and subsequent brain damage that has since left her in a vegetative state.

Several days ago Ms. Schiavo's feeding tube was removed, and she is, barring further governmental intervention, going to die.

The saga, if you've somehow avoided it, entails her parents, who have fought to keep her alive, and her husband, who wants to allow her to die peacefully rather than simply exist as a body connected to machines to keep her alive. Lawmakers, including Florida Governor Jeb Bush, have been involved to try and prevent Ms. Schiavo's husband from allowing her to die, and today, Ms. Schiavo's parents, who have frequently sought the involvement of legislators, have urgently begged lawmakers to intervene.

Mary Schindler, Ms. Schiavo's mother, spoke at a press conference outside her daughter's hospital. "My daughter is in the building behind me, starving to death. We laugh together, we cry together, we smile together, we talk together. She is my life. I am begging Gov. (Jeb) Bush and the politicians in Tallahassee, President Bush and the politicians in Washington: Please, please, please save my little girl."

Whether we're talking about Clint Eastwood's recent Oscar-winning film "Million Dollar Baby," Dr. Jack Kevorkian's notedly unique approach to medicine, or the case of Terri Schiavo, a person's right to die in this nation, for a variety of reasons, is not necessarily his or hers to decide. Speaking from personal experience, having recently watched my father exist in a semi-conscious state for an extended period of time due to medicines to ease his experience of a feeding tube, I would assume Ms. Schiavo, who has next to no brain function and is in a vegetative state, is barely conscious of her surroundings. I'm not a doctor, so I will only assume and defer to her doctors for specificity. Based on what I've read, however, her doctors have indicated that she is and will remain in a vegetative state unless medical technology somehow changes and/or an act of God occurs.

Many have seen the pictures of Ms. Schiavo in her hospital bed; she appears catatonic and vacant. Seeing her pictures is disturbing, not only because of my recent experience with my father, but in general. Going to the hospital to visit someone, especially a loved one, in that vegetative state, isn't easy; knowing that person will never get better or have "life" behind their eyes must be even more excruciating.

Which is why I am confused and irritated each time I read how Ms. Schiavo's parents have fought to keep her "alive." Without knowing their religious or philosophical beliefs, it would seem to me that parents, and her other loved ones, would prefer to know she was no longer suffering or existing simply as a body connected a series of wires, tubes and machines. People who have lived their lives normally but experience an accident that leaves them paralyzed, like Christopher Reeve, still have mental capacity and can think and act on those thoughts; but people who have little or no brain function and whose sole means of expression are, for the most part, grunts and tremors, are no longer "living," they're merely not dead. And each time I hear Ms. Schiavo's mother, Mary Schindler, ask lawmakers to save her daughter's life, I respond to her silently the same way: your daughter's life is over, and the doctors have said the only thing that can save her is an act of God, not an act of Congress. It's troubling that people turn to government once doctors have said there is nothing more that can be done.

The "living will," for many people, indicates that, in the event they become incapacitated, their family will allow them to die with dignity rather than simply be kept breathing but, otherwise, no longer a viable human being. I don't know many people who would prefer to be kept alive in this manner, myself included: and while I am sure her parents have been tortured by this entire experience, what is also quite upsetting is the fact her husband has to experience this as well. The incident occured 14 years ago, and in that time, Ms. Schiavo has made little or no improvement; medical technology clearly improves, but it is unrealistic to expect Ms. Schiavo will ever be even remotely like she was prior to the episode which incapacitated her. Selfishness aside, wouldn't it be preferable to end her suffering and let her die peacefully, and with dignity, than to keep her breathing but otherwise a body on a sheet?

Something which really puzzles me is the involvement -- meddling -- of politicians who have contradicted over a dozen court decisions which have stated that Ms. Schiavo should be allowed to die. Actually, based on the cavalier and self-aggrandizing meddling by politicians in abortion, tobacco and gun issues, I shouldn't be puzzled. But these are men, for the most part, who, hopefully, are at least moderately intelligent: why hasn't any of these people told Ms. Schiavo's parents that their daughter is breathing but she's no longer alive? Does election to government equate to a loss of common sense? What is it that so many of us are missing?

David Gibbs, an attorney for Ms. Schiavo's parents, spoke yesterday: "The family is heartsick. This is their daughter. This is their loved one. This is their sister. And they are watching her suffer, in their opinion, a death that she shouldn't have to face."

Sadly, it occurs to me that Ms. Schiavo's parents should consider too that their daughter is suffering a "life" that she shouldn't have to face.

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