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Should Terri Schiavo's Feeding Tube be Removed?

Aired May 3, 2001 - 12:30   ET



GEORGE FELOS, ATTORNEY FOR MICHAEL SCHIAVO: Theresa Schiavo didn't have a written living will. She didn't specify in writing what her wishes were, so we had to rely on oral statements. And when you have a case when family members disagree and you're relying on oral statements, you can end up with years and years of litigation as we did here.


ROGER COSSACK, HOST: Theresa Schiavo has been in a coma for 11 years. Her husband says she would want to die with dignity. But her parents say she recognizes them, and should be kept on life support.


ROBERT SCHINDLER, FATHER OF THERESA SCHIAVO: They're going to actually starve your daughter to death, like criminals get executed. But they're going to starve your daughter to death and there is nothing I can do about it. Nothing we can do about it. It's just mentally torturous.


COSSACK: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: what's best for 37-year-old Terri Schiavo? Her family joins us today to tell her story.

Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

On February 25, 1990, 26-year-old Terri Schiavo suffered a heart attack, which cut off oxygen to her brain for about six minutes. Since that day, she has been in a coma. According to doctors, Terri, now 37, has spent the past 11 years not knowing who she is, or where she is.

Her husband, Michael, says it's time to let go. And claims Terri never wanted to be kept alive in such a condition. But her parents have fought to keep her alive. They claim Michael Schiavo is only interested in a $700,000 trust fund he would inherit once Terri passes.

Joining us today from Tampa, Florida is Bob Schindler, Terri's father. And Bobby, her brother. Also in Tampa, Joseph Magri, the attorney for Bob and Mary Schindler.

Here in Washington: Abdullah Mortaza (ph), Dr. Robert Amonic and Beth Anne Rotatori (ph).

And in the back: Katherine Dunagan (ph) and Joni Jaje (ph).

I first want to go right to you, Robert. Tell me about your daughter.

R. SCHINDLER: Well, Terri, as you said, suffered brain damage from lack of oxygen, she had a heart attack. And Terri is -- she's not responsive to the point where she can communicate but she does respond to her mother significantly. Terri spends her day in a wheelchair and she's fed two times a day through a feeding tube.

We believe Terri has been misrepresented, the fact that she was portrayed as being a lifeless vegetable in a hopeless state, we are in total opposition of that analogy.

COSSACK: Robert, has there been any words of encouragement about her condition from physicians who have been treating her?

R. SCHINDLER: Well, first of all, we have been denied any access to Terri for 8 years, our family has. We have had people who deal with brain injured people, have seen Terri, and in their opinion, Terri could be rehabilitated to improve to a better level than where she is now.

COSSACK: Now, when you say that, does that mean that she would be ambulatory -- what is a better level, do you have any idea?

R. SCHINDLER: Well, we don't know. The thing with Terri, eight years ago there was a doctor who had prescribed rehabilitation for her, and he felt very confident that Terri would improve. Unfortunately, we did not have the funds at that time, dependent upon the receipt of the malpractice trial money.

When that came in, the money was not used for Terri's rehabilitation, she was put in a nursing home and hasn't had any type of rehabilitation since that point.

COSSACK: Bobby, tell me about your sister. What kind of a girl was she before this accident occurred?

BOBBY SCHINDLER, TERRI'S SISTER: She was absolutely wonderful. Terri and I became very tight even more so when I moved down to Florida to join my family, the past -- or the two years before her accident, we were spending a lot of time together. Michael was working at night and Terri and I had day jobs, so we were spending -- it seemed like almost every single night together and we really became very close, her and I.

COSSACK: Robert, back to you for a second. Michael Schiavo, her husband, claims that Terri said to him that she wouldn't want to live in this kind of state she is in right now. Did she ever make any comments to you about what she wanted or what her future was? R. SCHINDLER: No. That would be totally out of character for Terri to make any comments like that. Terri is just -- her personality, we contradict that, we don't think she ever made that kind of a comment.

COSSACK: Joseph Magri, the attorney for the family, let's talk a little bit about the legal proceedings here. There's an allegation that was made that you believe or the family believes that the only reason that Michael Schiavo, her husband, wants the feeding tube turned off is, to get the $700,000 she has in a trust fund. First of all, how did that $700,000 get there, and why do you believe that?

JOSEPH MAGRI, ATTORNEY FOR THE SCHINDLERS: I think the two are interrelated. The $700,000 got there because of a medical malpractice trial that went on in 1992. During that trial, the lawyers for Michael Schiavo requested damages from that jury based on Terri's life expectancy, both opening statement and closing arguments, they wanted care for her for life.

Michael got on the witness stand in that case, cried in front of that jury, told that jury he was going to nursing school so that he could take care of his wife for the rest of her life. The plaintiff's attorney asked him, why? You are a young man, Michael.

And he said, well, my wedding vows mean a lot to me. Then he referred to that those vows said, and said that he wanted to take care of Terri for the rest of her life. At no time did those lawyers or did Michael ever mention that Terri had a desire to die in these circumstances.

The first time that anyone heard about that came a few months after the money came in from that trial, which netted Terri somewhere over three quarters of a million, I believe, to care for her. Some months thereafter, Michael Schiavo asked a nursing home not to treat an infection and admitted in a deposition that he understood that the failure to treat the infection with antibiotics could lead to sepsis and her death.

At that point in time, he then came up with the statement that he felt she had previously wanted to die in this circumstance.

COSSACK: Joe, do you have any evidence that indicates that she didn't make that statement?

MAGRI: That she didn't?

COSSACK: Yes, that she didn't make that statement, in fact it isn't her intent that, if she was in a vegetative state like this, that she would prefer to have the tubes shut off?

MAGRI: I -- the answer to that is yes. I think what I just mentioned to you is an indication she didn't make that statement, because he didn't say it before that. We also have the...

COSSACK: That was -- Joe, that was in front of a jury, and perhaps, that's not the proper time to be saying that kind of statement in front of a jury. Did anybody ever ask him whether or not she made that statement while he was in front of the jury?

MAGRI: No, but they didn't ask that, but the fact of the matter is, he was talking about getting damages from somebody to care for her for life, and if his thought was, she wasn't going to live for that period of time, then that would seem to me to be a very inconsistent position to take with that jury.

COSSACK: Let me take break. I want to get back to that right now. We have to take a break.

I want to remind our viewers that Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, will join us Monday for his position on this case.

Let's take a break now. Up next: how the comments of her husband's former girlfriend renewed a court battle to turn Terri's feeding tube back on. Don't go away.



FELOS: She has a constitutional right to have unwanted medical treatment withdrawn. She's being tube-fed against her will.


COSSACK: The case of Terri Schiavo, who has been in a coma for 11 years, went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Now, even after what appeared to be a closed case, Michael Schiavo consulted with his wife's doctors and waited for official paperwork from Florida's courts before cutting off her feeding tube. But just days after, a lower court got involved and ordered the feeding be resumed.

Joe, let's talk about this case from a legal standpoint now. It looked like all hope was lost for your side to have the feeding continued, and then you went into court and you were able to produce what you believe is new evidence in this case.

Tell us about that new evidence.

MAGRI: Yes; it's a girlfriend of Michael Schiavo's that had conversations with him at -- after Terri had had her accident. And she said some things which we believe contradicts the testimony that he gave during trial. For example...

COSSACK: I was going to say, what do you expect her to say in her deposition and subsequent testimony?

MAGRI: Well, the -- an affidavit's been filed by an investigator who talked to her. And among the notes, which are quite extensive, there -- listed there that the girlfriend, whose name is Cindi Brasher, indicated that she had concerns about the future. This is when she's talking to Michael at -- back at that time. And Schiavo was -- and what Schiavo was going to do about Terri's situation -- about Terri's situation. And Brasher said that Schiavo became angry and said: "How the hell should I know? We never spoke about this. My God, I'm only 25 years old."

And there were two or three other occasions where similar comments were made by her. That's inconsistent with what he testified to at trial.

COSSACK: Now what, exactly, did he testify to, Joe?

MAGRI: He testified that they had had a conversation before her accident. And he actually testified they had more than one conversation in which she indicated that she did not want to live if she was in this situation. And, you know, it's important to understand that, in our society, we have a right to die and we have a right to live. And we don't want to be like -- they were over in Germany, and we want to make sure that when we decide that someone can't receive, or isn't going to receive life-sustaining measures, that it's that person's choice. We don't want to have a situation where other people make that for selfish reasons or, my gosh, even worse, the state makes those kind of choices for us.

And so it's very important in a case like this to make sure you understand what Terri wanted. And when you don't have that written down, which we all should, you can have problems like this. And because of the money and because of the prior inconsistent statements there's a big question here. And the court took the evidence at that point in time, listened to what Michael had to say, and this witness, who no one knew about before the trial came by, I think, the day that they discontinued the life-support...


MAGRI: .. a media person actually had heard her say something.

COSSACK: All right, let me go over to Robert for a second.

Robert, this has been a, I'm sure, a terrible strain for you and your family. Now, there was a legal proceeding in which the court held, and it went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, that the feeding tube should be removed. And when did the order on that issue out?

R. SCHINDLER: That was on last Monday, I believe at 3:00 p.m., and they stopped feeding Terri.

COSSACK: At that time?


COSSACK: Now then, subsequently, you were able to go to court and have the feeding turned on again. When was that?

R. SCHINDLER: That was on Thursday evening -- the following Thursday, something like 60 hours later.

COSSACK: So for a period of some 60 hours she was without food or water?

R. SCHINDLER: That's correct.

COSSACK: All right, joining me is Dr. Robert Amonic.

Dr. Amonic, I want to ask you a little bit -- I know you haven't had an opportunity to examine Terri Schiavo in case -- but generally -- just generally speaking, tell us about how the feeding tube works, the turning on, the turning off. And how long could someone live without that kind of nourishment?

DR. ROBERT AMONIC: Well, we've heard -- and I actually have not examined the patient and don't even know what circumstances she's being retained -- the tube can just be turned on and you pour the liquid nutrients and fluids into them, usually twice a day. And depending on her nutritional status now, I would guess that the fluids are more important than the nutrition in terms of life-sustaining effect. And anywhere between one week to two weeks someone will probably not make it, particularly someone who's been in a vegetative or whatever state she's been in for the last 11 years.

COSSACK: Now is it a -- if you know, is it -- one of the allegations here is that this would be an extremely painful death for Schiavo. Would it be?

AMONIC: I can't answer that; I don't know how responsive she is. I mean, we know someone laying in bed who's truly brain dead -- it can't be painful; there's no connection between their bodily responses and their brain tissue. But she seems, from what they're saying, to have some response, so she may be uncomfortable. I can't answer that.

COSSACK: And the allegations that Ms. Schiavo is able to, in some ways, respond, for example, to her mother, although being in this coma. Is that something unusual, or are there different states of coma?

AMONIC: It's a spectrum. There could be anything from total coma, with no response whatsoever, coming down the scale to reflexive responses, where someone can have jerk reactions to some stimulus, to actually being alert and maybe not being able to move their limbs or responding verbally.

COSSACK: All right, Robert, I want to give you a chance to describe the coma state that your daughter in. You say that, in fact, she does respond, particularly to her mother.

R. SCHINDLER: She'll -- when we visit Terri, Terri usually will be sitting in a wheelchair and very quiet. And when her mother addresses her, what she'll do is she'll have a smile on her face, then the smile grows to a laugh, like a grin from ear to ear. And then my wife and we all talk to her and then she'll start to cry, and it will be a sob, and sometimes she just cries so hard my wife and I've -- you know, I've seen my wife will have to comfort her, but it's almost like she's begging for help; and that's my interpretation.

COSSACK: All right, let's take another break. We'll have more with the family of Terri Schiavo after this short break; don't go away.


Q: Why is a Seattle, Washington lawyer suing McDonald's Corporation and seeking millions of dollars in damages?

A: The vegetarian attorney claims the restaurant is "secretly" lacing its French fries with beef fat. McDonald's says it never claimed to offer vegetarian foods.



COSSACK: Terri Schiavo has been in a coma since suffering a heart attack in February of 1990. Her case has garnered national attention because of the high-profile court battle waged between her parents and her husband.

Joe, why isn't -- why wouldn't the husband, Michael, just get a divorce in this case?

MAGRI: Well, that's a good question. I mean, he's going to tell you that the reason he didn't is because he wanted to carry out Terri's wishes. That's an interesting proposition, when you consider that he's engaged to another woman and he's living with her and he's been in that state for about five or six years now. And so for a long time now he's never felt that Terri was going to recover, and it took until 1998 for him to file this petition. So...

COSSACK: Joe, who gets the money if there's a divorce? Who gets the money?

MAGRI: If there's a divorce the money goes to the Schindlers and -- because they're the parents. The way Florida's laws work is, as long as he's married to her and she dies, she's intestate, so it passes to him. If he divorces, then the money would get to her family. At this point it would be Mr. and Mrs. Schindler, but if they died, of course, her siblings.

COSSACK: All right.

Robert, I wanted to speak to you about your relationship with her husband Michael. What is your relationship now, and what was it?

R. SCHINDLER: Well, our relationship is not on a social term now, but prior to the receipt of the malpractice award we had a very close relationship, and we were united in our efforts to take care of Terri, and literally catering to Terri.

COSSACK: Robert, if you were successful in this, what would you do with Terri?

R. SCHINDLER: I'd immediately have her looked at by qualified doctors and try to establish some type of a program to get her recovered. That's been our goal for the last eight years. COSSACK: Bobby, have you visited your sister at all?

B. SCHINDLER: Well, I did up until, I guess, about a week ago. Michael Schiavo had -- we have another sister, my little sister, and Michael Schiavo had her and I banned from -- or barred from ever seeing my sister again.

COSSACK: How did that occur?

B. SCHINDLER: My sister and I spoke with hospice. And we were inquiring about feeding Terri by mouth after the feeding tube was stopped -- asked hospice if they were going to try feeding her by mouth. Hospice informed us that they were not going to try. We left, and later that day we found that Michael had barred us from ever seeing Terri again. And it stands -- it still stands right now, that way.

COSSACK: Joe, there have been some proposed changes of the law in Florida since this case. At least one Florida legislature -- legislator is now talking about having the parents involved in a situation like this where there's no, apparently, written instruction. Tell us about that.

MAGRI: Well, you know, he wants to make sure that parents have a better say than they currently do in these matters. And I think that that's probably a very good concern on his part, because many times the relationships between parents and children, especially if the child and their spouse are young, are going to be pretty strong and they may well want to take care of someone when the other -- when the spouse wants to move on with their life. So that's important.

Another thing that I think that legislator is doing is, he's trying to make sure that people in Terri's situation would have their own independent representation when matters like this went to court. You had a situation here where the husband had an attorney paid out of Terri's trust fund. The parents have very limited means had their own trial counsel. Terri was unrepresented in this process, and we think -- we came in on appeal, we think that was very important. We think the Florida law should require that she have her own counsel so that someone's speaking for her.

For example, that type of a lawyer could have gone out and had independent people hired to do independent medical exams for her that the trust could have paid for, and we wouldn't have had a situation where just the husband hired the doctors.

COSSACK: Joe, how long do you think -- we just have a few seconds left -- how long do you think you have before final -- there will be a final answer on this case one way or the other?

MAGRI: Well, I think there will be a final answer, in terms of how the proceeding goes on, fairly quickly. Right now we're in a situation where the court of appeals has just issued an order where they want to get a number of different matters that are pending in front of them. I think in the matter of a few weeks they'll resolve those issues... COSSACK: I'm sorry, Joe, but I've got to cut you off because we're out of time. That's all the time we have today.

Thanks to our guests; thank you for watching. One more programming note: Michael Schiavo and his attorney will join us on Monday to tell his side of this case, so please join us then.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE": voices from death row; the audio recordings from executions in Georgia. And that's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

And we're going to be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. I'll see you then.



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