National Catholic Register


Feeding-tube Horrors

BY Alan Sears

July 24-August 6, 2005 Issue | Posted 7/24/05 at 12:00 AM


Kate Adamson, a stroke survivor and author of Kate's Journey: Triumph over Adversity, perhaps knows better than anyone else what Terri Schiavo experienced in the days after her feeding tube was removed.

Following her stroke, Adamson was unresponsive and diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. She was awake and aware of her surroundings — just unable to move any part of her body. When she appeared recently on “The O'reilly Factor,” host Bill O'reilly asked Adamson about the dehydration experience:

O'REILLY: When they took the feeding tube out, what went through your mind?

ADAMSON: When the feeding tube was turned off for eight days, I thought I was going insane. I was screaming out in my mind, “Don't you know I need to eat?” And even up until that point, I had been having a bagful of Ensure as my nourishment that was going through the feeding tube. At that point, it sounded pretty good. I just wanted something. The fact that I had nothing, the hunger pains overrode every thought I had.

O'REILLY: So you were feeling pain when they removed your tube?

ADAMSON: Yes. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. To say that — especially when Michael [Schiavo] on national TV mentioned last week that it's a pretty painless thing to have the feeding tube removed — it is the exact opposite. It was sheer torture, Bill.

Adamson further described her experience to author Wesley Smith for an article that appeared in The Weekly Standard.

“The agony of going without food was a constant pain that lasted not several hours like my operation did, but several days. You have to endure the physical pain and, on top of that, you have to endure the emotional pain. Your whole body cries out, “Feed me. I am alive and a person, don't let me die, for God's sake! Somebody feed me.”

Adamson's experience is worthy of reflection after the release of a medical examiner's report in the Schiavo case that some have assumed vindicates Michael Schiavo and those who fought so hard to see Terri starved to death.

Terri Schiavo collapsed Feb. 25, 1990, and went into cardiac arrest. Her heart stopped beating, and the lack of oxygen to her brain resulted in serious brain damage, which, we are now told by the medical examiner's report, left her in a persistent vegetative state from which she had no chance of emerging.

Her husband Michael sued and obtained a $1 million medical malpractice settlement, most of which was earmarked for his wife's care and none of which was meant to be used in a protracted legal battle to terminate her life. Nonetheless, earlier this year he famously fought, and won, his attempt to have Terri's feeding tube removed, which resulted in her death March 31 from dehydration and starvation.

Most recently, Schiavo took one final slap at Terri's parents, who had fought to keep her alive, by burying Terri without notifying them and inscribing on her bronze grave marker the words “I kept my promise” — a “promise” never mentioned until many, many months after Terri's collapse and the medical malpractice claims.

The medical report, as written, backed Schiavo's contention that his wife had no chance of recovery. It concluded that Terri's brain was half the size of a normal adult brain, that she was blind and unaware of her surroundings. (No mention was made was made in the media of the impact the method of her death may have had upon her.)

The report's conclusion was seized upon by the right-to-die proponents as a refutation of claims by Terri's parents that she was responding to them. It has even become a partisan issue in Washington where those congressional leaders who fought for federal court review of the Schiavo case are being accused of making incorrect statements about Terri's condition. One website accused the “Christian Taliban” and congressional leaders of torturing Terri by trying to keep her alive.

But the opinions formed after the autopsy and the media coverage in its wake have yet again missed the larger and most crucial point. It is not about how active Terri Schiavo's brain was, but how actively we treasure the life of even the most helpless among us. In this sense we as a nation, from our courts to the media and the medical profession, have failed Terri Schiavo.

Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, made the point perfectly: “Terri did not die from atrophy of the brain. She died from an atrophy of compassion. … Even if this autopsy report showed that Terri was 10 times more damaged than she was, our moral obligation to respect and protect her life would not change at all. We don't have to pass a test to qualify for our human rights.”

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II discussed the theory that euthanasia is a merciful act, concluding that it is actually false mercy. “True ‘compassion’ leads to sharing another's pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.”

He said euthanasia was a “false mercy.”

“The height of arbitrariness and injustice is reached when certain people, such as physicians or legislators, arrogate to themselves the power to decide who ought to live and who ought to die.”

And who will set the standards?

In this, as in all things, our model ought to be the example of Jesus Christ. In one of the first appearances of his public ministry, at the synagogue in Nazareth, he read a passage from Isaiah 61: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.”

The term “persistent vegetative state” appears nowhere as an exception. Jesus didn't care about the size of anyone's brain. He could have been talking about Terri Schiavo or any of the countless people whom science and the culture of death in their arrogance have decided no longer deserve to live.

Alan Sears, a former federal prosecutor, is president and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund (http://www.telladf.orgz), America's largest legal alliance defending religious liberty through strategy, training, funding, and litigation.