Still Troubled by Terri Schiavo’s Death, But Inspired, Too
Twenty years after Terri’s husband, Michael, began his campaign to cut off her life support, Bobby Schindler discusses the impact of the protracted family tragedy that culminated with his sister’s death.
On Feb. 25, 1990, Terri Schiavo collapsed in her Florida apartment. Two years later, her husband, Michael, sued her doctors for malpractice, and a jury awarded him $1.5 million for the rehabilitation therapy he testified she would receive.
However, in 1993, Terri’s father, Robert Schindler Sr., had an argument with his son-in-law during which he asked, “When are you going to start the rehabilitation therapy that you not only promised the jury, our family, but, most importantly, Terri?”
The question infuriated Schiavo, who cut off communication with the Schindlers. Later that year, Terri developed a urinary tract infection, and Michael asked the nursing home to not prescribe antibiotics, which would have meant the infection would eventually have killed her. He did the same thing after moving her to another nursing home.
Then, near the end of 1997, Schiavo began efforts to have his wife’s feeding tube removed, which would lead to her death, following which Michael stood to inherit the remainder of the malpractice-suit money.
The Schindlers began countermeasures, which eventually brought the two sides into court in late January 2000. However, despite efforts by the highest levels of government, Michael Schiavo was successful in having Terri’s feeding tube removed in March 2005, which resulted in her dying of starvation and dehydration.
Register correspondent Brian O’Neel recently sat down for an interview with Terri’s brother, Bobby Schindler Jr., who subsequently founded the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network to honor her memory. The organization helps medically dependent persons with disabilities and incapacitated individuals who face potentially facing life-threatening situations.
It’s now 20 years down the road since your father and Michael fought. What is your state of mind right now? Where are you, in terms of your perspective?
I struggle with this daily because it changes for me every day. From the time Terri collapsed to this moment, it has been a constant rollercoaster ride of emotions. So, I don’t know if I have an answer for you for "at present."
I guess the easy answer is: I’m committed to doing whatever I can so people will understand this issue. For the death merchants, so to speak, Terri’s death signaled the end. For me, it was the beginning. I’m not going to stop until everybody knows the truth about what they did to Terri, how she was barbarically and inhumanely killed, and how others are being killed just like her. That’s my mindset.
Euthanasia is such a widely misunderstood issue. So much of our society accepts this way of “caring,” which means directly killing people who are being sustained by basic and ordinary care, food and water.
Understand: Terri wasn’t on life support. She was receiving what the Church describes as basic and ordinary care, food and water. She had a feeding tube. She could’ve quite possibly lived a normal life span if she’d continued to receive food and water.
Furthermore, people don’t realize other individuals with brain injuries are being killed every day because the laws now consider feeding tubes artificial life support. It enables medical professionals and families to take it away from individuals if they choose.
The majority of calls we get are from families who are up against health-care professionals who are trying to take away food and water.
So the typical case is not a family dispute; it’s medical professionals saying, “Let’s end this person’s life.”
Yeah, most of the time. It’s ethics committees, doctors. We do get family issues, just like what took place with Terri, but more and more, we’re dealing with health-care professionals.
When you say “ethics committees,” is that something akin to the famous Sarah Palin “death panels” (where a team of government bureaucrats would decide whether certain Americans — the elderly, people with Down syndrome and in comas, for instance — were deemed worthy of receiving health care)?
Very much so. As I’ve written, this concern about death panels in the future, they’re here now: in the form of these ethics committees. “Death panels” seems inflammatory, but that’s essentially how they act. When these committees make a decision, it’s rarely, if ever, on the side of caring for the person.
So, yeah, we have “death panels” now. And it’s only going to get worse with government-controlled health care and with people accepting [of euthanasia] as an act of compassion.
What are the most dangerous states and the safest states?
It’s my understanding that Texas is probably the worst state because of its laws. To some degree, though, with the way the laws are written, every state can put someone’s life in jeopardy.
Eight years after your sister’s death, are you still angry?
Well, yeah. Things do anger me, naturally. At the same time, our family and our foundation: We have a tremendous amount of support. My faith has gotten so much stronger. I’ve learned to put a lot of this in the Lord’s hands. And I try to work through him.
Our objective is to get to heaven, right? That’s what I try to keep in mind every day.
Are you still angry with Michael?
When I dwell on this stuff, it angers me. But I feel forgiveness. I pray. I include him as part of my daily prayer. But some days are better than others.
Would you say it’s a daily decision to forgive Michael, that it’s not a once-and-done sort of thing, but something you have to will?
Oh, sure. If Michael were to contact me, I would welcome it. I wouldn’t turn him away. I would ask people to pray for me to find peace in my heart, but also pray for him, that he has a conversion. How powerful would it be if he was out there speaking [for life]? It would be a witness to hear him say, “Look, I made a mistake. What I did to Terri can never be done to others, and I’ve turned my life over to the Lord.”
We have to pray, because everything is possible. And we need to pray for people to convert, concerning how we treat these individuals.
What sort of steps did you have to take toward coming to forgiveness? When did you realize this is something you would have to do, that you would have to work through?
It’s a daily thing. I didn’t like being attached to my anger. But it was also my faith. Hearing the Lord tell us it’s easy to love people who love you, but we have to love our enemies. Just those types of things. To get to heaven, I know I have to separate myself from hating people. I need to give any negativity to the Lord to find some peace in all this. It’s just kind of a process. It’s been a lot of work.
I will tell you this: I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for my faith. There’s no way. I don’t believe you can find the forgiveness we need other than through Christ. I just don’t think it can be done.
For someone struggling with forgiveness issues, what you would counsel them to do?
Find a good, traditional, orthodox priest to counsel you. That would be a tremendous help, because the path to forgiveness and salvation are through our Catholic faith. How else can it be done than through our faith and through Christ?
What role did the Eucharist and the sacrament of confession play in your journey?
They’re the tools you need, and, without those tools, it’s not possible. I’m not perfect. I need to learn and understand my faith better; but, for me, I would be lost without confession and the Eucharist.
The more you partake in the sacraments, you see your life change. Once you put Christ at the center of your life and understand the need to replenish yourself with prayer and the sacraments, that’s the only way we can change these things.
How has this changed you?
I honestly believe this has saved me. All the focus of me and my family was to save my sister, when, in reality, God used her to save me, perhaps. The way I was living back then I was on the path to eternal damnation. How could I ever thank my sister for what she’s done?
How has this experience made you look at life?
I think of how precious life is, how many people are hurting out there, how our culture is declining more and more. It’s made me acutely aware of the shape of our Church. Things that were never on my radar, such as the sanctity of life, now are. I’m a sinner, and I’m not trying to judge anyone, but I see how globally lost we are. It’s made me realize how small I am and how big the Lord is.
What’s the worst case that you’re familiar with, outside of your sister’s?
There are probably a few. There’s a case in New York. A county there has taken guardianship over a woman’s husband, Gary Harvey. The county is completely mistreating this woman, Sara, and what they’re doing to her husband is just unconscionable.
In Arizona, a man named Jesse Ramirez, a war vet, got into a car accident. Doctors told his wife to remove the feeding tube. The parents went to court and got an injunction. A few months later, the guy walked out of the rehab center and was speaking with reporters.
What do you suggest for people who want to take action on behalf of life?
This is a difficult question, but I think, besides self-education, participate in events that will educate and encourage you and others to get involved.
Unfortunately, it’s tough. People are apathetic and don’t understand the issue. It’s also not one they want to confront. They look at a baby and think, "Yes, I’ll fight for that baby’s life." Then they see someone with a catastrophic brain injury. The first thing that goes through their mind is not to fight for them like they were a little baby. It’s, "Oh, I wouldn’t want to live that way."
Who would choose to live that way, if they could choose? Quite frankly, nobody would choose to live that way. But there are people living with these brain injuries, and they’ve just as much value and dignity as you or me. Just because they physically can’t do something, somehow they’ve lost their dignity and sacredness in the eyes of God? That’s ridiculous. So we have to get people to understand these people need protection just as much as the unborn babies. They have to get involved. They have to get educate themselves. They have to want to defend the lives of our medically vulnerable.
What else is the Terry Schiavo Life & Hope Network doing?
We’re trying to establish an outpatient recovery center in my sister’s memory. Every physician with whom we’ve spoken has said there is a definite need. Our intention is to develop a model that isn’t being done anywhere else in the country.
We also want to help our soldiers. One thing the war has done is raise awareness about brain injuries.
If people want to avoid ending up like your sister, what steps should they take?
Find a very good pro-life attorney. I’m not an attorney, but I don’t believe in advance directives. Health-care proxies would serve better because these ethics committees have the power to make decisions no matter what your advance directive says. It would really serve you better to have people advocating for you if you couldn’t speak for yourself. You have to appoint these people legally. You can have more than one. We recommend an odd number, but they should be people who have your values and your faith.
How much does this cost?
You have to do some research. People can do advance directives along with health-care proxies, if they choose, but they need to understand the language, because people don’t realize feeding tubes are now defined as “artificial life support.” When they think of artificial life support, most people think of machines keeping them alive. But it also means simple, basic food and water. That’s why I recommend having an attorney.
Register correspondent Brian O’Neel writes from Coatesville, Pennsylvania.