Sense Lost

By Pamela Hennessy

Amid controversy and clamor, Terri Schiavo died March 31, 2005 at 9.05 am. I, along with others who have tried to make a difference on Terri’s behalf, wept mighty tears of loss for this young and innocent person.

Terri did not go empty-handed, however. I believe she took with her things that we will never again be able to have and hold in this physical life. Among those things, common sense seems to be the most apparent of our sacrifices.

I’ve read, literally, hundreds of news reports on Terri’s life and death in recent days and am, once again, awed at the oversimplification her situation has received from this country’s press and media. The hot topics for the day include the living will sales pitch, debate over government’s role in protecting life and the typical right versus left carry on that does nothing to address the real issues Terri’s case presents. I have yet to find a single mainstream editorial exploring the very real implications now facing disabled and elderly communities because of the events of Terri’s life and hurried demise. Instead, all I read is nonsense about how I should sign my life away and dissolve my family’s “burden” of caring for me.

Some writers have tried to empathetically paint hers as a case of euthanasia. But, as a registered nurse recently pointed out to me, even these illustrations miss the mark. What our country witnessed was not a euthanasia, but a murder. Here’s why:

Euthanasia, as a definition, means “easy death” or “good death”. What Terri Schiavo had was anything but. Terri was forced to endure nearly fourteen days of being willfully deprived of ordinary and basic necessities – food and water. The medical aspects of terminal dehydration, as outlined by Curtis E. Harris, MD in his essay for “Life Cycles”, reveal that such a death is one of horrific manifestations. From the initial pains of hunger and thirst to the ultimate disintegration of the body’s organs and tissues, starving to death is simply not the walk in the park some would have you think it is. It’s miserable and all the stupefying narcotics in the world cannot change the reality of a healthy body being wasted to death.

Also, we typically think of euthanasia in terms of patients at the end of life and a swift action to relieve them of their pain and suffering. Since Terri was neither dying nor suffering, making her die was an altogether different proposition. Before this “death process” (a term cheerfully used by Michael Schiavo’s attorney, George Felos) began, Terri was a healthy woman with a life expectancy of many decades. She just wasn’t dying fast enough for those who see profound brain injury as the defining characteristic of the “non-person”. So, the notion that this was something carried out for her benefit alone is misguided on a number of levels.

While many commentators began to eagerly sink their claws into the debate of how Terri’s case will impact an arrogant and bumbling judiciary, I had hoped more would address how it would affect our disabled and elderly. While the country divided itself over which party was acting appropriately (the parents who wanted to save her and the husband who wanted her dead), I was hoping more Americans would thoughtfully consider whether they believed it ethical for a deliberate killing to take place in a healthcare setting. Instead of the all-too-familiar call for individuals to run out and get a living will, I had hoped the notion of protecting oneself from starvation and dehydration would have gained a mention.

Instead, the usual peanut gallery of “experts” have been paraded in front of every news camera in America, arguing fitfully over self-composed definitions of persistent vegetative state, quality of life and spousal rights. Regrettably, not one has yet addressed the surely coming dangers that the Terri Schiavo case has laid the groundwork for.

Medical killing. Think about the term in the abstract alone. Is this what we truly desire for ourselves? Is this the legacy we intend to leave our children and grandchildren? Medical killing. To a sensible person, the words don’t really belong together. Yet, they are now joined rather efficiently as a matter of our society’s history.

Do not fail to appreciate the reality of Terri Schiavo’s death in the technical sense. A healthy, but brain-injured, woman was deliberately deprived of a basic, human need with the sole purpose of making her dead. And, it worked.

In the months to come, I have no doubt that people all over the world will be mourning the loss of young Terri. I’ll be doing the same, but I’ll also be grieving for the loss of our sensibilities.