My Visit With Terri Schiavo

A couple days after Christmas 2004, I was assigned to work at Woodside Hospice House in Pinellas Park, Florida. This was my first opportunity to work at Woodside as a Chaplain for Hospice of the Florida Suncoast. As a Chaplain, I am like the pastor of the parish and the seventy or so Woodside patients are my parishioners.

During my rounds on that first day at Woodside, it was my intention to visit each nursing station, and visit those patients in need, especially those who may be near death.

On that first day, I visited with Terri.
Of course I had kept up with the local and national news and was keenly aware of the ongoing legal battle. Only recently had Terriís feeding tube been removed per the husbandís wishes and then reinserted by order of the Florida legislature. There seemed to be a lot of debate over whether Terri was truly in a PVS or Persistent Vegetative State.
I wondered as well. But my questioning went deeper than a normal human curiosity.

Unfortunately, I was somewhat of an expert from my own personal experience. For, as a young father, my son Spencer, age four at the time, was hit by a speeding car while crossing a busy highway while riding his bike. The accident essentially left him without life on the side of the road, and only the heroic efforts of a passing physician eventually resulted in his heart continuing to beat.

But the damage had already been done. In addition to sustaining numerous catastrophic injuries including a shattered pelvis which resulted in a colostomy, and a broken back which rendered Spencer paralyzed from the chest down, his brain had gone without oxygen for several minutes as a result of the accident.

Cat Scans revealed profound and irreversible brain damage. Spencer lingered in a comatose state in ICU for four months. He began to regain some level of consciousness as his body healed and his eyes would open for hours at a times. Later I learned that his optic nerve had been damaged and rendered him blind. Spencer eventually returned home and lived (if you care to call it that) for another four years, and died in his sleep at age eight.

During those four years, my wife at the time and I took care of Spencer's many needs. We fed him through a tube in his tummy. We suctioned and swapped out his tracheotomy. We changed his colostomy bag. We changed his diapers as he continued to grow. A thorough neurological evaluation determined his mental ability to approximate that of a newborn. For four years it was hoped that his condition would improve with various sustained attempts to stimulate him. But nothing helped. The son I loved was no more. He was no more than a shell of the handsome, blond, bundle of energy I had known. But still, I was grateful to have him, even in that pathetic state. I could still love him, and touch him, and talk to him, and possibly be loved by him in some limited way.

During those four years of day to day care, Spencer would respond to loud noises, and move his eyes. But as much as I wanted to believe otherwise, his responses were involuntary, and not intentional. Occasionally, he would have a tear in his eye. I wanted to believe he could hear and understand, and see, and know that he was not alone. But most of the time when he was awake, he would stare out into space, unable to interact with his environment in any perceivable way. The reality was painfully apparent. But still I loved him, the best that I could, for as long as he was present in this life.

The day I visited Terri, I went to the nurses station and inquired as to her condition. I expressed my desire to visit Terri, and was given special permission.
I quietly entered her room, approached her bed, and announced my presence. We are taught to treat any patient no matter how incapacitated, as though they can hear and understand. I told her who I was. Her eyes were open but did not move in response to my presence or words.

I sat in a chair for a few minutes in profound silence, taking in the enormity of that moment, of this dear one, loved by so many. whose life was suspended in limbo between this reality and that which is to come. Silent prayers seemed inadequate for the moment. The emotions of my own experience rushed over me as I sympathised with the warring loved ones on all sides of the issue.

As I observed Terri in those moments, I felt the exact way that I had felt when confronted with the reality of my own son's hopeless dilemma. In my opinion, Terri was no longer truly there. She stared out into space in the same way Spencer had, hopefully seeing ahead to a better reality, when her broken body would be made whole, and she could run, and play, and enjoy the fragrance of a flower, and appreciate a brilliant sunset, or the love of a friend.

In the following months the unfortunate saga would play itself out on our televisions sets, and for those of us close to the situation, challenge us in extraordinary ways. As I continue my work as a chaplain I will forever remember and continue to learn from my special time with Terri.

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