Terri Schiavo’s Autopsy Results

A few days ago, I wondered out loud if the results of Terri Schiavo’s autopsy might mean that Michael is owed an apology. The discussion in the comments was long and interesting. Be sure to check it out.

That discussion got me thinking about some issues surrounding the autopsy results, the post mortem diagnose, and the various medical examinations during Terri’s life.

The report says that her brain was severely atrophied. Does it corroborate the CT scan interpretation that she lacked any useful cortical tissue? (If the report reveals cortical function, however minimal, the official interpretation of her CT scans is wrong.)

How much cortical functionality is required for minimally human behavior? (Even if the report found functioning cortex, Terri might still have been vegetative.)

Regardless of whether she lacked cortical function at the time of death or not, could that fact be determined beyond reasonable doubt via scans (or other available means)? (Being right after the fact is meaningless if there was no reliable way to be certain beyond resonable doubt that Terri would be better off dead.)

Assuming that the “right” scan(s) could determine presense or lack of functional cortex, was the CT scan done in 2002 sufficiently convincing? (This ties into the previous question. Though one might theoretically be able to determine by reasonable doubt lack of cortical function, actual scans performed might not have sufficient resolution to allow that determination.)

Assuming that Michael Schiavo and other parties had sufficient evidence that Terri lacked meaningful neural activity beyond autonomic functions, was dehydration/starvion an appropriate way to end her life? (Why didn’t they just give her a lethal injection?)

The report determined her condition at time of death. Was her cerebral atrophy always that bad? Was the damage always irreverible? Could, as the family claims, aggressive therapy helped Terri?

Terri’s collapse was not caused by bulimia. Doesn’t that contradict the basis of Michael’s medical malpractice suit? Should he be asked to return the settlement he won?

There was no evidence of abuse. Even if (let’s say) Michael Schiavo is a jerk with questionable motives, is he not still owed an apology for being accused of abusing his wife?


Update: I received some angry email from a woman named Gayle, who seems to think that I’m totally in the “Michael Schiavo has been vidicated” crowd. I’m just thinking out loud and hoping the discussion is interesting an experience I can learn from. Anyhow, since any email sent to me is bloggable unless stated otherwise, here are her comments and my responses.

“Michael Schiavo (‘MRS’) of denied rehabilitative therapy to his
‘spouse’ Terri. In fact, Terri was maintained in a state of a
relatively HIGH degree of sensory deprivation for over a decade.
Florida law REQUIRES rehabilitative therapy be given. Do refuse
it is illegal, and surely amounts to abuse.”

“Everybody knows this. Why don’t you?”

1. If I recall correctly, Terri did indeed receive therapy early on, which produced no noticeable improvements. 2. While I think it odd and suspcious that he ordered that she never leave her room, I’d hardly call a hospice with frequent medical and family visitors sensory deprivation. If there’s something I missed, please enlighten me. I’d be glad to discuss it. 3. For how long is rehabilitation required? Are there any legal reasons for the cessation of therapy? 4. Everybody knows Florida law?!? OK…

“I believe that MRS also abused his wife by torturing her to death
by dehydration, and I presume you have a television, but somehow
you don’t know this, either.”

Was the body that died by dehydration still Terri Schiavo or had she long since ceased to be truly human? Was she still a person? I don’t know. That’s the kind of thing I want to discuss with people. Furthermore, I wonder if her personhood status was even knowable. Lastly, did the actions fo Michael Schiavo and the medical staff at her hospice constitute cruelty? Again, I don’t know. Let’s talk about it.

“The circumstances surrounding Terri’s collapse SCREAM that an
investigation should have been made, 15 years ago. Now, we
find out that ALLEGED bulimia was probably NOT a factor in her
collapse, and the observed electrolyte imbalance must have been
caused by something else. There was no investigation. Why?”

Do you think none of the litany of doctors to look at her ever wondered about or investigated the cause of her collapse?!? Obviously insufficient evidence was found to justify a criminal investigation of Michael.

“This last set of facts proves that MRS probably perjured
himself on many occasions, claiming that his wife was
bulimic, when the postmortem showed she was not. Friends and
acquaintances CLAIM SHE WAS NOT. And in fact, MRS pocketed
an unknown amount of money in excess of about $1.6 million
dollars, based on the lie that Terri Schindler had bulimia.”

That’s a good point and one worth discussing. In fact it’s so good I brought it up in this post this morning. Everybody knows this. Why don’t you?

“Even if Terri was bulimic, the other information including
the long delay between here collapse and the 911 call, SCREAM
that an investigation should have been made.”

Why are we only hearing about this now? In all the furor a few months ago I never once heard about this issue. Something smells fishy…

“I think your proposed apology to MRS is at best premature.”

Mayhaps. Bear in mind that I merely suggested it as a possibility. I didn’t say I thought it to be immediately necessary.

“One more important fact:”

“Bulimics don’t purge more than a few minutes (say 30 to 60,
I don’t know the exact number) after eating.”

“It is almost impossible to imagine that Terri could have
been purging an evening meal, at 4AM.”

“Why don’t you check it out?”

Ummm…did I suggest otherwise? As I recall, I accepted the medical examiner’s assertion that her collapse was not caused by bullemia without question. Some of your questions and comments suggest you haven’t really read what I’ve written. Why don’t you check it out?

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About Funky Dung

Who is Funky Dung? 29-year-old grad student in Intelligent Systems (A.I.) at the University of Pittsburgh. I consider myself to be politically moderate and independent and somewhere between a traditional and neo-traditional Catholic. I was raised Lutheran, spent a number of years as an agnostic, and joined the Catholic Church at the 2000 Easter Vigil. Why Funky Dung? I haven't been asked this question nearly as many times as you or I might expect. Funky Dung is a reference to an obscure Pink Floyd song. On the album Atom Heart Mother, there is a track called Atom Heart Mother Suite. It's broken up into movements, like a symphony, and one of the movements is called Funky Dung. I picked that nickname a long time ago (while I was still in high school I think), shortly after getting an internet connection for the first time. To me it means "cool/neat/groovy/spiffy stuff/crap/shiznit", as in "That's some cool stuff, dude!" Whence Ales Rarus? I used to enjoy making people guess what this means, but I've decided to relent and make it known to all. Ales Rarus is a Latin play on words. "Avis rarus" means "a rare bird" and carries similar meaning to "an odd fellow". "Ales" is another Latin word for bird that carries connotations of omens, signs of the times, and/or augery. If you want to get technical, both "avis" and "ales" are feminine (requiring "rara", but they can be made masculine in poetry (which tends to breaks lots of rules). I decided I'd rather have a masculine name in Latin. ;) Yeah, I'm a nerd. So what? :-P Wherefore blog? It is my intention to "teach in order to lead others to faith" by being always "on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers . . . or to the faithful" through the "use of the communications media". I also act knowing that I "have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors [my] opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and [I] have a right to make [my] opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward [my and their] pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons." (adapted from CCC 904-907) Statement of Faith I have been baptized and confirmed in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I, therefore, renounce Satan; I renounce all his works; I renounce all his allurements. I hold and profess all that is contained in the Apostles' Creed, the Niceno- Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Having been buried with Christ unto death and raised up with him unto a new life, I promise to live no longer for myself or for that world which is the enemy of God but for him who died for me and rose again, serving God, my heavenly Father, faithfully and unto death in the holy Catholic Church. I am obedient to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. That is, I promote and defend authentic Catholic Teaching and Faith in union with Christ and His Church and in union with the Holy Father, the Bishop of Rome, the Successor of St. Peter. Thanks be unto Thee, O my God, for all Thy infinite goodness, and, especially, for the love Thou hast shown unto me at my Confirmation. I Give Thee thanks that Thou didst then send down Thy Holy Spirit unto my soul with all His gifts and graces. May He take full possession of me for ever. May His divine unction cause my face to shine. May His heavenly wisdom reign in my heart. May His understanding enlighten my darkness. May His counsel guide me. May His knowledge instruct me. May His piety make me fervent. May His divine fear keep me from all evil. Drive from my soul, O Lord, all that may defile it. Give me grace to be Thy faithful soldier, that having fought the good fight of faith, I may be brought to the crown of everlasting life, through the merits of Thy dearly beloved Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Behind the Curtain: an Interview With Funky Dung (Thursday, March 03, 2005) I try to avoid most memes that make their way 'round the blogosphere (We really do need a better name, don't we?), but some are worth participating in. Take for instance the "interview game" that's the talk o' the 'sphere. I think it's a great way to get to know the people in neighborhood. Who are the people in your neighborhood? In your neighborhod? In your neigh-bor-hoo-ood...*smack* Sorry, Sesame Street flashback. Anyhow, I saw Jeff "Curt Jester" Miller's answers and figured since he's a regular reader of mine he'd be a good interviewer. Without further ado, here are my answers to his questions. 1. Being that your pseudonym Funky Dung was chosen from a Pink Floyd track on Atom Heart Mother, what is you favorite Pink Floyd song and why? Wow. That's a tuffy. It's hard to pick out a single favorite. Pink Floyd isn't really a band known for singles. They mostly did album rock and my appreciation of them is mostly of a gestalt nature. If I had to pick one, though, it'd be "Comfortably Numb". I get chills up my spine every time I hear it and if it's been long enough since the last time, I get midty-eyed. I really don't know why. That's a rather unsatisfying answer for an interview, so here are the lyrics to a Rush song. It's not their best piece of music, but the lyrics describe me pretty well.

New World Man He's a rebel and a runner He's a signal turning green He's a restless young romantic Wants to run the big machine He's got a problem with his poisons But you know he'll find a cure He's cleaning up his systems To keep his nature pure Learning to match the beat of the old world man Learning to catch the heat of the third world man He's got to make his own mistakes And learn to mend the mess he makes He's old enough to know what's right But young enough not to choose it He's noble enough to win the world But weak enough to lose it --- He's a new world man... He's a radio receiver Tuned to factories and farms He's a writer and arranger And a young boy bearing arms He's got a problem with his power With weapons on patrol He's got to walk a fine line And keep his self-control Trying to save the day for the old world man Trying to pave the way for the third world man He's not concerned with yesterday He knows constant change is here today He's noble enough to know what's right But weak enough not to choose it He's wise enough to win the world But fool enough to lose it --- He's a new world man...
2. What do you consider your most important turning point from agnosticism to the Catholic Church. At some point in '99, I started attending RCIA at the Pittsburgh Oratory. I mostly went to ask a lot of obnoxious Protestant questions. Or at least that's what I told myself. I think deep down I wanted desperately to have faith again. At that point I think I'd decided that if any variety of Christianity had the Truth, the Catholic Church did. Protestantism's wholesale rejection of 1500 years of tradition didn't sit well with me, even as a former Lutheran. During class one week, Sister Bernadette Young (who runs the program) passed out thin booklet called "Handbook for Today's Catholic". One paragraph in that book spoke to me and I nearly cried as I read it.
"A person who is seeking deeper insight into reality may sometimes have doubts, even about God himself. Such doubts do not necessarily indicate lack of faith. They may be just the opposite - a sign of growing faith. Faith is alive and dynamic. It seeks, through grace, to penetrate into the very mystery of God. If a particular doctrine of faith no longer 'makes sense' to a person, the person should go right on seeking. To know what a doctrine says is one thing. To gain insight into its meaning through the gift of understanding is something else. When in doubt, 'Seek and you will find.' The person who seeks y reading, discussing, thinking, or praying eventually sees the light. The person who talks to God even when God is 'not there' is alive with faith."
At the end of class I told Sr. Bernadette that I wanted to enter the Church at the next Easter vigil. 3. If you were a tree what kind of, oh sorry about that .. what is the PODest thing you have ever done? I set up WikiIndex, a clearinghouse for reviews of theological books, good, bad, and ugly. It has a long way to go, but it'll be cool when it's finished. :) 4. What is your favorite quote from Venerable John Henry Newman? "Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt." 5. If you could ban one hymn from existence, what would it be? That's a tough one. As a member of the Society for a Moratorium on the Music of Marty Haugen and David Haas, there are obviously a lot of songs that grate on my nerves. If I had to pick one, though, I'd probably pick "Sing of the Lord's Goodness" by Ernie Sands.

11 thoughts on “Terri Schiavo’s Autopsy Results

  1. theomorph

    Now, we find out that ALLEGED bulimia was probably NOT a factor in her collapse, and the observed electrolyte imbalance must have been caused by something else.

    Not that I’m quibbling with established facts here (because I’m not sure of them myself), but that sentence, regardless of the facts, contains a logical flaw:

    If bulimia was probably not a factor, then it does not follow to say that “the observed electrolyte imbalance must have been caused by something else” [emphasis added]. Rather, if bulimia was probably not a factor, it follows that the electrolyte imbalance was probably caused by something else.

    Also, this sentence suffers from problems, too:

    This last set of facts proves that MRS probably perjured himself on many occasions, claiming that his wife was bulimic, when the postmortem showed she was not.

    First, you don’t “prove” a “probably.”

    Second, the postmortem showing that Terri Schiavo was not bulimic does not automatically mean that Michael Schiavo perjured himself. It is possible that he genuinely believed she was bulimic. An autopsy (or any medical procedure, for that matter) is a scientific experiment, which may prove a hypothesis wrong. That does not mean, however, that the person holding the hypothesis was deceitful in doing so.

  2. Jerry

    “As I recall, I accepted the medical examiner’s assertion that her collapse was not caused by bullemia without question.”

    The autopsy did not provide any conclusive evidence for why Terri collapsed, Funky. Again, per the article I sent you, the real issue at hand with Terri is due process and patients’ rights.

    Bringing up the issue of personhood at the end of life is quite relevant, but you are erring in using Terri as your test case, not only is the case quite inflammatory, but the data are rather poor, to put it delicately. Thus, folks are going to get riled up without good evidence to put things to rest one way or another. I’d strongly recommend starting some general posts, perhaps using some relevant sections of the Catechism as a starting point, and then working through what the issues mean ourselves. You can keep this furball of attack and counterattack with the Christian blogdom (you’ve already revised this post at least twice to accomodate attacks against you), and I’m already beginning to lose track of the original point!

  3. EmilyE

    “No Left Turns,” the blog of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University (a center for conservative politics) has had an interesting exchange on it, in which the autopsy results have been quite a subject of discussion. Unfortunately, around comment #38 it disintegrated into a bunch of partisan name-calling. Still, though, it’s the most discussion I’ve seen of the autopsy results.

    You can read it here:

    The retort I’ve heard brought up most often is that the dehydration could have caused some of her brain’s shrinkage, as well as the blindness. I have no idea if that’s even possible, but it’s what I’ve heard… I’d like to hear someone with a little more medical knowledge (Jerry, perhaps?) weigh in on that.

  4. theomorph

    Brain scans can detect a brain that’s probably capable of consciousness. But the only way to detect real consciousness is for another conscious being to see it in action and then say, “Hey, that thing is like me!”

    Terri Schiavo’s parents were (allegedly) looking at her and saying, “Hey, she’s like us!”

    Michael Schiavo was (allegedly) looking at her and saying, “Nope, don’t see it.”

    I’ve seen those famous videos, and I didn’t see any consciousness, either.

    Personally, I think what throws most people for a loop on this one is that she still looked like a person, that she had eyes and a nose and a mouth and ears and arms and legs and all those things, that there was still life-like motion (i.e., she wasn’t just a really nice statue or inanimate object), so people were a little creeped out at the thought that this body could still be considered dead, or at least brain-dead, or a “vegetable.”

    But studies have shown people get creeped out when CG animated characters, which clearly are not alive and have no consciousness (i.e., they are like nice statues or inanimate objects), look like living humans, too.

    I really think this whole thing boils down to natural, unconscious species recognition wiring in the brain, and whether people are willing to go with their “gut” (“She sure looks alive to me!”) or with rationality (“She hasn’t communicated or done anything meaningful for fifteen years; how is that living?”)

  5. tim

    I don’t think it is much of reach to say that euthanasia activists will attempt to do exactly what you’ve suggested (actively end life). In the end, there is not an ethical difference between this and what was done to Terri passively.

    Regarding the “right” scan, no medical device is capable of determining consciousness, despite the claims of some.

  6. John

    The whole autopsy thing brings up another point which has a tremendous amount of relevance to the preservation of life in the country. Autopsy are now performed in a very small percentage of deaths.
    It may be thought that all the improvements in scanning technologies have rendered them irrelevant, however in a very large number of cases (somewhere between 30 and 50 percent, I don’t remember the exact number) the autopsy shows that the cause of death was not what the doctor treating the patient thought.
    And that number is the same as it was fifty years ago. We’re making a lot of mistakes that aren’t getting caught.
    The medical profesion can’t be perfect, it’s always going to lose patients (that it saves so many is amazing). But we shouldn’t let people die in our care without at least trying to learn from what we did wrong so that we can help the next person better.

  7. Rob

    Whether Terri had enough cortical material prior to death and if the means to determine that were available, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Randall Terry (have you ever heard him tell the story of the abuse he received at the hands of a Pittsburgh paramedic? Care to guess why I remember him telling that story?) has said that the data from the autopsy didn’t matter.

    From what I read of the autopsy (the whole thing) Terri’s damage was so severe that it didn’t contradict the interpretation of the CT scan. There were individual neurons left in some areas, or areas where the damage to the neurons remaining was so pervasive as to make any thought impossible. When they say that there was nothing to contradict the PVS, that’s what they mean.

    The damage dated back to the original insult, based on the type of damage observed. Had the brain continued to deteriorate, it would have shown up differently.

    The MRI would have theoretically been out because the neural stimulator wire might have cooked what was left of the brain.

    The doctors told the family from the first month that there was no hope. Everyone ignored the doctors for years. After (I think) 7 years, Michael gave up hope.

    As for his time discrepancy: Most people I have ever met as a paramedic cannot give the time they called 911 accurately to within a couple hours. The exception would be a public safety employee or medical professional, and at the time Michael was neither.

  8. Pingback: Ales Rarus - A Rare Bird, A Strange Duck, One Funky Blog » Ask the Right Questions

  9. kadamson

    I worked for a couple of years at a state school for the mentally retarded (what it was called then). There were many non-responsive patients who received direct care that included feeding tubes and physical therapy. I’m sure they had no living will. They definitely had no money – no future – only the present. I can’t imagine at the time someone taking a look at them and deciding that these people probably preferred death and therefore food and water would be withheld so that they could die by starvation and dehydration.
    How times have changed in twenty years.
    By the way, it is not legal to do this to puppies. It is considered inhumane.
    oh, yes…Michael has been vindicated.
    woo hoo – high five.
    Stay healthy. Don’t become disabled and unable to speak for yourself. Someone will speak for you. You do prefer to die, right?

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