End-of-Life Decisions: Preventing Terri Schiavo Syndrome

Posted by Sean Green on in Ancillary Documents
  • Hits: 812_BAM1094Terri Schiavo, an insurance clerk from Pinellas Park, Florida, was diagnosed by her doctors as being in a persistent vegetative state. On February 25, 1990, Mrs. Schiavo collapsed at her home in full cardiac arrest. She suffered massive brain damage due to lack of oxygen and, after two and a half months in a coma, her diagnosis was changed to vegetative state.

Over the next several years, doctors worked tirelessly performing speech, physical, and other experimental therapies in an attempt to return Mrs. Schiavo to a state of awareness. In 1998, Mrs. Schiavo’s husband, Michael, petitioned the Sixth Circuit Court in Florida to remove her feeding tube. This petition was challenged by Mrs. Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, who argued that Mrs. Schiavo was conscious. After hearing testimony and receiving evidence, the court determined that Mrs. Schiavo would not wish to continue life-prolonging measures and ordered the removal of her feeding tube. The decision was immediately appealed and the feeding tube was reinserted several days later. After multiple years of additional court intervention, Mrs. Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed for the last time on March 18, 2005, and she died on March 31st.

Marlise Munoz, a pregnant brain-dead woman in Fort Worth, recently made national headlines for a unique situation involving end-of-life care. Erick Munoz,
Marlise’s husband, came home on November 26th only to find his wife
unconscious. While the reason(s) behind her unconsciousness was unclear, what
was clear was that Mrs. Munoz was carrying a child.

Under Texas law, the statutory language regarding end-of-life wishes for a pregnant patient was not drafted as clearly as need be. Erick urged the hospital to cease all life-sustaining activities regarding his wife claiming that she was legally and medically dead. In refusing to honor his wishes, the hospital countered that Texas law requires life-sustaining treatments to continue when the patient is pregnant. After a heated legal debate, Judge R.H. Wallace, Jr. agreed with Mr. Munoz, stating that “Mrs. Munoz is dead.” He ordered the hospital to remove all life support measures from Mrs. Munoz.

Mrs. Munoz was a certified paramedic who was all too familiar with end-of-life issues. In fact, she told her husband that she would not want to be kept alive on life support should something unexpected happen. Mrs. Schiavo was an insurance clerk who had discussed her wishes with her husband regarding end-of-life issues. Both of these women orally stated their wishes regarding end-of-life measures, however neither ever executed living wills which would have expressed their individual wishes regarding end-of-life care in writing. Ultimately, both women left the decision and subsequent legal challenges to be handled by their respective spouses and families. Mrs. Schiavo’s case further pitted her spouse against her biological family, resulting in more than a decade of heartache, court hearings, and unnecessary monetary expenditures.

Both of these women underscore the importance of having proper, legal documents in place BEFORE something terrible and unexpected happens. For a reasonably small fee (a few hundred dollars) all of the pain, heartache, and second-guessing of these women could have been removed. Their wishes would have been in writing and followed by doctors, hospitals, and staff personnel. Don’t wait until something happens…. at that point it is too late! How will you tell your family members how to deal with end-of-life care?

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