Republican candidate Jeb Bush went all out for a recent tv ad, reminding viewers of his passionate involvement in the Terri Schiavo case during his term as governor of Florida. Schiavo’s husband Michael called Jeb “disgusting” for using his personal family matter for a campaign ad. Politics aside, the Schiavo case is a frightening reminder of why we should all have a living will, known in California as an Advance Healthcare Directive. For those of you who don’t recall the nasty details of this legal saga, here’s a brief overview. I’ll leave out of a few of the more depressing details, as this was a complex and disturbing case on several levels.
In February of 1990, Terri Schiavo had a heart attack at her Florida home. She suffered a massive stroke and was immediately intubated and ventilated. Her husband, Michael, was appointed by the court as her legal guardian. In California, a legal guardian is called a conservator, and is appointed when there is no Power of Attorney document, or other healthcare directive. Within a year, Terri was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state , defined by characteristics such as “absence of voluntary action,” and an “inability to communicate or interact purposefully.”
She lived full time at the Sabal Palms Skilled Care Facility, near her husband and parents. There she received regular speech and occupational therapy, as well as neurological testing until 1994. She made little progress. During this time, Michael did two things that would effect the lawsuit that was later to come. First, he filed a massive medical malpractice suit against Terri’s obstetrician for improper diagnosis of her infertility prior to her stroke. He received $2 million in damages, which was split mostly between his lawyers and a trust fund for Terri. Second, he requested a DNR (do not resuscitate) when Terri contracted a urinary tract infection. An attorney appointed to represent Schiavo’s interest, called a guardian ad litem, would later tell the courts that Michael asked for the DNR because he believed there was no hope for Terri’s recovery. Hope or no hope, Terri would live on feeding tubes for another 11 years.
The official Terri Schiavo case appears to have begun in earnest in 1998, when Michael Schiavo filed a petition with the court to have her feeding tube removed. Her parents strongly opposed this action. A second guardian ad litem (court-appointed attorney) was chosen for Terri named Richard Pearse. In California, when someone is under a conservatorship, the court also appoints an attorney to represent their (the conservatee’s) interests. A guardian ad litem is also appointed to protect one’s interest if they have a trust. Terri had both. In Pearse’s report to the court, he concludes that while Terri does indeed appear to be in a persistent vegetative state, Michael’s desire to end her life may be influenced by the amount of money he would stand to inherit as her husband. It’s unclear how much Terri’s estate was worth, but it seems likely some of the $750,000 set aside from the Medical Malpractice lawsuit Michael had filed in 1992 remained. Allegations flew back and forth, and eventually Michael’s petition to have her feeding tube removed landed him, his in-laws, and Terri’s lawyers in trial. The year was now 2000, 10 years into her vegetative state. The trial was held in order to determine what Terri Schiavo would have wanted (to be kept on life support or to not be kept on life support) had she done a living will.
The judge ruled that Schiavo was indeed in a persistent vegetative state and there was evidence to show that she would have wanted the feeding tube removed. But this was only the first ruling in a line of many. The Terri Schiavo case would wind its way through the Florida court of appeals, Federal Courts, National News Outlets, and eventually to President George Bush. Jeb Bush made national headlines in 2003 when he jumped in. Three years after the initial court ruling, a Florida Probate judge had again affirmed the decision to remove Terri’s feeding tube. The feeding tube was removed, and Terri lay in the hospital dying. Determined to make headlines (I assume), Jeb jumped in an attempt to rescue her. He pressured Florida legislature to pass what would be known as “Terri’s Law.” Using a few tricks up his sleeve, he was successful in getting lawmakers to “side step” the courts and allow a governor’s order to resume feeding her. He sent state troopers to assist in Terri’s hospital transfer, necessary because of her condition after 6 days with no nourishment. In 2004, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that Terri’s Law, and by default, the actions Jeb Bush had taken, were unconstitutional. The law was struck down.
Eventually, after attempted Federal Interference, Political Gymnastics by the republican party (most notably the Schiavo memo), pleas from Nonprofit Organizations, and a host of shout outs from around the country:
(to Jeb Bush) “Please save Terri Schiavo!…Do something before it is too late … please! Every parent is watching this drama unfold … and will remember the outcome in future elections”
her feeding tube was removed, and Terri passed away.
Terri’s story is sad, to put it lightly. As a Trust and Estate Attorney here in Northern California I can only say that I hope it inspires people in our community to take the time to set up their estate plan. It’s a far more simple process than many of us realize, and it can avoid a significant amount of pain and suffering for those we love.
To schedule your Estate Planning Consultation, or to execute an Advance Healthcare Directive, call my Elder Law and Probate Law Firm in Downtown Walnut Creek: 925-322-1795.