- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

On March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo died after her husband Michael Schiavo ordered her deprived her of food and water for 13 days, ending a bitter fight between her family and her husband that had divided America and reached the highest levels of our government.

As writer for the online journal or “blog,” The Razor, in 2003 I joined an effort called “Blogs for Terri” to help her parents Mary and Robert Schindler stop Michael from ending Terri’s life. For nearly two years I championed Terri’s right to life on the Internet, in letters to the editor and calls to politicians and journalists.

As an atheist and amateur scientist, I found myself in the company of the religious who supported the Schindlers for reasons of faith as they tried to save what they believed to be their daughter’s life. My lack of religious convictions, including a belief in an afterlife, did not deter me from what I still believe was an honorable endeavor that, in the end, became yet another grave injustice in the world.

Those of us who supported the Schindlers were stunned at the vehemence of Michael Schiavo’s supporters. Fellow writer and blogger Dean Esmay, who shares my views on this matter and joined “Blogs for Terri,” received abusive comments and e-mails calling him a coward for not disavowing the Schindler family after Terri’s autopsy report was released — a report some believed proved undeniably that Terri was brain-dead. Mr. Esmay writes that Michael Schiavo’s supporters felt vindicated by the report, and also felt it necessary that “Terry’s parents, siblings, and childhood friends needed to be denounced as 100 percent wrong, and Michael Schiavo had to be lauded as 100 percent right, period. To suggest anything to the contrary was simply evil. Or, at best, boneheaded: anti-science, anti-rational, anti-humanist, anti-everything-good.”

As a political commentator, I am used to being pilloried for my stances on controversial issues. However, the vicious attacks leveled at those of us who questioned the medical opinions on the Schiavo case, or Michael Schiavo’s motives, continue to puzzle me.

It is very likely Terri was brain-dead. If so, then what happened to her body would not matter to her. Therefore it didn’t matter if it was buried under ground, cremated (as indeed it was) or fed and cared for in a nursing home.

On the other hand, her parents believed she was not brain-dead but brain-damaged. That is an important distinction, since we as a society do not sanction the murder of “defectives” who fail to meet an arbitrary standard such as “quality of life.” Her family believed Terri’s rehabilitation was possible and that she could someday regain consciousness.

Given the finality of death, and the doubts raised by experts on both sides of the issue, I recognized there was sufficient uncertainty about her condition to warrant keeping her body alive.

The medical establishment, however, firmly sided with Michael Schiavo and his belief that Terri was beyond rehabilitation. So did the majority of Americans, according to public opinion polls taken at the time. The courts agreed, and Michael Schiavo was allowed to mercy-kill his wife.

A year and a half later, the medical establishment is again in the news — this time unable to explain why a commonly prescribed sleep medication, Zolpidem, known in the United States by the brand-name “Ambien,” has successfully awakened patients suffering similar persistent vegetative states as Terri Schiavo, according to a Sept. 12 article in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. The Guardian reports a family doctor in South Africa made the discovery when Louis Viljoen had laid in a deep coma for 5 years after being hit by a truck. He had begun involuntarily twitching, causing him to tear at the bed sheets, so a nurse suggested his doctor prescribe the young man a sedative. The doctor prescribed Zolpidem.

Twenty-five minutes later, after his mother had given him the crushed pill mixed in water, Louis opened his eyes and said “Hello, Mummy.” Today, seven years later, Louis Viljoen still takes a daily dose of Zolpidem and is recovering.

Doctors have no idea how the drug works, or why. All they know is that areas that appeared dead on brain scans show activity once the drug is taken. While most of the patients given the drug continue to display signs of brain damage, they are now able to communicate and move, suggesting further rehabilitation is possible.

It is quite likely Terri Schiavo would not have responded to Zolpidem given the 15 years she had been in her persistent vegetative state. However, there is a chance she would have — especially had the drug been administered earlier in her treatment. Unfortunately for Terri and her family, we will never know for sure.

For those of us who fought for Terri, the successful treatment of those in a persistent vegetative state using Zolpidem can only be compared to the discovery of evidence exonerating an executed man.

This revolutionary treatment should give pause to the majority of Americans who sanctioned the mercy-killing of Terri by her husband — aided and abetted by a legal system that refused to give an innocent woman the same thing it gives accused murderers: the benefit of the doubt.


A freelance writer who blogs at The Razor (www.therazor.org) and lives in Delaware.



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