The lesson that Terri taught me

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

After 17 years of newspaper journalism, it takes a lot for a story to make me cry.

It's horrible, the stuff you hear at work. Reporters put up walls to keep from being hurt by all the abused children and spouses, dead soldiers, house fires and fatal accidents our readers expect to learn about from us. There's a lot of gallows humor in newsrooms.

But the Terri Schiavo case is getting to me.

It was going on long before I moved to St. Petersburg, Fla. Fourteen years before, in fact. Terri had an eating disorder that caused a potassium imbalance which, in turn, stopped her heart from beating and robbed her brain of oxygen in 1990. She fell into what some doctors call a persistent vegetative state and is fed through a tube.

Today, everybody knows her as the woman at the center of the nation's most vicious right-to-life/right-to-die battle ever fought. She's in a hospice in Clearwater, about half an hour from my house. Her husband, Michael, insists she'd never want to be sustained this way and told him so. Her parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, insist she would have wanted these measures taken and that there's hope for improvement with the right treatment.

People on both sides of the issue feel passionately about it, and it's not my place to share an opinion in this space. Anyway, it's not the legal, political ethical or moral issues wrapped up with Terri that made me cry.

It's just how awful and ugly this situation is -- how it has destroyed her family and divided this country.

And just how preventable it was.

I remember covering a speech by Nancy Cruzan's sister in Cape Girardeau in the mid-1990s. Nancy was severely brain damaged in a 1983 car accident and kept alive on a feeding tube. In that case, her parents fought to remove the tube, which happened in 1990.

Listening to Christy Cruzan White, I vowed to sign a living will the very next day, making clear which measures would be acceptable to keep me alive. I didn't. I didn't sign it the next month, the next year, the next decade. In the meantime, the Schiavo case replaced the Cruzan case on the national stage, and still I didn't sign.

I don't know why so many of us sit around for years talking about living wills but not getting them. We probably want to see ourselves as healthy and self-sufficient until we die at a ripe old age.

Finally, on Friday, the day Terri's feeding tube was removed, I found a Florida living will on the Internet, printed it out and signed it, with Mr. Half listed as my "advocate" and my friend Linda as my "alternate advocate." She told me she was glad to help.

"I want to do this for myself," she e-mailed. "But I tried to talk to my mother about it, and she said, 'DO WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT THIS RIGHT NOW?' That was the end of it."

Two co-workers witnessed my living will. It took 10 minutes and one e-mail to Linda, and my wishes were made legal.

I printed a living will out for Mr. Half, too, but he's yet to do anything with it. He says it's too weird to ask people at work to witness it -- he'll get to it, he'll get to it. Of course, he won't get to it. He's not ready to face this kind of painful, ugly issue.

And that's too bad. Because, in the end, Terri taught us all one extremely important lesson.

You aren't just signing a living will for yourself. You're signing it for the people who will represent you when you can't speak.

Heidi Hall is a former managing editor of the Southeast Missourian who now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: