Who Has the Right to Die? Gov. Jeb Bush Made Headlines by Intervening to Keep Terri Schiavo Alive. but Behind the Controversy Lies the Story of a Family's Tragic Disintigration

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Byline: Arian Campo-Flores

The day before Terri Schiavo's life descended into a private purgatory in 1990, she indulged in a guilty pleasure: an $80 visit to the hairdresser. When she told her husband, Michael, over the phone, he reacted angrily at the cost and the two traded bitter words, according to Jackie Rhodes, a friend of Schiavo's. Michael says he arrived at the couple's St. Petersburg, Fla., home late that night and stirred Terri awake to exchange a kiss. Hours later, he heard a thud. He ran into the hall and found her lying facedown, making a gurgling noise. "Terri, Terri," he said. "You OK?" She didn't reply. When the paramedics arrived, they said she had flatlined. "Why is this happening?" he asked hysterically. "Why isn't her heart beating?" Terri, then only 26, had suffered cardiac arrest because of a potassium imbalance (possibly related to an eating disorder). Though she was eventually resuscitated, she lapsed into what doctors diagnosed as a "persistent vegetative state"--not comatose, but so brain-damaged that she seemed robbed of cognitive ability.

Terri Schiavo remains in that penumbra today, unaware that her condition has ignited one of the most contentious right-to-die cases ever. For the past five years her husband has sought to have her feeding tube--the only thing that keeps her alive--disconnected, arguing that she would have preferred death to her current life. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have fought him relentlessly in the courts, insisting that she has flickers of consciousness and might eventually be rehabilitated. As the dispute has grown more venomous, it has bled into the public arena, drawing in religious conservatives on the side of the Schindlers and the ACLU on behalf of Michael. In the past two weeks, though, the ghastly, gut-wrenching spectacle has escalated even further. On Oct. 15, Terri's feeding tube was removed under court order for a second time. Then last week--in an unprecedented move--the Florida Legislature passed a law tailored to her case that authorized Gov. Jeb Bush to issue a one-time stay, which he promptly did. The tube was reinserted and Terri's fate once again was thrown into the courts. As judges attempt to untangle the thorny medical, ethical--and now constitutional--questions that swirl around her, the only certain outcome is that those closest to Terri will continue to tear one another apart.

How did it come to this? Michael met Terri at a Pennsylvania junior college in 1983. He began wooing her incessantly. Timid and insecure about her weight, Terri "had never had anyone pay that kind of attention to her," says her sister Suzanne Carr. The couple married a year later. "My sister loved his family," Carr recalls, and he had a "close relationship" with hers, Michael said in court testimony. In 1986, the two moved to Florida, where Terri's parents and siblings had settled. Eventually, though, Terri confided to her friend Rhodes that her marriage was strained. She complained that Michael was lazy and so controlling that he tracked the mileage on her new Toyota to ensure she didn't venture too far. A few weeks before her collapse, Terri broke down crying with her brother Bobby. "I wish that I had the guts to divorce Michael," she told him, according to an affidavit he signed, "because I cannot take being married to him anymore."

Still, after Terri's collapse, Michael devoted himself to her care. He moved into her parents' home, where Terri stayed for a spell, and the family "worked in harmony with Michael," says her father. Later, when Terri returned to a nursing home, Michael regularly drove the staff to tears with his exacting demands for Terri's treatment. One of her guardians ad litem (appointed by a court to represent the interests of the incompetent) noted in a report that although "Mr. Schiavo is a nursing home administrator's nightmare," Terri "gets care and attention... as a result of [his] advocacy." Michael even attended nursing school to better minister to her. …