Familial Battle over Schiavo's Fate Unprecedented; Tens of Thousands Being Kept Alive in U.S. in Vegetative State

Article excerpt

Byline: Joyce Howard Price, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Terri Schiavo's medical condition is not particularly rare - an estimated 30,000 to 45,000 patients in the United States are being kept alive in persistent vegetative states through feeding tubes.

What is unprecedented in the 41-year-old Florida woman's case is the long unresolved legal battle among members of her own family -- her husband and her parents-- as to whether she should live or die.

"Ninety-nine percent of these cases are resolved privately as a result of agreement between a patient's family members and doctors. Court cases are a rarity," said Dr. Scott Miller, a medical ethicist and internist at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Dr. Miller said it's a "common scenario" to have relatives who initially disagree as to whether a severely brain-damaged patient's feeding tube should be removed to reconcile differences in a matter of months or a year or two and then withdraw the tube.

"Fifteen years later, it's amazing that these two sides [in the Schiavo case] still can't agree," he said in a telephone interview.

No official figures are available as to the number of Americans who exist in persistent vegetative states. But the Brain Injury Association of America estimates the number between 30,000 and 45,000.

The group further says that it is most likely the number is in the "upper ranges" of that estimate.

At its Web site, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke explains that persons in a persistent vegetative state "have lost their thinking abilities and awareness of their surroundings, but retain noncognitive function and normal sleep patterns" and can breathe on their own. …