I attended an international conference for biomedical scientists in San Diego, California, in the spring of 2005. The deaths of Pope John Paul II and Terry Schiavo made the headlines during that week. Life support had been terminated for Terry Schiavo two weeks before her death. She had suffered a major heart attack and slipped into a coma in 1990. Terry's husband Michael and her parents were bitterly divided over the prolongation of her life support. The Supreme Court was asked to intervene and revealed its division by voting 5 to 4 in favor of not reinstating life support.
Many years before the heart attack that eventually took the life of Terry Schiavo, I knew a family who faced a similar crisis in New Jersey. The mother in this family had gone to a local hospital for a cardiac procedure, lapsed into a coma, and was being sustained on life support. Her three children were adults and had families of their own. She had been married twice, and her current husband was not the father of her children. Two of the children and their families lived in distant states. I empathized as this group of distraught adults kept twenty-four-hour vigils wondering if their loved one would regain consciousness. They were receiving no guidance from attending physicians, did not know what questions to ask, and seemed completely ignored by the medical establishment. It was a lamentable scene of helplessness and confusion.
In private I mentioned to the husband that as a physiologist I had the medical background required to read and interpret medical records. I explained what physiology is and told him I could read his wife's records and apprise him of the status of her kidneys, GI tract, liver, heart, and lungs. He thought about my offer for a couple days and discussed it with her children. As a group they accepted my invitation, and he was given access to the records that he handed over to me. It was clear that my friend had been in multiple-organ failure from the outset of her hospitalization. She was on a mechanical ventilator, had a balloon-pump device implanted in her aorta to assist cardiac output, was on hyperalimentation (nutritional support), and was showing no signs of response to her family or the medical staff. After discussing her records, the family asked what I would do if this was my wife, my mother, my daughter, or my sister. My response was, “I would make