AP Robert Schindler Obit Misrepresents Terri Schiavo Autopsy Results, Ignores Subsequent PVS Awakenings and Research

mmatters/terri22

Robert Schindler, father of Terri Schindler Schiavo, has passed away. Condolences to his courageous family and friends.

Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy's coverage of Mr. Schindler's death, and her recounting of the Terri Schiavo story, is a mixed bag.

On the one hand, she writes that "the feeding tube that had nourished her for years was removed according to her husband's wishes." I would expect that Michael Schiavo, who consistently said for years that withdrawing nourishment is what Terri would have wanted, and that he pursued that end "purely based on her wishes," will be miffed at Kennedy's assertion. Too bad, so sad, Mike. Your own words in the legal record say otherwise; Ms. Kennedy is correct.

But Ms. Kennedy erred in her single paragraph about Terri's autopsy, continuing an incorrect media meme that has persisted for years:

An autopsy supported Michael Schiavo's contention that she was in a persistent vegetative state with no consciousness and no hope of recovery.

It's as if there was no support for contrary contentions. That implied assertion is patently false.

Michelle Malkin wrote a scathing June 16, 2005 critique of the developing Terri Schiavo media mythology. That critique stands up very well four years later:

You do not need a medical examiner’s license to see that the (autopsy) report raises many more questions than it answers, though from the (once again) misleading media coverage, we are led to believe that the matters of Terri’s life and murder are resolved. They are not.

(A BBC report states that) "An autopsy report on a brain-damaged woman at the centre of a long legal battle in the US has shown that she suffered no trauma before her collapse."

But on page 4 of the M.E.’s summary, what the report actually says with regard to possible strangulation is this: "Autopsy examination of her neck structures 15 years after her initial collapse did not detect any signs of remote trauma, but, with such a delay, the exam was unlikely to show any residual neck findings.”

..... in countless newspaper articles over the past 15 years, and during his successful malpractice trial against Terri’s primary care physician, Michael Schiavo stressed his wife’s bulimia-related low potassium level as the cause of her initial collapse. Schiavo won $1 million in damages on the grounds that Schiavo’s obstetrician had failed to diagnose bulimia.

Unquestioning journalists ran dozens of stories echoing the claim: “Eating disorder is real issue in Schiavo case.”

..... The autopsy report spends three-and-a-half pages debunking Schiavo’s claim, as well as the related claim that she had a heart attack (or, more medically precise, myocardial infarction). But if mentioned at all, the news reports I have seen have downplayed and buried these astonishing revelations (revelations which bear directly on Schiavo’s credibility regarding his claim that Terri would have wanted to die).

In Michael Schiavo’s favor, the autopsy report also casts doubt on the Schindler family’s long-held view that a 1991 bone scan indicated traumatic injury.

..... However, the report notes this caveat: “Without the orginal bone scan and radiographs from that period, no other conclusions can [be] reasonably made.” 

Michelle went on to note the establishment media's dogged insistence that the autopsy results supported the idea that Terri was in a "persistent vegetative state" (PVS).

But before Terri's death, at least two prominent neurologists insisted that Terri was not in that condition. Additionally, the final sentence of Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Nelson's report to the 10th Judicial Circuit of Florida (at Page 20 of the 39-page PDF) cautioned that:

Neuropathological examination of the decedent's brain -- or any brain, for that matter -- cannot prove or disprove a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state or minimally conscious state.

Since Terri's death, TerrisFight.org, the web site of the Terri Schindler Schiavo Foundation, has compiled a list of 14 people who have emerged from PVS. It also cites four sources of subsequently published information contending that PVS is often misdiagnosed, and that in any event recovery from it is more than a long-shot possibility. One of them from June 2007 leads with these two paragraphs: 

New studies underline the importance of extreme caution in any decision to limit the life chances of patients during the acute phase of a vegetative state.

Around a quarter of patients in an acute vegetative state when they are first admitted to hospital have a good chance of recovering a significant proportion of their faculties, and up to a half will regain some level of consciousness, researchers from Belgium found out. Another study shows that around 40% of patients were wrongly diagnosed as in a vegetative state, when they in fact registered the awareness levels of minimal consciousness. Comparing past studies on this issue shows that the level of misdiagnosis has not decreased in the last 15 years. These studies should foster debate about appropriate standards of care for these patients, and about end of life limitations, experts said ....

It should also never be forgotten that Terri's condition at the time of her death might have been very different had her care been adequate during the years after Michael Schiavo won his malpractice lawsuit. There's more than a little bit of evidence that her care was far, far less than perfect.

Michelle Malkin's bottom line is the real takeaway:

Terri Schiavo, a profoundly disabled woman who was not terminally ill and who had an army of family members ready to care for her for the rest of her natural life, succumbed to forced dehydration at the hands of her spouse-in-name-only.

Out of respect for Mr. Schindler, who would surely and correctly have disputed her write-up, the AP's Kennedy would have been better off not mentioning the autopsy at all. Whether deliberate or not, its insertion and characterization come off as "let's get one last dig in while we can" opportunism that at least used to be considered unbecoming of an alleged professional journalist writing an obituary.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.