John Jalsevac
Special to The Interim

At a June 14 news conference, a Florida medical examiner released the results of the autopsy performed on Terri Schiavo, after her high-profile court-ordered execution resulted in her death on March 31 of this year.

The results of the autopsy were highly anticipated, given many unanswered questions around the controversial case, especially the unknown cause of her initial collapse in 1990. Schiavo’s parents and siblings have often alleged, throughout their decade-long battle to protect Terri from the fatal wishes of her legal husband, that Terri was being abused at the time of her collapse and that asphyxiation by strangulation may have been the immediate cause of her condition.

These suspicions seemed to gain some credence after Terri’s death, when her husband, Michael Schiavo, asked that an autopsy not be performed on Terri and directed the cremation of her body. Throughout the case, Shiavo’s motivations were repeatedly questioned on account of a million-dollar insurance payout, as well as the fact that he has been living with another woman for some years and with whom he has had two children. In the end, however, Schiavo chose to ‘‘permit’’ the autopsy, though it was subsequently discovered that he had no say in the matter.

Terri’s mourners have been skeptical that an autopsy almost 15 years after Terri’s collapse could reveal conclusive evidence of abuse. Terri’s family, however, had hoped to achieve some sort of closure on the possible cause of what remains a mysterious and inexplicable illness. With the release of the autopsy, the possibility of such closure seems to have permanently slipped from their hands.

Media coverage of medical examiner Jon Thogmartin’s autopsy results thus far has almost exclusively centred on two assertions: 1) No evidence for abuse could be discovered on Terri’s body, and 2) that Terri’s brain was “severely atrophied,” or approximately half the weight that it should have been at the time of her death. Many, including Thogmartin, are pointing to this as evidence that Terri was permanently brain dead and are again using the “permanent vegetative state” phrase, which has commonly been used by mainstream media to dehumanize Shiavo. Terri’s supporters have instead characterized her as being “cognitively disabled.”

An impossible-to-determine PVS diagnosis based upon the findings of the autopsy was predicted by many neurologists. In a March 31 article in MedPage Today, Dr. Michael De Georgia, head of the neurology/neurosurgery intensive care unit at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, warned readers against a PVS diagnosis, saying it “cannot be confirmed by autopsy.” Dr. Mouhammed Kabbani, a neurologist at the University of Missouri, concurred, saying “an autopsy can show the degree of brain damage and how much brain tissue survived the injury,” but “it cannot, by any means, tell about the patient’s clinical status.”

Fr. Frank Pavone, who was with Terri in her dying moments, has responded to this assertion from a moral standpoint, saying that, “A person with a ‘profoundly atrophied’ brain needs profound care and love. Terri did not die from an atrophied brain. She died from an atrophy of compassion on the part of her estranged husband and those who helped him to have her deliberately killed.”

It is also not clear how much of the damage to Terri’s brain may have been caused by the extended period of starvation and dehydration, which was the final cause of her death and which reduced her entire body to a mere shadow of its former self.

However, the unsubstantiated claim put forward by Schiavo and many of the courts that Terri had suffered from an “eating disorder” around the time of her collapse was not given any credit by the medical examiner.

Pavone summed up the attitude of those who regarded Terri’s death as an avoidable tragedy, as well as the result of a so-called right-to-die agenda that engulfed and ultimately ended Terri’s life, and which she was unable to defend herself against due to her medical condition. “No details of this autopsy change the moral evaluation of what happened to Terri,” said Pavone. “Her physical injuries and disabilities never made her less of a person. No amount of brain injury ever justifies denying a person proper humane care. That includes food and water.”