For members of any family, an order of execution issued by a judge for a loved one is devastating news – it’s catastrophic to learn that someone you have known all your life is going to be killed by the state.
That’s what happened to my family when, on March 31, 2005, Terri Schiavo died as a result of Florida probate judge George W. Greer’s ruling to sentence my sister to death.
Her crime? She was profoundly brain injured, could not speak or fend for herself and had a loving family that wanted, more than anything, to just bring her home and care for her until her natural death.
But death sentences, once issued, are difficult to overturn – even when the person marked for death has never committed a crime.
On Feb. 25, 1990, my beloved sister collapsed in her home and experienced a significant brain injury after going into cardiac arrest.
For several years she underwent rehabilitative therapy and was physically stable, needing no medical treatment other than to be fed and hydrated. We loved her as she was, understanding that she had joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands of other Americans who are challenged by a severe neurological disability.
Just a short time after Terri’s collapse, however, we learned that Terri was no longer receiving therapy but was instead being warehoused bereft of the care that she needed. We spent years wrangling with her then-husband to restore her rehabilitation care and for her to be released to us.
We wanted to bring her home, where she was loved and would receive the therapy she so desperately needed.
It was not to be.
Instead, after Judge Greer’s decree that her feeding and hydration supply should be ended, we watched her starve and dehydrate to death.
We were there. We watched her die of thirst, surrounded by vigilant law enforcement officers tasked with ensuring that we didn’t try to comfort her by wetting her parched, cracked and bleeding lips.
It took almost two weeks – a slow death that would never be considered for even the vilest criminal. Even the most heinous villains get a last meal and something to drink.
That was eight years ago. We remember it as if it was yesterday.
We are also well aware that the culture of death has not given up ridiculing people with severe cognitive disabilities.
Several years ago the Fox TV show the “Family Guy” presented a whole segment mocking the death of my sister. Happy chorus chants talked about “hating vegetables,” Terri’s “mashed potato brains,” and that she was the “most expensive plant you’ll ever see.”
American comedians like Lewis Black, Howard Stern, Karen Finley and countless others have all taken their turn to make vulgar and crude jokes about Terri and her disability – a level of animus that, in other contexts, would mobilize widespread outrage – but not for a severely disabled woman.
Me, my mom, my sister and my late dad have faced this type of evil for years.
But they will not stop us from continuing to advocate for these persons, despite a growing prejudice that targets these vulnerable individuals. Terri lives on and has become the catalyst for an entire movement focused of ensuring that other Terri Schiavos will not, under any circumstances, be sentenced to death because of their cognitive disabilities.
That is the reason my family established the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network. We are committed to developing a national network of resources so we can support our medically vulnerable loved ones who are facing life-threatening situations.
In our work, we have learned that Terri was representative of thousands of other families who find themselves in similar situations. They reach out to us on a daily basis as they fight a culture that is becoming more and more desensitize to the value of people that are being defined as non-persons with no quality of life and no hope for the future.
We teach that disability, no matter how severe, should never be a death sentence, and that all persons, whatever their level of cognitive awareness, are part of our humanity and deserve love, care, consideration and support.
Terri’s Life & Hope Network is currently working on a major rehabilitation project that will reach those, like Terri, who are being abandoned and neglected, when in reality need constant therapy and care.
We have recently launched educational arm, the Network’s Center for Disability in the Public Square.
And, on April 5, we will gather at Philadelphia’s Basilica of St. Peter & Paul, Archbishop Charles Chaput presiding, to remember and celebrate my sister, Teresa Marie Schindler Schiavo, a woman, seen by society as the least among us, but who, by her terrible death, has grown a movement far greater than her detractors could ever have envisioned.
It won’t end there. After the memorial mass, we will be gathering for a gala dinner where former Alaska Gov. Sarah Plain will encourage us to fight the good fight and to keep the faith.
It is only because of my sister and what she endured that we are now in the position to help others. For those infatuated with death and the killing of my sister, Terri’s death marked the end. But for us and so many of our supporters, Terri’s death marked the beginning.