Monday, March 28, 2005

Deathwatch Countdown

As I have written, Terri Schiavo is dying of dehydration and starvation as my mother did in 1994. Looking at the calendar, I just realized that my mother and Terri Schiavo both stopped taking all liquids and nourishment on the same date: March 18. Although she had finalized her decision a month earlier, Mom continued to eat until she finished saying goodbyes to her family. Her brother, my uncle, was visiting over St. Patrick’s Day and I prepared our traditional corned beef dinner. On March 18th I made hash from the leftovers, my mother’s last meal, and my uncle returned to his home in Pinellas County, Florida, coincidentally where Terri Schiavo now lies dying.

The hospice staff predicted my mother would be dead in less than two weeks. She died on the morning of Tuesday, April 12, 1994, her twenty-fifth day without nourishment of any kind. At the time of her death, my mother suffered from two life-threatening conditions, kidney failure and multiple sclerosis. Ten months before her death, she became bed-ridden after a mild stroke followed by deep-vein thrombosis, both potentially life-threatening. She chose her time and method of dying and yet lingered for more than three weeks, at times seeming to cling to life.

We can only guess at Terri Schiavo’s overall condition on March 18, 2005, when her feeding tube was removed per Judge George Greer. Hospice specialists speculate that she will die within two weeks of that removal. Hopefully the hospice team had access to her medical records and made an informed prediction.

During the last month of her life, my mother received absolutely no medication of any kind, unless you count the glycerin swabs we would apply to her lips, the anti-itch cream I massaged on her skin, or the drops of wine from her last communion. And so I was shocked to read that Terri Schiavo has received at least two doses of morphine.

My father died of multiple myeloma, cancer of the bone marrow, which means that at the end his bones began to shatter. He did not receive morphine until the Saturday when he was admitted to the hospital where he died the following Thursday. His pain was progressively unbearable and yet he received relief from morphine only for the last six days of his life. The morphine made my father’s death seem much more peaceful on the outside than it was on the inside.

When my mother chose to die, I know she was expecting her passing to be as quick and peaceful as my father’s appeared to be. When I had the first consultation with my oncologist two years ago to determine my course of treatment for breast cancer, we discussed my family’s medical history, especially my father’s as his oncologist shares a medical office with mine. He explained the morphine effect that probably expedited my father’s death. By the time morphine is administered to a dying patient, organs are already failing and morphine likely will depress their activity even further.

The hospice workers who visited my mother daily at home were professional and caring, as I am certain are those who attend Terri Schiavo. But morphine, a CSA classification II controlled substance, requires authorization by a doctor. I can think of only two reasons why Terri would receive morphine: 1) a doctor ordered morphine to treat her pain or 2) the patient’s guardian, Michael Schiavo, requested it to calm her.

My mother was quite agitated and restless after her first week without nourishment even as she continued to muster moments of lucidity. She had visible tremors and seizures. She would mutter unintelligibly and moan. Her hospice caregivers assured us these reactions were normal and required no medical response.

If Terri needs morphine, her need puts the lie to claims by George Felos and other rush-to-die advocates that she is in a peaceful, pain-free state unless he saw her under the influence and failed to include that bit of information.

If Michael requested the morphine, well, I’ll let you speculate about the reasons.

This is horrible news for Terri and the Schindler family.

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