Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Update On Terri Schiavo

And, unfortunately, the news isn't good.

Yesterday, Judge George Greer handed down a ruling denying a motion filed by Bob and Mary Schindler, Terri's parents. The motion requested that Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband and guardian, be held in Contempt of Court for failing to comply with a 1996 order issued by another judge. That order required Michael to keep Bob and Mary apprised of Terri's medical condition.

I'll have more to say about the ruling itself later, but first I'll put this in context. The fact is that Michael has consistently withheld information about Terri's condition from the Schindlers since he vowed in 1993 that Bob and Mary would "never see [their] daughter again." When Terri nearly died of a urinary tract infection in 1993, due to Michael's refusal of treatment (which would have consisted of a $10.00 course of antibiotics) the Schindlers only found out about it after the fact from sympathetic medical workers who told them in spite of Michael's gag order, as he himself admitted in a guardianship hearing:
Attorney: When you made the decision that you were not going to treat Terri’s infection and you were, in effect, going to allow her to die, did you think that you had any obligation to tell her parents?

Michael: To answer that question, I probably would have let them know sooner or later.

Attorney: You never did let them know, though, did you?

Michael: No.

This behavior of Michael's continued, which led the Schindlers to seek and, successfully obtain, a court order from Judge Thomas E. Penick, requiring Michael Schiavo to provide the Schindlers with copies of Terri's annual medical reports, as well as apprising them of any "significant change" in Terri's condition. Unfortunately, Michael persists in stonewalling the Schindlers' requests for medical information and records, and maintains instructions to Terri's caregivers to do the same.

In a conversation with Bob Schindler Monday night, he told me that up until last year, they had never really pursued the enforcement of that order because he and Mary were focused on simply keeping her alive, which fight in the courts and in the organs of public opinion has occupied almost all of their energy for the last 6 years. But recent problems with Terri's health and the deterioration of her level of care had brought this problem to the fore.

Several weeks ago Terri began to have bouts of vomiting. Bob and Mary, understandably concerned, asked personnel from Woodside Hospice for an explanation. They were refused, hospice personnel stating "we can't tell you anything."


Terri's Care Deteriorates

This situation comes on top of a general decline in the quality of care that Terri has been receiving. Many people think that Terri is in a nursing home. She is not. Until recently, she was at Woodside Hospice, in Pinellas Pines, Florida. Hospices, by definition, are dedicated to caring for terminally ill patients in the final stages of life. Hospices offer only basic care to keep the dying person comfortable. They don't offer the same level of care as a nursing home.

The Schindlers have always objected to Terri being kept at the hospice, because Terri is not terminally ill. Furthermore, the Hospice Patients Alliance has also forcefully condemned the placing of disabled people in hospice facilities, saying that such a policy "endangers all disabled citizens of the United States and directly violates their Constitutional rights".

In addition to the inappropriateness of putting Terri in the hospice, the Schindlers have also been unhappy with the lower standard of care Terri has received there. "Before, when Terri was at the nursing home," Bob Schindler said, "the care there was great. They took very good care of her." But nursing homes are a lot more expensive than a hospice, and a look at the summary of expenses from Terri's trust fund (which is solely controlled by Michael), shows that the vast majority of that fund has gone to pay for Michael's lawyers, particularly George Felos. Michael's high expenditures on legal fees explain the apparent need for economies elsewhere. George Felos formerly was on the board of directors of the organization that runs Woodside, Hospice of the Sun Coast, a regional organization that manages Woodside and a number of other hospices in the Tampa - St. Petersburg area. Felos retains close ties to that organization, which doubtless gives him a high degree of control over Terri and her care.

Terri was moved some time ago from the Woodside Hospice to another facility, which, although in a different location, is nonetheless also run by Hospice of the Sun Coast. The move was explained to the Schindlers as motivated by the desire to give Terri a private room. Whatever the reason for the move, it wasn't to provide better care for Terri, as there are now signs that the minimal level of care given by Hospice has declined to outright neglect.

Bob told me Monday night that Terri has not been kept clean at the new facility. He and Mary have noticed on a number of occasions that her hair was greasy and obviously unwashed for days at a time. One employee of the facility, when asked by Mary why Terri had not been bathed, said that the hospice would not supply the toiletries necessary, and asked Mary for money to get shampoo, etc. for Terri. Mary gave the employee $20.00, but the money was returned the following day by a manager, who informed Mary they couldn't accept it. However, Terri is still not being kept clean.

They have frequently visited her and found that she had not been dressed. Terri is frequently not taken out of bed for lengthy periods, and she is not being turned regularly, as is necessary with bedridden patients. This lack of turning has led Terri to develop a decubitus ulcer on her buttock. Decubitus ulcers, commonly known as bedsores, are almost entirely preventable with the most basic of nursing care. Every nursing student learns how to prevent them early in training. Their presence is commonly taken as a sign of neglect.

In addition to the lack of hygiene and the development of the ulcer, Terri has also recently lost a tooth. Bob and Mary have long complained that Terri has not received a dental examination in years, and that she frequently has not had her teeth brushed for lengthy periods. Last year they brought to the attention of the hospice staff that one of Terri's teeth appeared seriously decayed, and had turned black. When several weeks passed and no action was taken, they pressed the hospice staff, who told the Schindlers that they had given Michael recommendations of dentists and oral surgeons, but that apparently he had done nothing. Well, several weeks ago the Schindlers noticed that this tooth was now missing, but that a decayed stump still remained.

The unexplained vomiting, the issue with Terri's tooth, etc., finally got to be more than the Schindlers could bear, and they filed a motion asking that Michael be held in contempt of court for failing to comply with Judge Penick's 1996 order requiring that he keep the Schindlers informed of Terri's condition.


The Unjust Judges Strike Again

Judge Penick's order is rather brief, and seems quite clear. It orders Michael to instruct facilities caring for Terri that they may discuss Terri's condition with Bob and Mary Schindler. It further orders Michael to notify the Schindlers of any "significant change" in Terri's condition.

Judge Greer, who has consistently ruled in favor of Michael Schiavo all along, sometimes despite the evidence and any semblance of logic, did not hand down his ruling last Friday, on the date he had initially set. But he gave a clear indication of how he was going to rule, by making a Clintonian remark about the need to revisit the phrase "significant change" and interpret what it meant. Apparently Judge Greer, when rulings made by other judges are inconvenient, sees his role as helping George Felos to "interpret" them into meaninglessness.

So Judge Greer's decision to deny the Schindlers' motion did not surprise them. "He's been protecting Michael all along," Bob Schindler said, "he almost has to keep doing it now." What is at stake, ultimately, is Michael's guardianship. "If Michael were found to be in contempt," Bob said, "he'd be finished as Terri's guardian." Such a ruling would be new grounds to challenge Michael's guardianship, and any judge would practically have to remove Michael. And once Michael was removed for cause, that would give Governor Bush additional grounds for taking new testimony, re-opening Judge Greer's "findings of fact", upon which his whole history of tendentious decisions is based. For these reasons, one could have reasonably predicted that Judge Greer would do almost anything to avoid finding Michael in contempt. The only good news is that Judge Greer issued his decision "without prejudice", which means that the Schindlers can re-introduce the issue at a later date.

Governor Bush also is seeking to have the venue of the Terri's Law case changed to the Florida circuit court in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. Florida statute provides that, in any case involving the governor in litigation, the governor can change the venue of that case to that of the county of the Capital. Such a change, since it is statutory, is granted almost as a matter of course. However, Judges Greer and Baird are opposing that change of venue. What their legal rationale may be, I don't know. But it's clear that they don't want to lose their control over this case. A fresh judicial nose might sniff out the odor, no, the outright stink emanating from Greer and Baird's chambers regarding Terri's case.

Speaking of doing almost anything, you'll recall that last month, a Florida appeals court issued a ruling overturning Pinellas County Judge Baird's decision barring the Schindlers from joining the litigation regarding the constitutionality of Terri's Law, and rejecting Governor Bush's petition to take new witness testimony. The appellate court ruled that Baird's decision was erroneous. But that hasn't stopped Baird from re-issuing those same orders, in spite of the Appeals court's rulings. This will necessitate another legal challenge by Gov. Bush and the Schindlers.

Finally, Judge Greer is up for re-election this November. Unfortunately, at this time he's running unopposed. Is there anyone in Pinellas County willing to stand up and oppose Judge Greer?

That's something to pray for...