Ex-Schiavo guardian calls for definitive medical tests


Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 10:19 p.m.
TAMPA - Terri Schiavo should undergo a new examination by independent medical experts to put to rest lingering questions on whether she has any hope of recovery, the University of South Florida professor who had been her court-appointed advocate said Tuesday.
But before any tests are done, her warring husband and parents would have to agree to drop their life-or-death legal fight in favor of whichever side the medical evidence supports, Jay Wolfson told The Associated Press in his first interview on the case.
His comments come as the legal options of Terri Schiavo's parents have dwindled to two pending matters in state courts.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused Monday to consider a legal challenge to "Terri's Law," the measure pushed by Gov. Jeb Bush in October 2003 to keep Terri Schiavo alive.
Wolfson served as Schiavo's guardian for two months in 2003 under the auspices of "Terri's Law." He tried to broker an agreement between the two sides, but was unsuccessful.
Wolfson said it is not too late to revisit the original question in the long-running legal saga - is the 41-year-old woman brain dead?
"There is so much at stake here, not just for Terri, but for the issue," said Wolfson, who is both a physician and a lawyer and serves as director of the Health Policy Information Center at USF.
"If we were serious about addressing this, we would say, 'What are the interests of the parties and how can we use science, medicine and good law to take away from the clouding factors in this case?' " he said.
The suggestion of new independent medical review has been rejected by both sides.
Barbara Weller, an attorney for parents Bob and Mary Schindler, said the offer of an independent medical panel was made by Michael Schiavo as late as the end of last year, but the Schindlers are hesitant to accept such a suggestion.
"The problem is finding truly neutral doctors," Weller said.
The Schindlers, who have been criticized by opposing attorneys for pursuing repeated appeals for their daughter, would prefer to settle the matter out of court, Weller said.
A hearing is scheduled for Friday on a motion in Florida Circuit Court in nearby Clearwater to set aside the decision granting Michael Schiavo permission to tell doctors to disconnect his wife's feeding tube. The Schindlers are arguing, in part, that Terri Schiavo should have had independent legal representation throughout the process.
Terri Schiavo suffered severe brain damage 15 years ago when her heart stopped beating because of a chemical imbalance.
She left no written directive and Michael Schiavo has said his wife would not have wanted to be kept alive artificially. But her parents dispute that she has no cognitive abilities, and say their daughter may be severely brain damaged but communicates with them and reacts to her environment.
Terri Schiavo breathes on her own, but requires a feeding tube for nutrition and hydration to keep her alive.
In 2002, Circuit Judge George Greer considered testimony from five medical experts who examined Terri Schiavo. Two were picked by Michael Schiavo, two by the Schindlers and one was independently selected by the judge.
That independent doctor reported there was no hope for her recovery.
Wolfson said that after examining her medical records, spending time with Terri Schiavo and consulting with experts nationwide, he, too, believes she is in a persistent vegetative state.
But even in his report to the courts, Wolfson wrote of the difficulties in reaching that conclusion, noting Terri Schiavo's "presence" when he was around her.
"Her eyes are not shut, she's breathing on her own and she makes noises," he said. "You want so much to say, 'Terri, give me a sign!' It's not a cucumber lying in a bed."
The two sides were close to a deal when Michael Schiavo backed out, Wolfson said, saying he couldn't agree to anything Wolfson proposed because it came under the auspices of "Terri's Law," which Michael Schiavo was challenging as unconstitutional.
It was that law that came to its end Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to consider it. The Florida Supreme Court had previously struck down the law as an unconstitutional.
Wolfson is not alone among experts in suggesting new, independent reviews of Terri Schiavo's condition.
Arthur Caplan, a director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the nation's leading experts on end-of-life care, said last week he too believes a panel of independent doctors should have been asked to evaluate her.
"I don't know why that never happened," Caplan said. "It's been way too long to not have more, independent medical opinions about her diagnosis."
Wolfson said the Schiavo case has the potential to drag on for years more as the parents continuously reframe their arguments in new legal filings.
"The process has not benefited anybody, it certainly has not benefited Terri," Wolfson said.

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