No easy answer on condition of comatose teen

March 18, 1994|By Cox News Service

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Is Teresa Hamilton dead or alive?

Home from the hospital just over two weeks now, the 15-year-old lies in bed, hooked up to machines that keep her body functioning -- brain dead and beyond hope, her doctors say, or just in a deep coma and trying to heal, according to her parents.

"That's our daughter; that's not a corpse," Sharon Hamilton said, motioning to Teresa's room, where she said the girl is showing steady improvement.

The usually simple question of life and death knows no easy answer here. On one side is the fierce determination of Sharon and Frederick "Scotty" Hamilton. It tells them: Teresa will wake up someday. Don't give up on her.

On the other side is the weight of medical expertise. It tells them: Your girl is brain dead, gone. Accept it.

"If you love someone, you don't give up on them," Sharon Hamilton said about the girl who used to love horses, swimming, and dancing.

The Hamiltons know you have to give up if the brain shuts down. They just disagree with physicians who say that's what happened.

The eighth-grader lies under blue and pink blankets surrounded by an IV-stand, "Get Well" balloons, and a ventilator, which is connected by a tube to her nose.

The Hamiltons' ordeal began on New Year's Eve, when Teresa returned from roller skating with a headache that worsened all week, leading to flu-like symptoms early Jan. 7 that sent her to Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Less than 12 hours later, Teresa slipped into unconsciousness and soon was diagnosed as brain dead.

Doctors' tests found no electrical activity in her brain, and the hospital's ethics committee decided four times that physicians should pull the plug. The state's attorney said he wouldn't prosecute if they did.

But after six weeks in which the Hamiltons said they had to keep a 24-hour guard on Teresa, everyone agreed she should go home March 3.

"We've been trying to do the compassionate thing and go with what the family wants, and also honor the professional judgment of the doctors involved," says hospital spokesman Mike Vizvary.

The Hamiltons' bill at Sarasota Memorial is $135,000 and growing, he said. Each day Teresa is at home, with round-the-clock nursing care, costs about $1,500, roughly half the hospital cost.

Scotty Hamilton, a 58-year-old native of Scotland, is an unemployed construction manager. Sharon Hamilton, 44, is a certified nursing assistant, unemployed for three years because of a hip ailment.

The couple are relying on donations to pay for Teresa's bills.

Back at the family home, neighbors have conducted a candlelight vigil in financial and moral support. Phone calls and letters stream in from people across the country who say they survived similar situations.

Two of Teresa's friends come by almost every night to rub her hands, comb her hair and talk to her playfully.

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