Final hours marked by family drama

Death: Mourners search for meaning on a day police call peaceful.

Private Tragedy, Public Uproar

April 01, 2005|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. - The final 15 minutes of Terri Schiavo's life were filled with family warfare - her brother locked out of her room, her husband and his lawyers at her bedside, a police officer standing between the battling relatives.

At the end, Schiavo was described as dying a peaceful death about 9 a.m. yesterday - white lilies and roses near her bed, a tabby cat stuffed animal by her side, the hum of protesters and news crews inaudible in her quiet hospice room.

About an hour after her death, Brother Paul O'Donnell, the spiritual adviser to Schiavo's parents, delivered the news to the dozens of people assembled outside the hospice. Within moments, word flickered through the crowd still fighting for the reinsertion of the severely brain-damaged woman's feeding tube. "Terri's dead," one woman said. A man held his children's hands and prayed. Another dropped to her knees and sobbed.

As it has throughout this battle over Schiavo's fate - a family feud that sparked a national debate over the end of life - bitterness marked her last hours.

At 8:45 a.m., hospice nurses told Michael Schiavo, "You better come right now if you want to be with her before she dies," said George Felos, the husband's lawyer. Terri Schiavo's breath was entering rapid and shallow cycles, a sign of her body's shutting down. Her skin became mottled from the lack of circulation, Felos said; her limbs grew cold.

Felos said his client, who had been sleeping in a nearby room at the hospice for the past two weeks, hurried to his wife - bringing Felos and another lawyer, his brother Brian Schiavo and several hospice workers into the cramped room. But he refused his wife's brother, Bobby Schindler, fearful of a scene. Terri Schiavo's parents were not at the hospice, and Terri Schiavo died soon after Michael Schiavo entered the room.

He was said to be cradling her at the time of her death.

The family drama then took a public turn when The Rev. Frank Pavone, a Schindler friend who had been praying inside the hospice, railed before the cameras after Schiavo's death. He said the family members were told to leave 10 minutes before the 41-year-old woman's death. He criticized Michael Schiavo for keeping Bobby Schindler from the room at the end.

"His heartless cruelty continues until this very last moment," Pavone said.

Later, Felos countered that Schindler had been arguing with a police officer over access to Schiavo's bedside at her death and would have been able to return only with a police escort. Schindler, he said, would have compounded the trauma of the death.

"She had a right to have her last and final moments on this earth be experienced by a spirit of love and not of acrimony," Felos said. "He appropriately decided she had a right to spend her final moments ... without a policeman standing next to her."

Michael Schiavo made no public statements yesterday. He has argued that his wife would never have wanted to live on artificial life support. After a 1990 collapse she had been in what doctors called a persistent vegetative state, and nearly two weeks ago Michael Schiavo won a court order to have her feeding tube removed. But her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, believing they saw signs of emotion and thought, battled the move.

The rancor surrounding Schiavo's last days relented somewhat late yesterday afternoon when the Schindler family, looking teary and exhausted, appeared for their final news conference outside the hospice.

"Our family asks for forgiveness for anything we have done fighting for Terri's life," Bobby Schindler said, reading from notes as his extended family reached their arms around one another. "Terri, your life and your legacy will continue to live on as the nation is now awakened to the plight of thousands of voiceless people with disabilities."

Bob Schindler, Terri Schiavo's father, stood beside his son but did not make any public statements. Schiavo's mother, Mary Schindler, stayed largely out of public view yesterday except for a moment when she arrived at the hospice to view her daughter's body.

As word of Schiavo's death spread, mourners trickled onto the fenced-in lawn outside the hospice where protesters had set up a 24-hour encampment in a campaign to resume Schiavo's nourishment. News helicopters circled overhead. A sign that had counted Schiavo's days since her feeding tube was disconnected stood frozen at 13.

Inside the hospice, Schiavo's body was being bathed and prepared for the medical examiner's office, where an autopsy would be performed. More than 30 workers who had cared for Schiavo during her seven years at the central Florida facility formed a circle around her body to pay their respects as it lay on the medical examiner's gurney, Felos said. He added that many staffers worked overtime just to be there when she died.

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