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Mary Pitt: Michael Shiavo - A Hero For This Time

Michael Shiavo - A Hero For This Time

by Mary Pitt

There has been endless debate over what constitutes heroism over the ages, but first and foremost among the requirements is the ability to keep one's promise to those who are important in one's life, regardless of the difficulties encountered in the endeavor to do so. By that standard, one man who is now in the news would certainly qualify for the sobriquet. That man is Michael Shiavo, the husband of the late Terri Shiavo whose life hung by a thread for fifteen years until this brave man overcame the opposition in order to follow her wishes that she not be allowed to linger in a condition that did not allow her to live her life in the manner that she chose.

Terri Shiavo was fat as a child and grew to be a lady with an under-developed sense of her own worth and tried to compensate for it by disciplining herself in the attempt to epitomize the cultural idea of beauty. In that effort, her attempts to comply with those popular ideals led her to bulimia, a method of weight control that is used by many young women in a dangerous attempt to conform to the popular concept of what a woman should look like. One of the most famous of these young ladies was Karen Carpenter who, with her brother, performed as The Carpenters, an excellent and very popular singing duo of the 1970's. Karen's bulenia-caused stroke was fatal but Terri's left her hovering between life and death for an interminable amount of time. For years, every available therapy was tried, to no avail. The diagnosis was "persistent vegetative state" while her body continued to function with the assistance of feeding via a gastric tube which provided the nourishment which she was unable to swallow.

In an attempt to better understand and to assist in the care of his wife's condition, Mr. Shiavo went back to school, becoming a physical therapist, and then a nurse, eventually qualifying as an OR nurse. Thus, he became qualified as a medical professional, capable of providing total care for his stricken spouse. He could adminster medications, perform physical therapy to prevent the contracture of her muscles, and manipulate the feeding tube to deliver the nutrients to her failing body. He could change her diapers, bathe her, dress her, and attend to her comfort. He was determined to care for her through a long convalescence.

As if the condition of his beloved wife was not enough of a strain on this man, as he was contemplating the recommendations of the physicians to remove the artificial life supports from the lingering body, Terri's parents went to court in an attempt to remove him as the guardian of this helpless person so that they alone could control her fate. Appeal followed every negative ruling and the gastric tube, which was her only connection to what life was left in her, was removed and replaced in response to the differing decisions, first by the courts, then by the edict of the Governor of Florida, and, finally, by action of the United States Congress with the assent of the President, with the final decision to remove it being made by the Federal Courts.

During these fifteen years, Michael remained true to his promise to Terri that she would not be allowed to linger in this vegetative state, a desire that she had expressed to him and to his brother and sister. It is true that, in time, he accepted the inevitability of her death, found another lady whom he chose as a life mate and they had two lovely children together. This lady, too, is a heroine in her own way for her acceptance of the fact that he still felt the obligation to remain married to Terri so that he could carry out her wishes. She grieved with him when Terri took her final breath. Though he was offered money in great amounts if he would divorce Terri, to re-marry and "move on", allowing Terri to linger for many more years in her brain-dead state, he refused, determined that she be allowed to end her life as she desired.

He was termed a murderer by the throngs of people who gathered outside the hospice in which she rested, he was maligned in the Congress and in the pulpits of churches, he was held out to ridicule and verbal condemnation on every television talk show that his opposition could find that would air to their opinions. Videos of this poor, pitiable woman were broadcast on the national news in a manner that would have humiliated Terri had she been able to comprehend the events. Fortunately, however, Terri was not aware of this sideshow on her behalf, the interminable showing of the carefully-edited videotapes which made her appear to be cognizant of her surroundings by the roving of her eyes with her mother dodging about to make it look as if she were responsive to the words that she could not hear, the endless discussions of her abilities and disabilities and the endless religious and philosophical debates as to her right to "life".

But Michael was un-moved. He held a steady course, eschewing the publicity and the requests to present "his side of the story". When at last the feeding tube was removed, he took a room at the hospice and remained sequestered with his wife until the end; a rare man, one who kept his promise, no matter what! There will be much more humiliation to endure in the aftermath of her passing and he will continue to suffer slings and arrows from all sides but, eventually, he will be able to get on with a new life with his by-then new wife and their children and he will treasure his memories of Terri when she was alive and healthy and he will smile when he hears the sound of her laughter on the wind.

His plight has served as a reminder to all Americans of our own mortality and that youth is no protection from disaster, compelling many of us create living wills and durable powers of attorney "just in case" and others to contemplate our own decisions as to the difference between a "right to life" and "quality of life". These are personal quandaries and we will each deal with them in our own way. However, whatever our decisions may be, we will owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Shiavo, the man who lived up to his obligations and carried out the will of his wife despite formidable oppposition and in the face of personal persecution. It epitomizes the type of dedication we would hope for from our own trusted designee as our guardian in end-of-life decisions.

The decision made by Mr. Shiavo was a horrendous one and one that nobody alive ever wants to have to make, whether to maintain our loved ones in a state of suspended animation and suffer unrelenting grief while praying for a miracle in the far distant future or whether to bow to the inevitable and to remove the artificial sustenance, thus leaving the continued existence of our loved one in the hands of God. Many of us have had to make a similar decision in the event of the birth of a handicapped child or a terrible accident to one we love and spend the rest of our lives wondering whether that decision was the right one as we endlessly ponder if the child might have lived and prospered or, in the alternative, who will care for these helpless people when we are gone. Fortunately, few of us have had to make these decisions so publicly and in the midst of such controversy. Nobody who has made this decision would presume to judge Michael Shiavo or to second-guess his judgement in the matter. Mr. Shiavo has done all he could humanly do and any judgement is not ours to make.

God bless you, Mike. May you live long and be happy.


Mary Pitt is a septuagenarian Kansan who is self-employed and active in the political arena. Her concerns are her four-generation family and the continuance of the United States as a democracy with a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people". Comments and criticism may be addressed to .

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