In 'Teri Schiavo— one physician's perspective,' Dr. Steve Collins examines the physiological brain function aspect of Schiavo's condition and speculates on the possibility of her experiencing pain but being unable to communicate her suffering to those responsible for her care. Though concern for her comfort or discomfort is important, it may not be, if Terri does experience moments of lucidity, the one concern most troubling to her.
How do I know or am able to say this? Because I have personally experienced the horror of being semi—conscious and unable to communicate.
In 1995 I suffered a relatively mild heart attack and went to the Cleveland Clinic for the repair work. I had a double bypass, with one vessel being from the thigh and the other being of the pectoral artery type. Because there was damage to the heart wall near the mitral valve, I had a substantial amount of leakage through that valve, which was repaired with an annuloplasty. That is, I had a stainless steel ring—around—the—valve implanted into my heart tissue. No more MRI's for me!
Surgically, all went well. However, I had a pretty rough time coming out of the anesthetic. When I first reached any state of awareness, my field of vision was limited. I could hear voices but not understand what was being said. I thought I could see a clock, but the lighting level around me seemed to vary from light to dark to light again. Eventually I realized that I could not speak as I had a ventilation tube inserted down my throat. I went to remove it but was unable. I was restrained with both my hands and feet firmly strapped down. I panicked and started fighting both the ventilator and the straps. I felt totally trapped!
For how long I was in this state I know not. But it seemed interminable. Every time the ventilator blew me up, I forced my breathing against it by overcoming the pressure safety valve. I pleadingly motioned, or so I thought I did, with my hands and fingers for someone to come to me and tell me what was happening to me. Touch me. Speak to me. Quench my thirst. All to no avail. Let me tell you. That is an excruciating experience.
Eventually, of course, or you wouldn't be reading this, I was conscious enough that my ventilator was removed and my limbs unfettered. My release felt glorious! I was a prisoner no longer! That evening, an angel of mercy, a nurse not seen but heard, stated that I was much better behaved than the night previous. While restrained I had been thrashing around rather violently but now that I was better—behaved my reward would be a benedryl injection that proved rather delicious and relaxing with sweet dreams following.
But what of Terri? What if she does have moments of awareness? Is it pain that's her torture? Or would it be more like the sense of being trapped, imprisoned without any idea of how or when one might be released — as I experienced for but a short time?
If you haven't experienced it, you have no idea the depth and severity of the panic that sets in. It feels as though one has been buried alive, which is why I could not watch the scene in the second part of Kill Bill when Uma Thurman is dispatched in this manner. In fact, my surgical experience left me with a rather severe case of claustrophobia — a condition not previously experienced. It was so bad that for awhile I could not remain in a room in my home without the window open. Sometimes I could not remain indoors and felt compelled to go outside.
So, if Terri does have some degree of lucidity, even if only occasionally and for short periods, that is, based on my experience, not a reason to keep her alive. Quite the contrary, release will be a blessing. I've told my wife, if you cannot communicate with me, pull the plug.