Medical authorities in Florida on Wednesday released an autopsy report on Terri Schiavo confirming that she had suffered massive, irreversible brain damage and was in a vegetative state at the time of her death. The 41-year-old woman was at the center of a legal and ethical controversy over whether the feeding tube keeping her alive should have been disconnected or not.
Terri Schiavo died on March 31, after a lengthy battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court was resolved in favor of her husband Michael, who had said for years his wife did not want to be kept alive by artificial means. The Florida woman collapsed in 1990 and was eventually diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state.
Terri Schiavo's parents and siblings had sought to keep her alive and enlisted the support of many members of the U.S. Congress, who passed emergency legislation earlier this year, allowing her parents to pursue their case in the federal courts. Lower state courts had ruled consistently in favor of her husband. After weeks of appeals and a decision by the Supreme Court not to hear the case, Terri Schiavo died.
However the dispute between Terri Schiavo's blood relatives and her husband did not end with her death. Ms. Schiavo's parents said she had suffered abuse at the hands of her husband, which could have led to her initial collapse in 1990. Jon Thogmartin the Pinellas-Pasco Medical examiner, who supervised Ms. Schiavo's autopsy, said Wednesday any claims of abuse have no merit.
"No trauma was noted on any of the numerous physical exams or radiographs performed on Mrs. Schiavo, on the day of, the days after, or in the months after her initial collapse,” said Mr. Thogmartin. “Indeed within one hour of her initial hospital admission, she received a radiograph of her cervical spine which was negative for trauma."
Medical examiners say they do not know what led to Terri Schiavo's initial collapse in 1990.
Because she had lost a great deal of weight just months before her death there was speculation that a chemical imbalance caused by an eating disorder was the cause of her collapse. However medical authorities who supervised her autopsy say they could find no evidence of that.
Ms. Schiavo's parents also disputed the results of a state-mandated medical report that diagnosed their daughter as being in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state, saying with proper therapy their daughter could regain some brain functions. However Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin says Terri Schiavo's autopsy indicates her brain functions were not recoverable.
"Her brain was profoundly atrophied,” he said. “The brain weighed 615 grams, roughly half of the expected weight of a human brain. This was due to extensive damage. There was massive neuronal loss or death. This damage was irreversible and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons."
Medical examiner Jon Thogmartin says it would have been impossible for Terri Schiavo to survive without her feeding tube as she was unable to receive food or water by mouth. He says she also could not see the people around her, because the vision centers in her brain were destroyed, and she was blind.
He also says Terri Schiavo did not die of starvation but of dehydration after her feeding tube was disconnected.