A Missouri Baptist recalls another Schiavo-like case
April 5, 2005
Editor’s note: Barbara Shoun, a contributing writer for The Pathway, was public relations director for the Missouri Rehabilitation Center in Mt. Vernon, when the family of Nancy Cruzan had her feeding tube removed Dec. 14, 1990. Nancy died of dehydration 12 days later.
The Terri Schiavo case may have been breaking news for most of the nation, but for those of us who worked at the Missouri Rehabilitation Center (MRC) in December of 1990, it has been a trip back in time.
Nancy Cruzan was severely brain damaged as the result of a traffic accident in 1983 and had been a patient at MRC for several years. Her condition was diagnosed as persistent vegetative state (PVS). She was not brain dead, terminally ill, or hooked up to a life support system.
Unlike Terry Schiavo’s situation, Nancy’s parents obtained a divorce on their daughter’s behalf and had become her guardians.
The Cruzans eventually came to the conclusion that Nancy would not want to live in her condition and requested that her feeding tube be removed. The center refused to do so and her doctor concurred. The Cruzans went to court.
At about the same time, the father of another PVS patient, Christine Bussalacchi, began discussing the possibility of having his daughter’s feeding tube removed. However, there were rumors that Christine was showing signs of increased awareness. I went to see for myself.
Over the next few months, I observed – and videotaped – Christine smiling, laughing out loud at funny sounds, and moving her leg on command. No one can convince me these were reflexes. There were times when she was highly animated and times when she seemed totally unaware of her surroundings. There was no way to predict when she would be alert.
Meanwhile, the Cruzans’ case went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court and back to the local probate court. The judge ruled that the center had to remove the feeding tube. Nancy’s doctor now concurred and was willing to do so. All of this was covered by the national press.
Protestors began to arrive a few days later. I was glad to hear they were coming because most of us agreed with them. However, my attitude toward them changed when some of them forced their way into Nancy’s unit. The center went into lock-down mode and we felt as though we were under siege.
As the days passed, there was a permeating sense of helplessness and guilt. Just getting to work meant walking through a crowd of people who begged you to feed Nancy or called you a murderer.
The helplessness, guilt, long hours, constant pressure of being quoted, and hassle in the midst of Christmas were taking their toll. I found it hard to pray, but God did not leave any of us stranded. Co-workers encouraged one another with words of comfort and prayer. Brothers and sisters at church let me know they were praying for me, even though some of them agreed with the decision. Our associate pastor listened as I poured out my concerns and convictions.
After Nancy died, Christine’s father moved her to another facility and all rehabilitation efforts were discontinued. We heard that she reverted to a state of unawareness before her feeding tube was removed and she died.
Fourteen years later, we still stop feeding severely disabled patients; the argument is about who gets to make the decision. However, I’ve been encouraged by what I perceive to be a more life-affirming attitude on the part of the public, if not the judiciary.
Although science has not proven it, I came to believe that the brains of PVS patients switch on and off randomly. It seems unconscionable to deny them whatever awareness they may have.
I’ve also come to the conclusion that the desire to die is a temporary phase in the grieving process when we suffer physical or emotional loss.
In accordance with what I saw, I want my doctors to err on the side of life. My living will states that nutrition and hydration are not to be halted. Life may not be of the highest quality for me at some point, but I want as much of it as I can get.
If I find myself trapped in my own body one day, unable to communicate, I know that God will be there. I intend to rely on his grace and to give Him praise as long as He gives me breath. (Barbara Shoun is a former newspaper editor and member of Concord Baptist Church, Jefferson City.)