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Episode 3: Family Secrets

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WORLD Radio - Episode 3: Family Secrets

As Michael Schiavo starts the grueling task of caring for his disabled wife, secrets begin to surface, and family fractures start to appear.


Audio sources listed at the bottom of the transcript.

When David Gibbs got involved in the Terri Schiavo case, he didn’t realize he’d be subjected to prison-level searches. But by March 2005, police officers inside Florida Hospice of the Suncoast are searching everyone who wants to come in.

GIBBS: They didn't remove our clothes, but empty all our pockets--no pens, no mints, no anything that would photograph or video Terri, or give her any nourishment.

Gibbs is an attorney. Since 2003, he’s been representing Bob and Mary Schindler. Standing beside them as they fight to save their daughter Terri. That’s who Gibbs is visiting at the hospice. It’s March 18, 2005, and Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube has just been removed.

When Gibbs pulls up at the intersection of 102nd Avenue, he’s shocked at the scene. It’s an ordinary street in an ordinary American town. But now it looks like a cross between a carnival midway and a war zone.

NEWS CLIP: Bo Gritz the former Green Beret commando and leader of far right militia movement decided he would come in on his own and try to rescue Terri Shiavo...

Gibbs parks and walks about two blocks to the hospice. He passes satellite trucks. Reporters doing stand-ups. Speechifying demonstrators. Even snipers on the rooftops. Gibbs meets Mary Schindler at a pre-arranged spot. Then, through a parting sea of protesters, he escorts her inside.

GIBBS: And I remember walking in with Mary, and there’s armed police.

Many police officers are sympathetic to the Schindler family. Especially to Mary, who is tiny and sweet. Still, they subject both her and Gibbs to meticulous searches. Then police track Mary—walking close behind her everywhere she goes. That’s because they have standing orders.

GIBBS: Arrest the mother if she does anything to help her daughter.

LAWLESS THEME: 

From WORLD Radio, and the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It: This is Lawless.

I’m New York Times bestselling author and WORLD Magazine senior writer Lynn Vincent. Lawless is a new true crime podcast that examines a frightening fact of American life: That not every crime is against the law. In Season 1 of Lawless, we’re investigating the Terri Schiavo case, a story that in 2005 shocked the world. This is Episode Three: Family Secrets.

Fifteen years before the police followed Mary Schindler to keep her from helping her daughter, Terri’s in an ICU bed. Wires and tubes sprout from her nose, her mouth, her arms, her chest. Terri is in a coma. Her eyes are closed. Her skin is the color of ash. Terri’s family is still in the waiting room, anxious for news. Watching the clock. Her mother, Mary:

MARY: I never moved from the ICU unit.

Terri’s attending physician, Dr. Samir Shah, hasn’t been practicing long. He was first licensed to practice medicine in 1988. Two years later, on February 25th, 1990, Terri Schiavo rolled into the ER on Dr. Shah’s shift. So far, Terri is a medical mystery. Her husband, Michael Schiavo, says he awakened before dawn to find her lying unresponsive in the hallway of their apartment.

It had taken a long time for Humana Hospital’s ER team to stabilize Terri enough to move her to intensive care. Now, they’re running more tests. Trying to figure out what happened.

MARY: The neurologist…came out and talking about—Dr. D'Souza was his name.

BOBBY: And he I do remember he, he painted a very grim prognosis.

MARY: I don't remember his words…All I know is that he said that it was not good.

Dr. Shah notes in his report that Terri has suffered cardiopulmonary arrest. That’s not the same thing as a heart attack. In a heart attack, blood flow to the heart stops. In a cardiac arrest, the heart stops beating for some…unexpected reason, or…for an expected one. The truth is…we all suffer cardiac arrest in the end.

For hours the case remains an enigma—like something you’d see on the show House. Then…Dr. Shah gets the results of Terri’s blood tests. One value really gets his attention: Terri’s potassium level. Potassium is a critical electrolyte. Even a minor imbalance can lead to serious health problems. The low range of normal is three-point-six millimoles of potassium per liter of blood.

Terri’s bloodwork shows a potassium level of two-point-zero. Dr. Shah heads out into the waiting room to ask Michael some questions. Was Terri dieting? Taking any diuretics or laxatives? No, Michael says. But she did drink a lot of iced tea—as much as a gallon a day. Caffeinated beverages are diuretics. Dr. Shah says that, combined with her severely low potassium level, could indicate that Terri was suffering from bulimia.

BOBBY: They started wondering what was the cause of the low potassium. And that's when they came up that perhaps it was an eating disorder….which could have caused her heart to go in some type of arrhythmia.

This is the first hint at a diagnosis. The first time a doctor suggests a reason why a healthy 26-year-old might collapse in the middle of the night.

SPONSORSHIP MESSAGE: Lawless is made possible by listeners like you. Additional support comes from Samaritan Ministries, a Biblical solution to health care, connecting Christians across the nation who care for one another spiritually and financially when a medical need arises. More at samaritanministries.org/worldpodcast.

Did Terri suffer from a secret battle with bulimia? Some doctors said yes. Others say probably not. More on that later. Terri’s family wasn’t sure.

BOBBY: When it came up, I guess at the time, I thought, sure. It's a possibility. I mean, everything I know about eating disorders is that, you know, people do it in secret.

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that mainly affects women. The name comes from a Greek word that means “ravenous hunger.” Bulimics often have a poor body-image and are overly conscious of their weight. A war rages inside them: The desire to control their weight clashes with sporadic binging and purging—usually throwing up food. This triggers shame, and in about half of bulimics, also mood or anxiety disorders.

Doctors had ruled out other causes for Terri’s sudden anoxic brain injury. In fact, the only abnormality came in that bloodwork. Remember, Terri was overweight from elementary school through high school until she took it off with NutriSystem. That was 1982. Could Terri’s childhood struggle with weight have triggered a secret battle that lasted into adulthood?

Maybe.

But no one had ever seen Terri binge-eating. No one suspected she was throwing up her food. And she didn’t have the overdeveloped neck muscles associated with purging.

BOBBY: She lost weight. But at one point it stabilized. I don't even think her weight was a topic of discussion, after she had lost the initial weight. I thought she looked fabulous. I was spending a lot of time with her because Michael, because they had offsetting schedules. I don't know if it's an exaggeration to say that I was seeing Terry. More than Michael, for a particular period of time.

But Dr. Shah tells Michael that bulimics often hide things. So Michael and his brother Brian head back to the Schiavos’ apartment.
Together, the brothers go through Terri’s belongings, searching for signs of a secret. They go through her clothes. Her pockets. Her purses. Her shoes. And they find…nothing.

It’s Dan Grieco, Michael’s boss and friend, who first raises the possibility of a medical malpractice suit. He’s also an attorney. Terri had been seeing that OBGYN, Dr. Stephen Igel. Grieco says Dr. Igel never checked Terri’s potassium levels. Never asked about any eating disorders.

GRIECO: And Dr. Igel said that really the she knew she went to him because of the problem. And his analysis did not go to something simple, like, potassium levels because she was not totally forthcoming about her, her eating habits.

Michael and Mary say Grieco brought up the subject while Terri was still in the ICU. Grieco told me it was several months after Terri’s collapse. Either way, Grieco argues that if Dr. Igel had done his job, Michael wouldn’t be looking at the potential loss of his wife and a life-altering landslide of medical bills. Though Dr. Shah’s diagnosis of bulimia is preliminary, it’s a place to start.

Michael Schiavo and Terri Schindler got their start in a college psych class in 1983. Michael was tall, handsome, charismatic. Terri’s aunt, CB Tamarro, noticed how Terri lit up as she fell in love.

TAMARRO: She's started to date Michael, and I'm telling you, she she just was blossoming. She was so excited and so happy. She was very eager to get home. I clearly remember sitting at your mom and dad's in the living room. On her talking about, she had a boyfriend and dating Michael, you can, she was just radiating joy.

As shy and reserved as she had been in high school, Terri fit right in with Michael’s raucous family. His brother, Scott:

SCOTT SCHIAVO: I was just amazed. I was like, where did you find this girl? You know, she was just so giddy and so lovable and laugh and laugh and cheerful. She didn't I don't think she stopped smiling once. She and I and it wasn't a fake smile.

She became good friends with Michael’s sister-in-law, Joan. After a year of dating, Michael asked Bob Schindler for his blessing to marry Terri. Bob Schindler was cautious at first. Terri was so young—not even 21 years old. He didn’t want her to rush into anything. But eventually, he gave his blessing. The couple got married on November 10th, 1984.

WEDDING VIDEO: WEDDING MARCH

They were married in the Catholic church. Michael wasn’t religious, but he got a special dispensation to be married in Terri’s parish. The video of the wedding day is hazy, full of ’80s mustaches and oversized wire-frame glasses. The audio is from 1984—so it’s not great—it’s terrible in fact. But the wedding video is a rare recording of Terri’s voice.

WEDDING VIDEO: I choose to take you Michael, to be my husband...

Standing next to Michael, she looked serene as she spoke her vows.

WEDDING VIDEO: ...in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.

Terri wore a high-necked dress with puffy sleeves and a full skirt. Her white hat was wrapped in a halo of tulle.

WEDDING VIDEO: I Michael, take thee Theresa, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you. In good times and in bad. In sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life

WEDDING VIDEO: “Ave Maria”

At the reception, Terri and Michael greet guests in a receiving line--shaking hands, kissing cheeks, giving hugs. Partway through the line, Terri greets a shorter man in a navy suit. He’s in his 50s, dark hair just starting to silver.

RECEPTION AUDIO: 

This is Terri’s Uncle Fred. Bob Schindler’s older brother. Uncle Fred smiles and congratulates Terri. Then, as he moves toward the right-hand side of the video frame, he shakes Michael’s hand. Then he moves off, already chatting with another guest. It isn’t until this point in the video that you really notice he limps a little and walks with a cane.

Don’t forget Uncle Fred. He’ll be an important figure later on.

WEDDING VIDEO: TERRI THANKING EVERYONE FOR COMING

Back at Humana Northside, Terri spends 44 days in the ICU. Then, she opens her eyes. Terri wakes from her coma. Michael remembers being over the moon. But she doesn’t awaken as the same old Terri. She’s severely disabled. Can’t speak. Barely responds to her family.

But Michael and Mary don’t give up hope. They begin documenting her progress in a journal they keep at her bedside. Here’s an entry Michael wrote. It’s block-printed, in all-caps.

TOM BRODERSON: April 16 6pm: Teresa became very excited …Heart raised to 170 BPM. Terri also started to cry, facial expressions, tears, whining,

That’s attorney Tom Broderson. He and his wife, attorney Pat Anderson, got involved in the Schiavo case in 2001. Brodersen and Anderson still have boxes and boxes of documents from the case, including photocopied entries from Michael and Mary’s journal. At their law office in St. Pete Beach, Broderson projects a few entries up on the wall. Not many people have seen this journal. But last year, Bobby Schindler dug it out of storage for me. It has a cloth cover. Blue and burgundy paisley. Written on the overleaf, an encouraging inscription from a friend.

On April 17 at 3:30pm, there’s an entry in Mary’s flowing cursive:

TOM BRODERSON: 4/17, Tuesday 3:30: Terri is sitting in the chair, holding her legs together, holding her own head up. Seems to get her nights and days mixed up responsive to every noise she hears. 10:30am Harriet, the speech therapist was in. She did very well. She tasted and swallowed.

There are just a handful of entries in total. They cover about a month, between April and May of 1990.

Thursday, April 19, this one in red ink: “Seems to be more alert. Hears every noise.”

April 22, “7 p.m.: Crying spell again. This time it looked as though she was trying to mouth some words. She also followed my fingers back and forth. This went on for about three minutes or longer.”

Monday, April 23, 1990. Michael writing: “Seems to follow voices and stares when she finds the point of location. Has been doing this for a few weeks.”

On the morning of April 25th, Terri is sitting in a chair in her hospital room. Before putting her back in her bed, Michael tells Terri that he plans to take her outside the next day. This is what he writes: “She then lifted her head off and away from the chair. I asked her if she wanted to get up. She nodded. I asked her a minute later. She did the same motion.”

That was 1990. Fifteen years later, in 2005, Michael would write a book called Terri: The Truth. In it, he says Terri’s early responses filled him with hope. Looking back on it, though, he says his hope was really just wishful thinking. At this point, doctors recommend that Terri be moved to Bayfront Rehab Center. David Barras, a doctor who specializes in rehabilitative medicine, thinks Terri is a good candidate for cognitive and physical rehab at Bayfront.

But Terri’s cognition seems balanced on a knife’s edge—her actions waver between purposeful responses and random reflexes. Dr. Barras gives Terri a physical exam. He finds that she startles easily when he says her name and when the bedrail falls down. She closes her eyes to mock threats around her face and blinks appropriately. Terri responds to pain by moaning and moving her arms and legs. She makes eye contact with family members. And by this point, she says the word, “no.”

These responses would seem to indicate consciousness. But Dr. DeSousa, the neurologist, doesn’t think so. He diagnoses Terri as being in a persistent vegetative state, or PVS.

MARY: I was standing right by her bed and he came into me. He felt really bad. And he told me that she wouldn't you know, he didn't think she would be any get any better. This was where she was going to be. You know, she was in PVS and that's where he thinks that she was going to stay.

I asked Mary how she felt about that.

MARY: I didn't care. I didn't care. As long as she was alive. It didn't really it didn't make any difference to me. All I remember was that if I could just bring her home, or maybe we'll try rehab, you know, and see if it works.

Back in 1990, “persistent vegetative state” was a pretty new diagnosis. It had been around for less than a decade. The first time it was used was in 1983 to describe another brain-injured woman…Karen Ann Quinlan. At the time, John Fuller was an associate professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine.

FULLER: In PVS, the midbrain and the brainstem are still surviving. And so we have the regular regulatory functions of blood pressure, temperature, respiratory and cardiac control, those are happening. So if we can feed someone and hydrate them, then this, this body will go on and go on and go on as we know.

A patient in PVS has no awareness of themselves or of their environment. Their eyes are open, and they have a sleep/wake cycle. 

FULLER: ...patients do not have the capacity to experience pain or suffering. Those are attributes of consciousness that were working require the cerebral cortex to be functioning.

Put a pin in that one. We’ll come back to it later. In the 1990s, PVS patients were considered permanently unconscious. They were given little more than custodial care, most often in nursing homes. Time and medical research would reveal that this was a grave error. Because PVS isn’t a simple diagnosis.

DR. JOSEPH FINS: Nestled within the vegetative state was the minimally conscious state, which didn't become a category until 2002…

That’s Dr. Joseph Fins, a professor of medicine and medical ethics at Weill Cornell Medical Center. For 35 years, PVS existed as a kind of diagnostic catchall for the severely brain-injured. But as often happens in medicine, advancing research would upend the existing orthodoxy.

DR. JOSEPH FINS: Tragically, what we’ve discovered is that we’ve been neglecting this population, conflating them with vegetative state. They’re misdiagnosed at a staggeringly high rate.

When Terri’s former employer, Prudential Insurance, learns about her PVS diagnosis, the company refuses to pay for rehab. Here’s Dan Grieco:

DAN GRIECO: They had paid, you know, the emergency room and, you know, whatever else health insurance wise, but early on, which was only maybe three or four months, Prudential made a determination upon actual physical examinations of Terri and the records, that it was irreversible brain damage, and that they would not be paying for any, you know, treatments.

And the potential cost of Terri’s future care — skilled nursing, rehabilitation —is astronomical. 

The Schindlers have some savings tucked away and some equity in their home. But Bob has recently come off a failed business. That’s taken a financial toll. And Michael doesn’t have any money. Now, instead of working, he’s spending all his time at the hospital with Terri. How high could the cost of Terri’s care go? Into the millions. And that brings us back to the malpractice suit.

DAN GRIECO: After the disappointment with Prudential, we had no money. So, at some point I suggested to Mike that we'll take a long shot.

To prepare for it, Michael Schiavo made his first official legal move. He filed a petition in probate court to become Terri’s guardian.

If that seems obvious…just a boring check in the legal box, it isn’t. Terri’s guardianship would become a flashpoint in the Schiavo case, lighting off bitter litigation that lasted for a dozen years.

By the fall of 1990, Terri has progressed enough that Michael and the Schindlers think they can finally take her home. Bob and Mary rent a house on Vina Del Mar, one of the little freeway-connected islands that dot Tampa Bay. It’s on Hermosita Street, a waterside neighborhood lush with birdsong and palm trees. Michael gives up the apartment and moves in with Bob and Mary. Bobby and Suzanne are also living in the house on Hermosita. Michael and the Schindlers plan to take care of Terri together.

BOBBY: the relationship between Michael my parents was was fine. They were working in harmony together, trying to get Terry the best care and even looking to find her aggressive rehabilitation continue regressive, aggressive rehabilitation. 

But at least one person wasn’t optimistic about the arrangement: Michael’s mother, Claire Schiavo. That’s according to Fran Kassler, a close friend who spent a lot of time with the Schindlers and Schiavos.

FRAN KASSLER: I do remember going out with Michael's parents. And Claire was next to me. And she leans over and she says, “Don't say anything, but Michael is not gonna live with Bob and or let Bob and Mary take care of Terri.” She said, “I can see trouble coming.”

Claire Schiavo passed away in 1997. In the wake of their own tragedy, Bob and Mary are trying to keep their family together. But it was definitely not where they pictured themselves winding up after twenty-eight years of marriage.

SONG: “You Belong to Me” The Duprees

It was 1962 when Mary Tamarro met Robert Schindler in Corning, New York. She was working at a bar; he was a mechanical draftsman. Bob was short and funny. A terrible tease with a big heart. They married exactly six months later, in January 1963.

MARY: He was a character. He used to make me laugh.

Any time Bob met someone new, he gave them his personal litmus test. Asked them if they liked John Wayne.

JOHN WAYNE: "Get down off them horses. I don’t favor lookin’ up to the likes of you."

If they said they liked John Wayne, they got Bob’s stamp of approval.

Mary grew up with a big and boisterous Italian family, Catholic to the core. I first met Mary in person at the Villages, the famous retirement community near Orlando, Florida. She was visiting a friend who had lost her husband. Mary, of course, knows loss. It showed that day even in what she was wearing—a necklace ringed with silver charms showing the images of Catholic saints.

AMBI: MARY SHOWING NECKLACE

Mary lifted one charm from the chain and showed it to me:

MARY: This one is, that's her medal, her Saint Teresa. Her patron saint is St. Teresa. And that's her right there, the little flowers, she’s got a bouquet of flowers. See them there? 

Terri’s stay on Hermosita Street doesn’t last long. Caring for her is difficult. Physically and emotionally. Much harder than Michael and the four Schindlers had anticipated. This is when the first family fractures appeared. Cracks in the kumbaya.

SUZANNE: Michael and I never got along. Just from the get go.

This is Suzanne Schindler.

SUZANNE: I never liked him. And I think he couldn't bully me. So he didn't like me either.

And increasingly, Bob is getting on Michael’s nerves. Here’s Fran Kassler.

FRAN: He used to joke, joke about Michael, kind of belittle him because Michael used to watch soap operas.

The thing is, Bob never quite got past the fact that Michael failed the John Wayne test, way back in 1983—when Terri first brought him home to meet her dad. Bob was…

FRAN: …a macho man, you know. And, you know, when Michael used to come home and you know, just…watch the soaps. Bob, just, you know, he would just tease him and make fun of him and everything.

And as stress mounts at the house in Vina del Mar, tempers flare. One day in the kitchen, Michael and Suzanne get in an argument.

SUZANNE: I didn't like the way Michael treated my parents. So I was always the one jumping in and saying something.

This time, when Suzanne says something, Michael gets angry. He stands up and comes at her…but Bob Schindler jumps in between them. Suzanne says he stops Michael from getting any closer and he backs off.

SUZANNE: And my dad said, handed me a hammer and said, you sleep with this tonight.

It’s not the first time Michael has almost come to blows with a member of the Schindler family. Bobby remembers one time back in 1983, when Michael and Terri were dating. Bobby was 18.

BOBBY: We were in our living room, and I must have said something that hit a button and he he exploded in an anger and grabbed me with his hand around the throat and threw me down on the sofa in our living room. He had his right hand up in the air cocked and ready to punch me.

Bobby says his girlfriend—and Terri—were begging Michael not to do it.

BOBBY: Yelling at him to stop, don't hit him and he let me go, didn't hit me. And I was shaking, shaking in fear, really. I had never seen that side of him. It scared me.

Back on Hermosita Street, caring for Terri becomes impossible. Michael moves her to a nursing home called College Harbor. But Terri’s care is expensive. Michael does some fundraising, selling hotdogs on the beach. Terri’s coworkers at Prudential pitch in to help. The Schindlers are running out of money. They can’t keep this up forever. But there’s hope on the horizon. The malpractice suit. Together, Michael and Mary go to see a friend of Dan Grieco’s.

DAN GRIECO: An incredible malpractice lawyer, the best in the county, or in the Bay Area, I would say.

He means Glenn Woodworth, a former attorney for AllState insurance. Woodworth now specializes in medical malpractice. At first, Woodworth doesn’t think Michael has much of a case, Grieco says. But he calls in a heavy hitter, Gary Fox, a superstar malpractice lawyer from Miami. And Fox? Well, he sees potential.

In November 1990, Woodworth files suit against not one, but two doctors: Dr. Stephen Igel, Terri’s OBGYN, and Dr. Joel Prawer, her family doctor. The value of the suit? Twenty million dollars. It was an enormous sum. In today’s dollars, forty million.

And you know what they say about money…. It changes everything.

THEME MUSIC

Next time on Lawless:

DAN GREICO: The jury system is strange, because you go through that voir dire picking a jury and you don't know if they're telling you the truth, you don't know if they're saying, I don't like this guy.

Lawless is a production of WORLD Radio. Our executive producer is Paul Butler. Our production assistant is Lillian Hamman. Rich Roszel is our sound engineer. Music by Will Shehan. Audio support from Creative Genius Productions. Lawless is reported and written by Anna Johansen Brown, Bonnie Pritchett, and me, Lynn Vincent. Thank you for joining us.

AUDIO SOURCES:
(in order of appearance)

NPR All Things Considered - 03/19/2005 : Protesters, Parents Won't Give Up on Schiavo

Scott Schiavo - Between Life & Death - the Terri Schiavo Story by beanfieldproductions

John Fuller - Youtube video The Schiavo Case: Four Perspectives by Boston College Magazine Front Row

You Belong to Me” The Duprees

John Wayne - Youtube video by Southern Gentleman, John Wayne’s Best Lines!


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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