Terri Schiavo's parents discuss their pain, heartache & resolve

by Joni B. Hannigan, posted Monday, November 10, 2003 (16 years ago)

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. (BP)--It had been six days since her daughter had been fed. Mary Schindler's voice lowered as she remembered Oct. 21. She could hardly speak.

"I had to sit there and watch my daughter die a little bit every day," she said, perplexed, her dark eyes widening with tears behind tortoise shell glasses. "I wouldn't want that for anybody, ever."

Mary and Robert "Bob" Schindler talked about their family and its close call with death in an exclusive interview Nov. 3 with the Florida Baptist Witness outside the Woodside Hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., where their daughter is being cared for.

Mary, a petite grandmother and devout Catholic, said it was on that sixth day she "started having problems" and began to question whether she had the fortitude to watch her daughter die of starvation. She described 39-year-old Terri Schiavo as looking like a "skeleton."

"I don't know if I can go in and see her today," Mary remembered thinking. "Every day I said, 'No, I'm not.' But what can you do? I'll tell you something, I would not want anybody to ever have to do that."

The Schindlers are in the midst of a bitter dispute with their daughter's husband, Michael Schiavo, who since Terri's collapse under unexplained heart problems in 1990, has been her sole guardian. The Schindlers say their doctors dispute Schiavo's doctors' findings that Terri is in a "persistent vegetative state." They believe Terri is responsive and, with intensive rehabilitation, can improve.

The Schindlers claim Terri never had the chance to improve after her husband won a $1.65 million medical malpractice lawsuit that also awarded him and his lawyers $640,000 -- in addition to an early out of court settlement of $250,000. After original attorneys' fees were paid, the fund for Terri's care was down to $1.2 million. Of that, more than $750,000 already has been used to pay fees for Michael Schiavo's attorneys to ban the Schindlers from having any say in their daughter's care and to petition the courts to have Terri's feeding and hydration tube removed so that she will starve to death and die. [For more details, go to www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com and look in the Special Reports section: "Terri Schiavo: A Life at Stake."]

Bob and Mary Schindler were married in upstate New York in the early '60s, where Mary grew up near the Corning Glassware factory before they moved to Philadelphia. Bob, who had earned an engineering degree from Temple University in Philadelphia, went into business with a family member.

The Schindlers bought a four-bedroom colonial-style tract home on half an acre in a new suburban development in Huntington Valley, Pa. They had a wood-paneled station wagon and a yellow Labrador Retriever.

Their first child, Terri, was born in 1963; Bobby followed in 1965; and Suzanne Schindler Carr in 1968. All three children attended private parochial school from preschool through high school. Every day she volunteered at the school -- helping the teachers and staff.

Mary also was the proverbial soccer mom. She loaded the kids in the station wagon and chauffeured them wherever they needed to go.

"I loved it," Mary recalled, tentatively smiling. "I liked to be near the kids. I'm bad like that."

Evidently, the kids liked it too.

When Bob and Mary semi-retired to St. Petersburg Beach, Fla., in 1986 after Suzanne graduated from high school, two of their children, and Terri's new husband Michael, moved with them. Bobby moved a year later after earning a marketing degree from LaSalle University.

"We all were close, we've always been close," Mary said. "We never went anywhere without them, unless we were on vacation."

The Schindlers said Terri met Michael, also from Philadelphia, in 1983 when they both attended classes at a community college. Terri did not date in high school and had lost a lot of weight, shedding 45 pounds from her 5'5" frame by using a weight-loss program on the advice of her physician.

"Terri said, 'Mom, I want to lose weight now,'" Mary said. "She was so excited. She wanted to go to college and was coming out of her shell. Her dream was to be an assistant to Joan Embery, who was a curator for the San Diego Zoo. She loved animals."

Mary said Michael worked part-time for a popular fast-food restaurant chain and was the first boy Terri ever dated. "She didn't have any other boyfriends, and they were both really happy.

"I wish she would have waited, but they were in love and wanted to get married," Mary said.

Bob said he spoke with Michael and cautioned him to wait. "I am not trying to belittle the guy, but he would work for two weeks or a month and be gone," Bob recalled. "I said to him, 'My goodness, you have no education. What do you have to offer? Stay in school and at least get your associate's [degree].' They would say, 'We love each other.'"

Terri married Michael in 1984.

At first, the couple seemed to get along financially in their modest apartment, but about six months after they were married, Bob said Michael and Terri moved into the basement of their Philadelphia home because they were unable to support themselves, despite Terri's fulltime job at an insurance company.

When Bob announced he and Mary were moving to Florida, he said Michael and Terri thought it would be good place to get a new start, so the family packed up the house and Terri was able to get a job transfer.

"Michael Schiavo for the most time was unemployed," Bob said. According to the Schindlers, Michael agreed to pay half the mortgage payment for a condominium the parents had purchased for themselves, but typically had difficulty "paying [his and Terri's] share," Bob said.

"This kept going on and on," he said, recounting that he finally asked the couple to move after three years so he and Mary could sell the house they had purchased in the interim and not have to pay two mortgages.

Money was getting tight for the Schindlers. Bob had begun a business selling futons, but despite them "selling like crazy" up north, the futons didn't seem to catch on until later in Florida.

Describing the late '80s as a "comedy of errors," Bob said their funds were getting "lower and lower" and Michael Schiavo just "couldn't hold a job."

Mary agreed the situation was getting out of hand, but said she wanted to help the couple in any way she could.

"She's my daughter and I wanted to help her," Mary said. "I always felt terrible for them both. She was so embarrassed about the money situation."

Terri and Michael finally moved into an apartment in 1989, and Bob said things were "copacetic," until she was found lying face down on the floor in a newer apartment in 1990.

Things didn't get any better financially after Terri's collapse. Michael Schiavo moved back in with the Schindlers and they began to pick up the tab for things Terri needed at the nursing home and for things she needed at home when the insurance company denied care.

Meanwhile, Terri's parents pressured her insurance company to help with her upkeep, after they threatened to "literally put her out in the street" only months after her collapse.

"They would put Terri into a nursing home and say they would pay for it, but after a period of time they would bounce her out again and we would get her back like a ping pong ball," Bob said.

Later, the Schindlers said they began to believe that maybe Michael Schiavo had "done something" to Terri, causing her to stop breathing, which is what appeared to have caused oxygen deprivation leading to severe brain damage. Medical reports, a bone scan and a police report eventually caused them to become suspicious -- as did Michael's unwavering watchfulness from the beginning.

When the Schindlers said they finally got access to Terri's medical records, they discovered she had a neck injury consistent with strangulation, they said a doctor told them. Mary admitted she remembered having seen an unusual number of bruises on her daughter's arms and thighs -- and wondered about them.

They also knew Terri may have wanted a divorce -- and mentioned that to her brother, her friends, and her mother about a month before her collapse. Glancing at Bob, Mary said Terri would never have told her father.

"She just said, 'Michael and I are really having some problems and I'm really not happy,'" said Mary, who admitted, "Dummy me, with my Catholic upbringing and all, I said, 'Honey, maybe just try to work things out.'"

Mary said she remembered thinking right after Terri's collapse that Michael was extraordinarily attentive for having been thrust into such a situation. She recalled five other young women in Terri's condition at a nursing home in Sable Ponds and said their mothers told her that each of their husbands "flew" after they realized their wives would likely never be the same.

"I thought, 'Look at this loving man that's here every day.' He watched her like a hawk. Naturally, now I know he was afraid. He must have been thinking, 'What if they teach her to talk?'" Mary speculated. "I think he was afraid she would say, 'What are you doing here? You did this to me!' I think that's what happened."

Bob said he remembered thinking right before the malpractice trial, which began in 1992, that something was wrong, but he couldn't put his finger on it.

"I didn't lay up at night and think, 'Why is he doing this?' but when we finally got access to her medical records, I wondered," Bob said. "Something just didn't seem right with this guy."

Still, the Schindlers said they treated Michael like a son-in-law. Bob said he and Mary even understood when Michael pursued a "romantic interest."

Bob said Michael enrolled in classes at a local community college in September 1991 and began to date a young woman after a therapy they had pursued for Terri in California didn't work as well as the doctors would have liked.

"Two of them became an item," Bob recalled. "He had a photograph of her on his bureau.

"I told him, 'Michael, if you want to go off and ride into the sunset with [the woman], I understand. You are a young guy. Don't worry. Don't let your conscience bother you. Mary and I understand," Bob said he told Michael.

That's when Michael moved in with the woman and had Terri's two cats euthanized, Bob said. At the same time, Bob said Michael had refused to pledge proceeds from the expected malpractice suit to pay for the expensive rehabilitation that doctors told Terri's parents she needed.

"Michael said to wait until the money comes in," Bob said.

Just before the 1992 trial for malpractice, Bob said Michael moved in with his parents who had long since relocated from Philadelphia to Florida.

"When that trial began, he walked into that courtroom with a halo on his head" and even recited his wedding vows, Bob said. Mary nodded in agreement.

Then on Valentine's Day in 1993 -- not too long after the court ruled in Michael's favor in the malpractice suit -- the gloves came off and the Schindlers said they were astounded at Michael's reaction when Bob asked when rehabilitation would begin for Terri.

Bob recalled the incident vividly, saying "a book went flying across the room" after Michael started yelling at him.

"He threw [the book] at me and started yelling and coming towards me," Bob said, gesturing toward Mary. "She jumped in front of the two of us."

That's when Michael Schiavo told Terri's parents they would never see her again and he was going to have them banned from the nursing home, Bob said.

"That particular day, I never mentioned any of the other money he owed me," Bob said. "My concern was Terri and that's what we were focused on. My concern that day was trying to get him to agree to rehab. We are still trying to get her to Shands."

Mary agreed.

"I knew we could kiss that money goodbye," Mary said of Michael's previous indebtedness to them. "I was upset Terri was still in the nursing home and nothing was happening."

Bob said things got about as bad as they could after that. They were limited on time they could spend with Terri. They had no say in her care, and they knew the settlement Michael had received was not being used for intensive rehabilitation. Worse still, in the late '90s Michael placed a "do not resuscitate" order on Terri's chart, tried to prevent her from receiving basic medical care for an infection and banned her brother and sister from visiting her because they wanted a nurse to try and feed her a small amount of pudding.

The Schindlers also have had their "bad" days in court, recounting times when judges have refused to listen to reason -- and failed to acknowledge a conflict of interest in Michael's being appointed Terri's guardian while admitting to relationships with other women.

"The whole thing surprises me the way the courts have set up the guardianship," Bob said. "The guardianship laws are horrible."

Bob said after the medical malpractice suit Michael "broke up" with the woman he had been seeing and he began being "intimate" with the woman he has lived with for eight years since -- who is the mother of his two children.

Mary, like Bob, said she doesn't agree with a lot that's gone on but said she understands why Michael would want to move on.

"I thought in my heart that if he found somebody else, fine. He's a young guy, 'Go on with your life,'" Mary said firmly. "'Just give me back my daughter.' It was assumed. I will take care of her. Don't worry about it."

After a moment, Bob expressed cynicism even though the courts have intervened and restored Terri's feeding and hydration tube. On Oct. 21 Gov. Jeb Bush signed "Terri's Law" which began a process by which a guardian ad litem has been appointed by the court to look at the guardianship and other issues related to Terri's case.

"I don't know," Bob said. "Michael's got this thing about killing her and maybe he'll go through with it."

The thought seemed to catch him and he looked at Mary as if testing the waters. Mary looked away.

"I don't understand how he can do it. He has a child now," she said softly, shaking her head. "I wonder in my heart if he would starve his child to death. It is one of the most horrendous things. To starve somebody, I just can't think about it."

Bob looked befuddled too -- but less forgiving of Michael's treatment of his daughter.

"Maybe I hate him for what he's doing to her," Bob sighed, while Mary glanced up at a little card hanging from a cupboard on the inside of the trailer where she was seated. The trailer is located across from Woodside Hospice. The Schindlers pay a business to rent three parking spaces for their trailer so they can be close to Terri.

The card dangling above Bob's head is a picture of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, known for her patience and for her fair treatment of the disabled.

After a few moments, Bob spoke up about Michael's numerous media appearances and interviews, with attorney George Felos -- and his allegations they didn't have anything to do with "religion" until right-to-life activists took an interest in Terri's case and begin to picket and pray for Terri outside the hospice.

"We are good practicing Catholics," Mary sighed. "We have gone to mass every Sunday, all of our lives."

Bob chimed in and said Michael had even teased Terri and her parents about their commitment to the church.

"Michael used to laugh when Terri went to mass with us," Bob said. "He would say, 'Say some prayers for me.'"

Responding to speculation that Terri suffered from an eating disorder which led to her collapse, Mary said she had not put on any weight since she initially lost weight after high school.

"I never saw her eat and eat," Mary said, refuting claims Michael made on television that Terri likely suffered from bulimia. "I was close and I watched. She had never gained weight."

In fact, Mary said the opposite was likely and, like her, Terri typically ate one meal a day.

As to gaining anything from Terri's medical trust, Mary said, "[W]e never tried to do that." According to both Bob and Mary, they didn't submit medical bills to the trust for expenses they had already incurred because they had been told "as a mother and father" they were not allowed.

"Michael knew we never told anybody else," Mary said. "He told us, 'Don't worry, Mom and Dad, you'll be taken care of."

Bob said the debts they have incurred taking care of Terri and hiring lawyers to see that her needs are being taken care of have cost them "hundreds of thousands of dollars."

"It's taken everything I own," Bob said. Meanwhile George Felos, Michael's attorney, needs go only to Michael, who has had Judge George Greer "rubber stamp" the expenses and the bank pays the bills out of Terri's medical trust.

The Schindlers did admit they acted out of desperation years ago to see if Michael "just wanted the money or wanted to kill" Terri. They said they worked with a lawyer to offer him a settlement to go away and leave them and Terri alone. Ironically, the money never existed, however, and the offer was never seriously considered.

"I remember I asked Bob where we were going to get the money," Mary said. "Bob never expected him to accept the bait."

Bob, who spent years driving the family to vacations on the Jersey shore and who Mary called a "little league dad," said the only thing the family has ever wanted is a chance to get their daughter the best care available. Terri's smiles and responses to her family keep them going, even in the face of amazing odds.

"All we're telling is Terri's story," Mary said. "We've said the same thing for 13 years and have not deviated. It's not hard to go on and talk about it, because it's the truth."


Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at FloridaBaptistWitness.com. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: PERSEVERING PARENTS.

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