quality of life

Many of us have responded very emotionally to the unfortunate public spectacle of Terri Schiavo and her divided family.

I’m too far removed from the situation to speculate about who’s right, the husband or the parents. How should I know whether Ms. Schiavo would have wanted her feeding tube disconnected, or whether she was still responsive to her loved ones despite her condition? It isn’t possible to make such judgments based on media reports.

My personal contribution to the subject is to offer just one thought: Ms. Schiavo’s life had value and meaning, despite her intellectual impairment.

For six years, I worked in a residence for developmentally challenged individuals who required total care: we bathed them, fed them, diapered them, and carried or wheeled them from place to place. Just like Terri Schiavo’s caregivers did for her.

One of the people I cared for was unable to swallow food. Instead, he had a j-tube: that is, a tube inserted directly into his intestine (the jejunum, hence “j-tube”) via which we fed him a liquid diet. Just like Terri Schiavo had to be fed through a tube.

As far as I could tell, the folks we cared for were happy to be alive. We certainly would have known it if they were miserable: they were able to express anger or sorrow quite effectively without words.

The only difference is, they were born in that condition, whereas Terri Schiavo was a “normal” adult before her heart stopped for ten minutes. Her situation is undeniably tragic, painfully so from the perspective of those who knew her before she suffered brain damage.

Still, her life had value and meaning even in her diminished condition: as much value and meaning as any human life possesses. That is my conviction, based on my experience with the folks I used to care for.

A couple of those folks have died just recently, and I believe the human family is a little poorer without them.

The same sentiment applies with respect to Terri Schiavo — even if her husband was right, and she would have wanted to die.

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