A "Painless" Death?
Michael Schiavo insists that dehydration is "the most natural way to die." It's more like torture.
11:00 PM, Nov 11, 2003 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
MANY WHO SUPPORT Terri Schiavo's threatened dehydration assert that removing a feeding tube from a profoundly cognitively disabled person results in a painless and gentle ending. But is this really true? After all, it would be agonizing if you or I were locked in a room for two weeks and deprived of all food and water. So, why should we believe that cognitively disabled patients experience the deprivation differently simply because they receive nourishment through a feeding tube instead of by mouth?
An accurate discussion of this sensitive issue requires the making of proper and nuanced distinctions about the consequences of removing nourishment from incapacitated patients. This generally becomes an issue in one of the following two diametrically differing circumstances:
(1) Depriving food and water from profoundly cognitively disabled persons like Terri who are not otherwise dying, a process that causes death by dehydration over a period of 10-14 days. As I will illustrate below, this may cause great suffering.
(2) Not forcing food and water upon patients who have stopped eating and drinking as part of the natural dying process. This typically occurs, for example, at the end stages of cancer when patients often refuse nourishment because the disease has distorted their senses of hunger and thirst. In these situations, being deprived of unwanted food and water when the body is already shutting down does not cause a painful death.
Advocates who argue that it is appropriate to dehydrate cognitively disabled people often sow confusion about the suffering such patients may experience by inadvertently, or perhaps intentionally, blurring the difference between these two distinct situations. For example, when Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband, and his attorney, George Felos, appeared on the October 27, 2003 edition of "Larry King Live" the following exchange occurred:
KING: When a feeding tube is removed, as it was planned [for Terri], is that a terrible death?
SCHIAVO: No. It's painless and probably the most natural way to die.
FELOS: When someone's terminally ill, let's say a cancer patient, they lose interest in eating. And literally, they--by choice--they stop eating.
SCHIAVO: Cancer patients, they stop eating for two to three weeks. Do we force them to eat? No, we don't. That's their choice.
Later in the interview, Schiavo reiterated the assertion in a response to a telephoned question:
CALLER: Does it bother you that the death is so slow?
SCHIAVO: Removing somebody's feeding tube is very painless. It is a very easy way to die. Probably the second best way to die, the first being an aneurysm.
Yes, it is true that when people are actively dying from terminal disease, they often refuse food and water. The disease makes the food and water repulsive to them. In such circumstances, it is medically inappropriate to force food and water into a person who is actively rejecting it. Indeed, doing so could cause suffering.
But this isn't what is happening to Terri. She isn't dying of cancer. Her body isn't shutting down as part of the natural dying process. Indeed, she is not dying at all--unless her food and water is taken away.
WHAT HAPPENS to non-terminally ill people with cognitive disabilities whose feeding tubes are removed? Do they suffer from the process?
When I conducted research on this question in preparation for writing my book "Forced Exit," I asked St. Louis neurologist William Burke these very questions. Here is what he told me:
A conscious [cognitively disabled] person would feel it just as you or I would. They will go into seizures. Their skin cracks, their tongue cracks, their lips crack. They may have nosebleeds because of the drying of the mucus membranes, and heaving and vomiting might ensue because of the drying out of the stomach lining. They feel the pangs of hunger and thirst. Imagine going one day without a glass of water! Death by dehydration takes ten to fourteen days. It is an extremely agonizing death.
In preparation for this article, I contacted Adamson for more details about the torture she experienced while being dehydrated. She told me about having been operated upon (to remove the bowel obstruction) with inadequate anesthesia when doctors believed she was unconscious:
The agony of going without food was a constant pain that lasted not several hours like my operation did, but several days. You have to endure the physical pain and on top of that you have to endure the emotional pain. Your whole body cries out, "Feed me. I am alive and a person, don't let me die, for God's Sake! Somebody feed me."
Unbelievably, she described being deprived of food and water as "far worse" than experiencing the pain of abdominal surgery. Despite having been on an on an IV saline solution, Adamson still had horrible thirst:
I craved anything to drink. Anything. I obsessively visualized drinking from a huge bottle of orange Gatorade. And I hate orange Gatorade. I did receive lemon flavored mouth swabs to alleviate dryness but they did nothing to slack my desperate thirst.
Apologists for dehydrating patients like Terri might respond that Terri is not conscious and locked-in as Adamson was but in a persistent vegetative state and thus would feel nothing. Yet, the PVS diagnosis is often mistaken--as indeed it was in Adamson's case. And while the courts have all ruled that Terri is unconscious based on medical testimony, this is strongly disputed by other medical experts and Terri's family who insist that she is interactive with them. Moreover, it is undisputed that whatever her actual level of awareness, Terri does react to painful stimuli. Intriguingly, her doctor testified he prescribes pain medication for her every month during the course of her menstrual period.
BEYOND THE TERRI SCHIAVO CASE, it is undisputed that conscious cognitively disabled patients are dehydrated in nursing homes and hospitals throughout the country almost as a matter of routine. Dr. Cranford, for example, openly admitted in his Wendland testimony that he removes feeding tubes from conscious patients. Thus, many other people may also have experienced the agony described by Adamson and worse, given that dehydrating to death goes on for about a week longer than she experienced.
AT THIS POINT, defenders of removing feeding tubes from people with profound cognitive disabilities might claim that whatever painful sensations dehydration may cause, these patients receive palliating drugs to ensure that their deaths are peaceful. But note: Adamson either did not receive such medications, or if she did, they didn't work. Moreover, because these disabled people usually can't communicate, it is impossible to know precisely what they experience. Thus, when asked in a deposition what he would do to prevent Robert Wendland from suffering during his dehydration, Dr. Cranford responded that he would give morphine but that the dose would be "arbitrary" because "you don't know how much he's suffering, you don't know how much aware he is . . . You're guessing at the dose." At trial, Cranford suggested he might have to put Wendland into a coma, a bitter irony considering that he had struggled over many months to regain consciousness.
The time has come to face the gut wrenching possibility that conscious cognitively disabled people whose feeding tubes are removed--as opposed to patients who are actively dying and choose to stop eating--may die agonizing deaths. This, of course, has tremendous relevance in the Terri Schiavo case and many others like it. Indeed, the last thing anyone wants is for people to die slowly and agonizingly of thirst, desperately craving a refreshing drink of orange Gatorade they know will never come.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and an attorney and consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide. His current book is the revised and updated "Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope From Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder."
Correction appended 11/13/03: The article originally stated that Kate Adamson had been deprived of nourishment in an attempt to end her life. In fact, the dehydration was being done in attempt to alleviate a bowel obstruction. The painful surgery Adamson refers to was originally referred to as surgery to insert a feeding tub. It was actually surgery to remove the bowel obstruction, which is a more involved procedure.