The Blog

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
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After seven to nine days [from commencing dehydration] they begin to lose all fluids in the body, a lot of fluids in the body. And their blood pressure starts to go down. When their blood pressure goes down, their heart rate goes up. . . . Their respiration may increase and then . . . the blood is shunted to the central part of the body from the periphery of the body. So, that usually two to three days prior to death, sometimes four days, the hands and the feet become extremely cold. They become mottled. That is you look at the hands and they have a bluish appearance. And the mouth dries a great deal, and the eyes dry a great deal and other parts of the body become mottled. And that is because the blood is now so low in the system it's shunted to the heart and other visceral organs and away from the periphery of the body . . .

MOST OF THE TIME, we never know for sure what a starved or dehydrated person experiences. But in at least one case--that of a young woman who had her tube feeding stopped for eight days and lived to tell the tale--we have direct evidence of the agony that forced dehydration may cause.

At age 33, Kate Adamson collapsed from a devastating and incapacitating stroke. She was utterly unresponsive and was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Because of a bowel obstruction she developed, her nourishment was stopped so that doctors could perform surgery.

Adamson eventually recovered sufficiently to author "Kate's Journey: Triumph Over Adversity," in which she tells the terrifying tale. Rather than being unconscious with no chance of recovery as her doctors believed, she was actually awake and aware but unable to move any part of her body voluntarily. (This is known as a "locked-in state.") When she appeared recently on "The O'Reilly Factor," host Bill O'Reilly asked Adamson about the dehydration experience:

O'REILLY: When they took the feeding tube out, what went through your mind?

ADAMSON: When the feeding tube was turned off for eight days, I thought I was going insane. I was screaming out in my mind, "Don't you know I need to eat?" And even up until that point, I had been having a bagful of Ensure as my nourishment that was going through the feeding tube. At that point, it sounded pretty good. I just wanted something. The fact that I had nothing, the hunger pains overrode every thought I had.

O'REILLY: So you were feeling pain when they removed your tube?

ADAMSON: Yes. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. To say that--especially when Michael [Schiavo] on national TV mentioned last week that it's a pretty painless thing to have the feeding tube removed--it is the exact opposite. It was sheer torture, Bill.

O'REILLY: It's just amazing.

ADAMSON: Sheer torture . . .

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.