Terri Schiavo's Final Hours:
An Eyewitness Account
Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director, Priests for Life
President, National Pro-life Religious Council
I spent the night of March 30, 2005 in a Florida hospice. I
was at the bedside of Terri Schiavo during the last 14 hours of her earthly
life, right up until five minutes before her death. During that time with Terri,
joined by her brother and sister, I expressed your care, concern, and prayers. I
told Terri over and over that she had many friends around the country, many
people who were praying for her and were on her side. I had also told her the
same things during my visits to her in the months before her feeding tube was
removed, and am convinced she understood.
I've known Terri's family since 1999. They put my name on the short,
court-approved list of people who could visit Terri’s room, which had police
officers stationed outside of it. If I were not on that visitor's list I could
not get in that room beyond the armed guard. Why not? The euthanasia advocates
had to be able to say that Terri was an unresponsive person in some kind of
vegetative state, coma or whatever terminology they want to use to suggest that
she was completely unresponsive. The only way to prove she was
responsive was to see her for yourself.
I went to see her in September 2004 and again in February 2005. When her mom
first introduced her to me, she stared at me intently. She focused her eyes.
She would focus her eyes on whoever was talking to her. If somebody spoke to
her from the other part of the room she would turn her head and her eyes towards
the person who was talking to her.
Some of the doctors dared to say, "Oh, it's just unconscious reflex
reactions." Interestingly, that's exactly the same thing abortion supporters
say about the unborn child in the video The Silent Scream when the child
opens his mouth and tries to move away from the instrument that is about to
destroy him. They say, "Oh, that's just an automatic reflex." That's the
phrase they always use to dehumanize a person.
I told Terri she had many people around the country and around the world who
loved her and were praying for her. She looked at me attentively. I said,
"Terri now we are going to pray together, I want to give you a blessing, let's
say some prayers." So I laid my hand on her head. She closed her eyes. I said
the prayer. She opened her eyes again at the end of the prayer. Her dad, who
has a mustache, leaned over to kiss her and said, "OK Terri now here comes the
tickle." She smiled and laughed and after he kissed her I saw her return the
kiss. Her mom asked her a question at a certain point and I heard her voice.
She was trying to respond. She was making sounds in response to her
mother's question, not just at odd times and meaningless moments. I heard her
trying to say something but she was not, because of her disability, able to
articulate the words. She was certainly responsive.
The night before she died, I was in her room for probably a total of 3-4
hours, and then for another hour the next morning -- her final hour. To describe
the way she looked as “peaceful” is a total distortion of what I saw. She was a
person who for thirteen days had no food or water. She was, as you would
expect, very drawn in her appearance as opposed to when I had seen her before.
Her eyes were open but they were moving from one side to the next, constantly
darting back and forth. I watched her for hours, and the best way I can
describe the look on her face is “terrified sadness.”
Her mouth was open the whole time. It looked like it was frozen open. She
was panting rapidly. It wasn't peaceful in any sense of the word. She was
panting as if she had just run a hundred miles. It was a shallow panting. Her
brother Bobby was sitting on one side of the bed I was on the other facing him.
Terri's head in between us and her sister Suzanne was on my left. We sat there
and we had a very intense time of prayer. And we were talking to Terri, urging
her to entrust herself completely to the Savior. I assured her repeatedly of
the love and prayers and concern of so many people.
We held her hand and stroked her head. During those hours,
one of the things I did was to chant, in Latin, some of the most ancient hymns
of the Church. One of the chants I used was the "Victimae Paschali Laudis,"
which is the ancient proclamation of the resurrection of Christ. There, as I saw
before my eyes the deadly work of the Culture of Death, I proclaimed the victory
of life. "Life and death were locked in a wondrous struggle," the hymn declares.
"Life's Captain died, but now lives and reigns forevermore!"
And then we had just times of silence … just sitting there in silence trying
to absorb what was happening.
Who else was in the room with me, Bobby, Suzanne and Terri? Police officers
-- the whole time. There was always at least one, sometimes two, three, or more
-- armed police officers in the room. Why were they in the room? They
wanted to make sure that we didn't do anything that we weren't supposed to do,
like give her communion or maybe a glass of water. In fact, Bobby, sitting on
the other side of the bed, would occasionally stand up to lean over his sister.
When he stood up and did that, the officer would move around towards the foot of
the bed so that he could have a direct line of sight on what we were doing. The
morning that she died we went in there fairly early and I had to go back outside
in front of the hospice to do an interview. In order to go out on time I had a
little timepiece in my hand. At the beginning of our visit I put it in my left
hand, leaned over Terri and extended my right to bless her and we began
praying. I closed my eyes and I felt a tap on my left hand. It was the police
officer who said, "Father, what do you have in your hand?" I said, "Oh,
officer, it's a little time piece." "I'll have to hold it while you're here,"
he said. We couldn't have anything in our hands. He didn't even know what it
was. Maybe I was going to try to give her communion. Maybe I was going to try
to moisten her lips. Who knows what terrible thing I was about to do?
There was a little night table in the room. I could put my hand on the table
and on Terri's head all within arm’s reach. And on that table was a vase of
flowers filled with water. And I looked at the flowers. They were
beautiful. There were roses and other types of flowers and there was another
vase at the foot of the bed. I saw two beautiful bouquets of flowers filled
with water -- fully nourished, living, beautiful. And I said to myself, this
is absurd, totally absurd. These flowers are being treated better than this
woman. She has not had a drop of water for almost two weeks. Why are those
flowers there? What type of hypocrisy is this? The flowers were watered.
Terri wasn't. And had I dipped my hand in that water and put it on her tongue,
the officer would have led me out, probably under arrest. Something is wrong
As the media reported, those who killed Terri were quite angry that I said
so. The night before she died, I said to the media that her estranged husband
Michael, his attorney Mr. Felos, and Judge Greer were murderers. I also pointed
out, that night and the next morning, that contrary to Felos' description,
Terri's death was not at all peaceful and beautiful. It was, on the contrary,
quite horrifying. In all my years as a priest, I never saw anything like it
After I said these things, Mr. Felos and others in sympathy
with him began attacking me in the press and before the cameras. Some news
outlets began making a story out of their attacks and said I was "fanning the
flames" of enmity and hatred.
Actually, there's a simple reason why they are so angry with me. They had hoped
that they could present Terri's death as a merciful and gentle act. My words
took the veil of euphemism away, calling this a killing, and giving eyewitness
testimony to the fact that it was anything but gentle. Mr. Felos is a euthanasia
advocate, and like all such advocates, he needs to manipulate the language, to
sell death in an attractive package. Here he and his friends had a great
opportunity to do so. But a priest, seeing their work close-up and then telling
the world about it, just didn't fit into their plans.
One of the attacks they made was that a "spiritual person" like a priest should
be speaking words of compassion and understanding, instead of venom. But
compassion demands truth. A priest is also a prophet, and if he cannot cry out
against evil, then he cannot bring about reconciliation. If there is going to be
any healing between these families or in this nation, it must start with
repentance on the part of those who murdered Terri and now try to cover it up
with flowery language.
Another aspect of the Terri Schiavo tragedy is that many people misunderstand
its cause and therefore its solution. They think the problem was that Terri did
not leave any written instructions about whether she wanted to be kept alive. In
order to avoid any such problem in their own lives, they are now told that they
have to draw up a "living will." This is both erroneous and dangerous.
Terri's case is not about the withdrawal of life-saving medical
treatment, but rather about the killing of a healthy person whose life some
regarded as worthless. Terri was not dying, was not on life support, and
did not have any terminal illness. Because some thought she would not
want to live with her disability, they insisted on introducing the cause of
death, namely, dehydration.
So what good is a living will supposed to accomplish, aside from saying, "Please
don't argue about killing me, just kill me?"
The danger in our culture is not that we will be over-treated, but rather that
we will be under-treated. We already have the right to refuse medical treatment.
What we run the risk of losing is the right to receive the most basic humane
care — like food and water — in the event we have a disability.
Our culture also promotes the idea that as long as we say we want to die, we
have the right to do so. But we have a basic obligation to preserve our own
life. A person who leaves clear instructions that they don’t want to be fed is
breaking the moral law by requesting suicide.
If you want to make plans for your future health care, do not do so by trying
to predict the future. The reason you cannot indicate today what medical
treatments you do or don't want tomorrow is that you can’t predict the future.
You don't know what medical condition you will have tomorrow, nor what
treatments will be available to give you the help you need. Living wills try to
predict the future, and people can argue over the interpretation of a piece of
paper just as much as they argue about what they claim someone said in private.
The better solution is to appoint a health care proxy, who is authorized to
speak for you if you are in a condition in which you cannot speak for yourself.
This should be a person who knows your beliefs and values, and with whom you
discuss these matters in detail. In case you cannot speak for yourself, your
proxy can ask all the necessary questions of your doctors and clergy, and make
an assessment when all the details of your condition and medical needs are
actually known. That's much safer than predicting the future. Appointing a
health care proxy in a way that safeguards your right to life is easy. The
National Right to Life Committee has designed a "Will to Live," a document by
which you can appoint a proxy and indicate your desire for morally appropriate
care. You can obtain such a document from Priests for Life. (See more
I am in regular contact with Terri's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, and her
siblings, Bobby and Suzanne. They are strong Christians with a beautiful, gentle
spirit. If you wish to relay a personal message to them, you can send it to
firstname.lastname@example.org and I will pass it along to them myself. Terri’s
family, rather than be consumed by grief and anger, have reached out to other
families who face similar tragedies. They are building a network of people who
want to help. Together with Priests for Life, they have also launched the annual
observance of “Terri’s Day” every March 31. Find out more about how you can be
involved at www.TerrisDay.org.
Let us continue to commend Terri to the Lord, mindful of the equal value of
every life, no matter how prominent or obscure, healthy or sick.
You can get more
information on the Terri Schiavo tragedy on our website,
and you can order a CD of Fr. Frank's talk on this topic at
our online store.