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Beyond Legalities, What Does Terri Face?

Wesley J. Smith

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"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. "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 . ."

Other sources have told me that after a few days without water, the eyeballs and all the organs collapse and blood flows from every orifice, while the person is still alive and feeling it.

Following is testimony from a woman who suffered an incapacitating stroke and was diagnosed as being in a "vegetative" state. 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--what is known as a "locked-in" state. Because she developed a bowel obstruction, doctors disconnected her food supply for 8 days but kept her on an IV saline solution. Even this put her in agony, in addition to the doctors' operating on her with inadequate anesthesia because, of course, they thought she couldn't feel anything.

In an interview, she described the experience as "sheer torture." But she lived to tell this story:

"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.

"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.' 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."

"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."

Portions of the above are from "A Painless Death?" in "The Daily Standard," 11/12/03, written by Wesely J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and an attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

Read this article on the Weekly Standard website (new window will open).

Posted: 07-Mar-05

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