Seeing Terri Schiavo
"The images and file tape that we use repeatedly in our newscasts, Webcasts and on our newspaper and Webpages affect how the public (and probably legislators) think about her ability to communicate or respond to others. Selecting pictures of her appearing to respond to her mother gives one impression, selecting pictures of her staring dead ahead and being unresponsive would say something else. Either could signal a bias to the public." -- Al Tompkins
Family photo; AFP/Getty Images/file
Timeline, The New York Times | MSNBC.com story intro

This is an article posted to "Al's Morning Meeting" on Friday, March 17, 2005:

Friday Edition: Selecting Schiavo Images

By Al Tompkins

As the Terri Schiavo case moves into a new pitched emotional debate, I urge all journalists to carefully consider what video and pictures they use to depict this woman who has been described by doctors as being either in a persistent vegetative state or a permanent vegetative state since 1990.

The images and file tape that we use repeatedly in our newscasts, Webcasts and on our newspaper and Webpages affect how the public (and probably legislators) think about her ability to communicate or respond to others. Selecting pictures of her appearing to respond to her mother gives one impression, selecting pictures of her staring dead ahead and being unresponsive would say something else. Either could signal a bias to the public. How often or in how much detail do you explain the images you air or publish? How clearly do you explain the heated debate behind what the images do or don't appear to show?

There is, as we all have seen, a few seconds of video shot in August 2001 by her family, of Terri seeming to respond to her mother's voice. That video is one of several posted on the Website TerrisFight.org as evidence that Terri is responsive.

You can see about five minutes of the tape here.

What do people see when they watch these videos? It depends on who is watching. The National Review saw responsiveness. The magazine said:

Moreover, a picture is worth 1,000 words. Videotapes of Terri clearly show her responding to requests. For example, a closed-eyed Terri is asked to open her eyes by a doctor. Her eyes flutter and she does as he requests. She is asked in another video to follow a balloon with her eyes, and she does. In a heartbreaking video, Terri's mother kisses her on the cheek and Terri smiles and responds, clearly happy that her mom is with her.

In November 2002, Judge George Greer found the videotape didn't show proof of Terri's ability to respond to others. The ruling said:

At first blush, the video of Terri Schiavo appearing to smile and look lovingly at her mother seemed to represent cognition. This was also true for how she followed the Mickey Mouse balloon held by her father.

The court has carefully viewed the videotapes as requested by counsel and does find that these actions were neither consistent nor reproducible. For instance, Terri Schiavo appeared to have the same look on her face when Dr. Cranford rubbed her neck. Dr. Greer testified she had a smile during his (non-videoed) examination. Also, Mr. Schindler tried several more times to have her eyes follow the Mickey Mouse balloon but without success. Also, she clearly does not consistently respond to her mother. The court finds that based on the credible evidence, cognitive function would manifest itself in a constant response to stimuli.

Dr. Hammesfahr testified that he felt that he was able to get Terri Schiavo to reproduce repeatedly to his commands. However, by the court's count, he gave 105 commands to Terri Schiavo and, at his direction, Mrs. Schindler gave an additional six commands. Again, by the court's count, he asked her 61 questions and Mrs. Schindler, at his direction, asked her an additional 11 questions. The court saw few actions that could be considered responsive to either those commands or those questions. The videographer focused on her hands when Dr. Hammesfahr was asking her to squeeze. While Dr. Hammesfahr testified that she squeezed his finger on command, the video would not appear to support that and his reaction on the video likewise would not appear to support that testimony.

The record is replete with the doctors disagreeing over what the videotapes appeared to portray. For instance, was it a visual orienting reflex or was it tracking? Was it a cognitive focus of the eyes or was it a startle response looking to the sound? Perhaps the most compelling testimony was that of Dr. Bambakidis who explained to the court the agony and soul-searching which he underwent to arrive at his opinion that Terri Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state. He concluded that all the data as a whole supports permanent vegetative state. While the others may have gone through such an analysis, their testimony does not indicate that.

Another issue involved the piano music played via cassette tape in her room during Dr. Hammesfahr examination. Dr. Maxfield testified she related to it and "tried to sing." However, this music was played markedly louder than any other music or voice commands of the doctors. It was probably louder than the handclasp or dropped objects that always seemed to produce a startle reflex. Dr. Greer testified that the length of the reflex depends on the direction of the stimulation.

In November 2003, the St. Petersburg Times reviewed four hours of tape in the court record and reported:

She seems to smile at her mother's voice. Her eyes follow a shiny balloon. Asked to open her eyes, she arches her eyebrows as far as they will go.

These and other fleeting images posted on the Internet have turned the heart-wrenching case of Terri Schiavo into a constitutional showdown.

But such moments that suggest awareness -- culled from four hours of medical examinations that were videotaped in the summer of 2002 -- are rare compared to the times when Schiavo lies in bed, slack-jawed and seemingly unresponsive, her limbs stiff, her eyes vacant, her hands curled in tight contractions.

The St. Petersburg Times reviewed all four hours of tapes, which now are public record in the Pinellas County Courthouse. Over and over, Robert and Mary Schindler beg their daughter to demonstrate any sign of consciousness. They have contended for more than a decade that she smiles and laughs in direct response to their conversation. They have told the court that her eyes follow them around the room.

These tests, these videos, offered a chance to show the judge firsthand.

"It's Mommy. Look this way," Mrs. Schindler urges at one point. "Can you say, 'No, no, no' like you did before? No, no, no?"

"Terri, Terri, Terri. Can you look over here, sweetheart?"

Here and there, their daughter's glances and moans seem to coincide with what's being asked of her and might lead one to conclude that she responds. But more often than not, the parents' entreaties fall flat.

A judge who viewed all four hours concluded that Terri Schiavo exists in a hopeless vegetative state and ordered that her feeding tube be removed, as her husband requested. Appellate judges, who also saw all four hours, agreed.

Still, there's no denying the haunting power of a few, select moments. They seem to suggest that Schiavo -- brain-damaged as she is -- retains some shred of awareness and will. They are so disconcerting the Florida Legislature took one look at the snippets, overturned those judicial rulings and empowered the governor to put Schiavo back on the feeding tube.

Yes, the mother's words do seem to prompt what seems like a smile from Terri. Not just once, but twice. Her eyes do follow a balloon on three separate occasions, surprising even a doctor selected by her husband, Michael Schiavo.

But mostly, the Schindlers conduct one-sided conversations with Terri. They speak of family vacations, barbecues and newborn relatives. They profess to spot nuances in their daughter's face that aren't readily apparent to an outsider's eye.


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