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A Family’s Slow Descent Into Loathing

Times Staff Writer

Through good times and bad, the Schiavos and the Schindlers stood together.

When money got tight after Terri and Michael Schiavo were wed, her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, made room in their home near Philadelphia for the young couple.

When the Schindlers moved to Florida two years later, the kids followed so they could all remain close. Michael called his in-laws “Mom and Dad.” They treated him like a son and felt fortunate to have him in the family.

They stood together again in 1990, when Terri had a heart attack and permanent brain damage. The family gathered at her bedside, praying for a miracle.

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“Without him there is no way I could have survived all this,” Mary Schindler said in court testimony, recalling that her son-in-law was a source of strength in the days after her daughter’s collapse. “We were in it together.”

They still spend hours at Terri Schiavo’s side, trying to comfort the 41-year-old woman who is near death at Woodside Hospice here. But Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers are never in the small room at the same time. They have not spoken in 12 years.

The family unity ruptured in 1993, when a dispute broke out over how to spend a malpractice award, friends say. That was followed by a bigger fight over Michael’s decision to let Terri die by withdrawing the feeding tube that kept her alive.

Since then, anger has grown on both sides.

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“There is only one rule in how we get to spend time with Terri,” said her uncle, Mike Tammaro, returning from a recent visit to her in the hospice. “It’s a matter of staying away from [Michael], something we have to do here every single day.”

For his part, Michael Schiavo, 41, has said he is honoring Terri Schiavo’s wishes in disconnecting her feeding tube. He criticizes the Schindlers’ opposition, saying in a recent television interview: “Fifteen years. You’ve got to come to grips with it sometime.”

His brother, Scott, has stronger words for the Schindlers: “The attack that these people have made on Michael’s decency is outrageous. There is no possibility that the differences between them can ever be healed.”

How did it come to this? How did a family disagreement -- not unlike those thousands of families wrestle with -- turn into a seemingly endless and very public feud?

“Most families find common ground,” said Pam Ellis, a former nursing home aide who has joined the protesters massing each day in front of the hospice. “But these people haven’t come close.”

The rancor is especially intense between Terri Schiavo’s father and her husband.

“It’s a conflict of father against son-in-law, man to man,” said Brother Paul O’Donnell, the Schindlers’ spiritual advisor. “I don’t know how or where it ends.”

This account of that feud, how it started and how it grew, was drawn from recent interviews with family members and friends, past interviews in other media, court documents and other public records.

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Terri Schiavo was the oldest of three children, a bright girl who loved stuffed animals, Danielle Steele novels and fashion. The Schindler family lived in a four-bedroom colonial house near Philadelphia. Her father, Bob, now 67, was an electrical engineer; her mother, Mary, now 64, stayed home to take care of the children, ferrying them to school and soccer games. The Schindlers were devout Catholics.

Michael Schiavo, the youngest of five boys, grew up in Levittown, a suburb near Philadelphia. He stood 6-foot-7, liked school athletics and had a fondness for high school debate, according to his brother, Scott.

He went to summer camp with his brothers and attended Lutheran Church services on Sundays. His father, Bill, was a safety engineer for AT&T; his mother, Clara, was a stay-at-home mom.

Terri met Michael in 1982 while both were enrolled in a sociology class at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Pa. Years later, he recalled in a radio interview that she “had this amazing, wonderful laugh, and she was beautiful. The first time I saw her in class, I fell in love with her.”

The two dated, became engaged and were married in November 1984. As newlyweds, they remained close to both families, taking vacations and having Sunday night dinners with them.

The couple wanted to have children, but she had difficulties getting pregnant. At the same time, she continued wrestling with a lifelong weight problem. She weighed 200 pounds in high school, dropped to 150 pounds when married, and then fell to 110 pounds.

Friends wondered how Terri Schiavo, an insurance clerk, managed to keep off her weight. Her husband, an assistant manager at a McDonalds, was also mystified.

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The couple moved to the St. Petersburg area in Florida in 1988, seeking better job opportunities. She continued to work with an insurance company, and he worked as a restaurant manager.

Early on the morning of Feb. 25, 1990, Terri Schiavo suffered a heart attack and fell to the floor in the hallway of their apartment. Her husband found her minutes later and called 911. Although paramedics struggled to revive her, her brain suffered a loss of oxygen for five crucial minutes. She subsequently slipped into a coma and later emerged into a persistent vegetative state. She left no living will.

Doctors determined there was a dangerous shortage of potassium in her blood, which caused her heart attack. Along with physicians who examined his wife, Michael Schiavo began theorizing that his wife had suffered from bulimia, an eating disorder that often goes undetected, even by close family members.

She would typically drink 10 to 15 glasses of iced tea a day; she would eat irregularly. The lack of potassium could have also explained her inability to get pregnant, he said in court documents.

As the families began coping with her condition, they again stood together.

Michael Schiavo needed money to fly his wife to California for an experimental brain implant procedure. So he and his in-laws started a fundraising drive in St. Petersburg. They were able to take her to California, but the operation proved unsuccessful. When money was needed to pay for her medical care because insurance coverage was lapsing, the Schindlers sold hot dogs and pretzels on the beach. St. Petersburg declared “Terri Schiavo Day” to focus attention on her plight. When she was discharged from the hospital months later, she initially was moved to her parents’ home, and Michael Schiavo also moved in. He bought new clothes for her to wear and put makeup on her every day. He continued to believe a cure was possible. She was later sent to a series of hospitals and nursing homes as doctors tried unsuccessfully to rehabilitate her.

“There is no question but that complete trust, mutual caring, explicit love and a common goal of caring for and rehabilitating Theresa were the shared intentions of Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers,” wrote Jay Wolfson, a University of South Florida law professor, who served briefly as an independent legal guardian for her and wrote a history of the case.

The trust disintegrated three years later.

Michael Schiavo won a medical malpractice suit against his wife’s gynecologist in late 1992, charging that the physician failed to take blood tests during routine exams that could have detected her dangerously low levels of potassium. A jury awarded $750,000 for her care and $300,000 for Michael Schiavo.

On Valentine’s Day in 1993, Michael Schiavo brought two dozen roses to his wife’s bedside in a nursing home and was looking forward to dinner with his in-laws. But when Bob Schindler walked into the room, a fight suddenly broke out, both men recalled.

The father demanded to know how much money he would be getting from his son-in-law’s share of the settlement; he also asked him to repay $10,000 in moving expenses, Michael Schiavo recollected. “He always wanted the money,” the son-in-law said in court testimony. “He wants the money. He wants the control.”

Schindler recalled the fight differently, saying he wanted to know why Michael Schiavo seemed reluctant to treat an infection that Terri Schiavo had developed; he became irate when his son-in-law said that his wife might never recover from her condition.

Both men threw chairs at each other. Michael shoved a table at Schindler. The father and son-in-law put up their fists and began shouting. Mary Schindler, shaken by the show of anger, stood between the two men and physically separated them.

It was the last time they spoke.

The parents filed a petition in 1993 to have Michael Schiavo removed as their daughter’s legal guardian. The case was dismissed. They then asked that Michael Schiavo divorce her so they could take over responsibility for her care. He refused.

“Regrettably, money overshadows this entire case,” said Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge George W. Greer, who has issued a series of rulings against the Schindlers. “Neither side is exempt from finger-pointing and conflicts.”

Soon after the malpractice award, Michael Schiavo enrolled in a St. Petersburg community college and earned a nursing certificate, so he could better take care of his wife.

The acrimony deepened in 1998, when he filed a petition seeking to remove his wife’s feeding tube.

“Terri had made her wishes known to me years before,” he would later tell reporters. “She said that she did not want to be kept alive through such artificial means, and as her husband it was my responsibility to honor her final wishes.”

His decision set off a seven-year legal battle that has played out in state and federal courts, in the halls of state government and the U.S. Congress. Greer has ordered on three occasions that the feeding tube be disconnected, but appeals, delays and other wrangling prevented the order from being carried out.

After one such order in 2003, Terri Schiavo went six days and five hours without food and water until the Florida Legislature passed “Terri’s Law” under strong prodding by Gov. Jeb Bush. The bill required that the feeding tube be reinserted and called for the appointment of an independent guardian. Wolfson, the University of South Florida professor, served in the position from October to December 2003; the law was overturned by the Florida state Supreme Court.

Greer reinstated his original order last month, leading to the recent flurry of court appeals brought by the Schindlers and legislative interventions by Congress.

“Terri’s mother and father have been very consistent,” said spiritual advisor O’Donnell, as demonstrators shouted slogans in front of the hospice. “All along they wanted to know why more of an effort wasn’t being made to save their daughter, instead of trying to kill her. They didn’t understand why a husband would try to starve his wife to death.”

The Schindlers originally did not dispute the finding that their daughter was in a persistent vegetative state, but they have since rejected that idea, citing medical evidence to the contrary. As he returned from a recent visit to his sister, Robert Schindler Jr., dismissed Michael Schiavo and his lawyer’s contention that she was dying peacefully.

“She looks like she’s dying in a concentration camp,” he said. “How could anyone call that merciful?”

Michael Schiavo summed up his position during an appearance this month on CNN, saying: “I made a promise to Terri. I’m going to stick by her side, and I’m going to do this for her. Terri is not a piece of property you pass back and forth. She didn’t say, ‘When I become sick, give me back to my parents.’ ”

Though he maintains a vigil at his wife’s bedside, he has also tried to move on with his life. He met and began dating Jodi Centonze 10 years ago. He has referred to her as his fiancee for five years, and the couple have two young children.

At first, the Schindlers urged him to see other women. They understood that he might need new companionship, according to court records and family members. But since the family split, the Schindlers have argued that his new relationship amounts to adultery. They have called him an abuser and murderer, suggesting he was a controlling, anger-prone husband.

Michael Schiavo, who now works as a nurse at the Pinellas County Jail, has denied all of these accusations, saying his in-laws will stop at nothing to smear his reputation. In recent weeks, he has received death threats, and a dozen police officers have been guarding his home, his attorney, George J. Felos, said.

As the dispute continues, the clash over money has largely become moot, observers say. There is little left of the $750,000 that was set aside to pay for Terri Schiavo’s medical care, according to court records. About $40,000 to $50,000 remains as of mid-March, said Deborah Bushnell, one of Michael Schiavo’s attorneys. Some of it has gone for his wife’s hospitalization, though much of the cost -- estimated at $80,000 per year -- is picked up by the nonprofit Woodside Hospice, where she has been for five years. The balance has been paid for by Florida Medicaid.

More than $300,000 has gone to pay for Michael Schiavo’s legal costs. The Schindlers’ legal bills have been subsidized by church groups.

What’s left is a sense of anguish on both sides, as they await Terri Schiavo’s death.

“After all the anger, all the battles, I still feel for the Schindlers, I really do,” said Karen Schiavo, the wife of Michael’s brother, Scott. “But at some point, you have to let go. You have to face what’s inevitable. You have to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”


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