An autopsy on Terri Schiavo backed her husband’s contention that she was in a persistent vegetative state, finding that she had massive and irreversible brain damage and was blind, the medical examiner’s office said Wednesday.
It also found no evidence that she was strangled or otherwise abused. But what caused her collapse 15 years ago remained a mystery. The autopsy and post-mortem investigation found no proof that she had an eating disorder, as was suspected at the time, Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin said.
Autopsy results on the 41-year-old brain-damaged woman were made public Wednesday, more than two months after Schiavo’s death March 31 ended an internationally watched right-to-die battle between her husband and parents that engulfed the courts, Congress and the White House and divided the country.
Thogmartin also said she did not appear to have suffered a heart attack and there was no evidence that she was given harmful drugs or other substances prior to her death.
She died from dehydration, Thogmartin said.
He said she would not have been able to eat or drink if she had been given food by mouth as her parents requested.
“Removal of her feeding tube would have resulted in her death whether she was fed or hydrated by mouth or not,” Thogmartin told reporters.
He also said she was blind, because the “vision centers of her brain were dead.”
Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, had fought their son-in-law, Michael Schiavo, in court for seven years over her fate.
Thogmartin said that Schiavo’s brain was about half of its expected size when she died 13 days after her feeding tube was removed.
“The brain weighed 615 grams, roughly half of the expected weight of a human brain,” he said. “This damage was irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons.”
He said a review of hospital records of her 1990 showed she had a diminished potassium level in her blood. But he said that did not prove she had an eating disorder, because the emergency treatment she received at the time could have affected the potassium level.
The cause of her collapse has never been definitely proven, but testimony in a 1992 civil trial indicated that she probably was suffering from an eating disorder that led to a severe chemical imbalance.
The Schindlers, though, don’t believe she had an eating disorder and have accused Michael Schiavo of abusing his wife, a charge he vehemently denied.
Speaking before the report was issued, Michael Schiavo’s attorney, George Felos, said the Schindlers continue to engage in a “smear campaign against Michael to deflect the real issues in the case, which were Terri’s wishes and her medical condition.”
Bill Pellan, chief investigator for the medical examiner’s office, said Tuesday that Thogmartin reviewed police reports, medical records and other documents in trying to determine the cause of her brain damage.
During the long legal battle, numerous abuse complaints made to state social workers were ruled unfounded.
Michael Schiavo convinced the courts his wife would not want to be kept alive artificially with no hope of recovery, contending that she made statements to that effect before her collapse.
Her parents doubt she had any such end-of-life wishes and also disputed that she was in a persistent vegetative state. They believed she could get better with therapy.