If I asked you to free-associate to the name, Terri Schiavo, you’d probably come up with something like the following: right-to-die, brain damage, family conflict, court order.
But, especially if you’re attuned to these matters, you may recall the eating-disorder speculation surrounding Schiavo's deterioration. The family battle central to Schiavo’s right-to-die case took center stage, shadowing what very possibly caused Schiavo to slip into a persistent vegetative state in the first place, an eating disorder. Reports indicate that the 5’3” Shiavo, who weighed 220 pounds at her heaviest, but who had lost 65 pounds, continued to struggle with her weight for years.
In 1990, Schiavo collapsed and her heart stopped beating temporarily. A malpractice suit against Schiavo’s doctor, brought on by her and her husband’s lawyer, Michael Fox, suggests that Schiavo collapsed as a result of an eating-disorder induced potassium imbalance. A 2003 article in The St. Petersburg Times written by Fox states: “One night, Terri purged, which caused her potassium level to drop low enough to cause a heart attack. Before fire rescue arrived and took her to the hospital, Terri's brain had been deprived of oxygen for long enough to produce catastrophic brain damage.”
In a 2005 Associated Press article appearing in USA Today, a reporter writes: “Medical records from the hospital where Schiavo was treated after her collapse note that ‘she apparently has been trying to keep her weight down with dieting by herself, drinking liquids most of the time during the day and drinking about 10-15 glasses of iced tea.’” The article also suggests that Schiavo had stopped menstruating, and that when Schiavo sought medical attention, her doctor was negligent in not inquiring about eating-disordered activity.
Of course, whether or not Schiavo suffered from an eating disorder is still debated. As other aspects of the case revealed, it seems to boil down to one person’s word against another’s. Unfortunately, even an autopsy report doesn’t provide definitive data on an eating disorder diagnosis. But, given the serious speculation, I think some interesting points arise. The USA Today article, published while Schiavo was still alive, notes: “It is a cruel twist lost on no one close to the case: A woman who is said to have struggled with an eating disorder is now in the middle of a court battle over whether her feeding tube should be removed so that she can starve to death.”
Moreover, if Schiavo did, in fact, suffer from an eating disorder, typified by concerns with body-image, self-presentation, and others’ judgment, it seems pretty clear to me that she would not have wanted the media attention she garnered during her final moments and even clearer that she would not have wanted to persist in a state that was largely unreflective of whom she hoped to be.