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Spring 2005 | Volume 28, Number 1 | My Reponse

Schiavo Case Hits Close to Home

By Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li ’66

The Terri Schiavo tragedy unfolding on the front pages of newspapers each day is hard for me to follow dispassionately.

It is not a political, legal, or abstract philosophical issue for me.

It hits me right in the gut. It makes my heart ache.

I have a beloved granddaughter, close to 3 years old, who almost died of sudden infant death syndrome when she was only 3 months old. She had stopped breathing for a period of time but was revived with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation by her father — my son.

Little Cleo’s life was spared, but she suffered extensive brain damage. Etched into my mind is the image of the CT scan of her brain, with extensive blank areas indicating dead brain tissue. I can still hear the grim assessment of the neurologist telling my son and daughter-in-law that Cleo would never live a “normal” life.

Her physical development was almost entirely arrested that fateful evening. Today, she cannot crawl, much less stand, walk, or run like other tots. She doesn’t chatter away like her peers; she doesn’t talk at all.

But here’s the marvel of it all.

She can see, smell, feel, and hear.

She recognizes and smiles readily at familiar voices and faces.

She has a sense of humor.

And she absolutely adores the Tchaikovsky and Mozart violin concertos and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” She knows the music better than 99 percent of the adults in this world, and you can see her face, arms, and body react to her favorite passages.

She can even tell the difference between different recordings of the same music and insists on Anne-Sophie Mutter’s interpretation of the Tchaikovsky. She expresses her displeasure if you try a different rendition on her.

I will cherish to the day I die the memory of Christmas Day 2003 when she and I laid on the floor of our living room for more than an hour, cheek to cheek, listening to Itzhak Perlman play the Mozart concertos.

Two weeks ago she uttered her very first word: “on,” as in “turn on the music.” It has become my favorite word in the English language.

Is life easy for her parents? Absolutely not. Caring for my granddaughter requires extraordinary measures of grace and self-sacrifice on their part. Yet God has given them an intense love for Cleo. And family and friends have rallied to provide them support and allow them some relief from the stress and strain of their circumstances.

In researching the Schiavo case, I viewed some video clips of her interactions with physicians and family members. I was surprised to see a bedridden woman who sees, smells, feels, and hears.

She recognizes and smiles readily at familiar voices and faces.

She listens to and responds to music.

Yet, she has been diagnosed by physicians as being in a “persistent vegetative state,” the legal magic words that trigger the right to remove feeding or life support systems from her.

Do you see why this hits a little too close to home for me?

My granddaughter’s condition is not that far removed from Terri Schiavo’s.

The deepest parts of my soul scream out at the lie that there exists an objective “quality-of-life” standard. Since when did we humans vote for such a standard?

It violates the most fundamental notions of human rights for a judge or physician to decide that someone else’s life does not measure up to that standard, thereby warranting termination of that life. In Schiavo’s case, that means by starvation and dehydration.

At best, this resembles the cruel, euthanizing human arrogance so chillingly depicted in the 1973 science fiction movie “Soylent Green.”

The law allows each of us to decide for ourselves, through “living” wills, whether we want our lives prolonged by life support measures. No judge, physician, or even relative should have the right to contravene such a decision.

But Schiavo never expressed her wish through a living will. A judge has presumed to make that decision for her by finding her, as a matter of law, to be in a “persistent vegetative state.”

I can’t begin to understand the emotional agony that Schiavo’s husband and parents have endured for the past 15 years. But I can grieve for Terri Schiavo as her life slips away from deprivation of food and water.

And I wonder if some judge some day will claim the power to rule that my granddaughter Cleo’s life is not worth living.

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on Thursday, March 31, the day Terri Schiavo died. Chi-Dooh “Skip” Li is a partner with the law firm of Ellis, Li & McKinstry in Seattle. In the photo, the picture on Li’s laptop is of his granddaughter Cleo.

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