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Terri Schiavo's death as science sees it

Our heart goes out for Terri Schiavo, whose death has sent the DWS editorial team to sorrow. However, we are reassured by medical reports which say that Terry Schiavo's  death was not as bad as we think. 



March 31: The practice of starving someone to death without food and water sounds primitive and inhuman. But emotions aside, it need not be so hard, say scientists. Let us hope Terri Schiavo died a peaceful death when her final moment came. Read on:

According to an Associated Press report quoting Dr. Fred Mirarchi, assistant clinical professor of emergency medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, "the process of starving to death seems very barbaric, but in actuality is very peaceful."

"The patient's experience is really pretty benign," said a physician associated with Americans for Better Care of the Dying, a group working for improved end-of-life care. 

Most patients who are removed from life support will die within a matter of a few days or weeks. Strictly speaking, Terri Schivao had not been on life support, since she has been breathing without a ventilator or a heart-lung machine. That way, she was never in a coma, but was dependent on the feeding tube. Her ability to interact with the surroundings had deteriorated and her brain cortex had turned to liquid, in the fifteen years she survived without proper therapy.

According to doctors, the fact that Terri Schivao was in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) would have smoothened her dying process. Patients who cannot have any food intake enter a physical state known as ketosis. During this stage, the human body begins to burn its stock of fat and muscle. Terri Schivao passed through this stage after her feeding tube was removed.

As ketosis advances, Terri Schiavo's nervous system became dulled. At this stage patients do not feel pain, hunger or thirst. Though it may appear blasphemous to many who fought for Terri's life, there is also medical evidence that ketosis can produce a state of well-being or mild euphoria. Terri Schivao's death, if this medical version is to be believed, was smoother than many of us would perhaps have. 

As the end nears, breathing turns irregular, and eye movements start flitting. It looks to relatives and caretakers that the patient is consciously looking around the room. This, physicians say, is not the case, since this particular eye movement occurs without the involvement of the brain. Terri Schiavo's brain scan had shown years back that her EEG is flat - which means zero electrical activity in the brain.

In the lack of nourishment, the body becomes dehydrated, and leads to kidney failure. Now onwards, it is an irreversible downhill process. The body starts accumulating toxins, which are usually flushed out by the kidneys. Patients at this stage are completely unaware of their surroundings.

At the last moments, heart beat rate abnormalities called arrhythmia are common. At this point, the heart stops beating and the patient dies.

According to Joanne Lynn, MD and President, Americans for Better Care of the Dying, the efforts of caregivers may in some cases complicate the death of the patient. Giving a patient water, for example, may prolong the process.

"Going without water makes it more gentle," Lynn said. "Allowing chemicals [in the blood] to cause arrhythmia is more merciful."

Perhaps all that is not enough for us - perhaps despite all the explanations, we still cannot believe that it was a humane death. All we can do, now, is pray for her soul.


God save the Malayalee

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