Schiavo's Brain Damage Profound, Irreversible, Medical Examiner Says

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:22 PM EDT

( - Terri Schiavo was blind at the time of her death; her brain damage was irreversible and profound; and she could not have survived without a feeding and hydration tube, whether she was fed by mouth or not, the medical examiner said on Wednesday.

Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Jon Thogmartin said it's not clear what caused Terri Schiavo's collapse in February 1990 - but he appeared to rule out both an eating disorder as well as physical abuse, such as strangulation.

"No one observed Mrs. Schiavo taking diet pills, binging and purging, or consuming laxatives; and she apparently never confessed to her family or friends about having an eating disorder," Thogmartin said on Wednesday.

He said Terri's low potassium level may not have resulted from an eating disorder but rather from heavy tea consumption: "Reportedly, she was a habitual user or consumer of large amounts of tea, and may have consumed as much as one gram of caffeine a day."

That "may also have played a role in her death," he said, but Terri was not tested for caffeine consumption immediately following her collapse.

As for the question, "Was she strangled," the medical examiner said, "No trauma was noted on any of the numerous physical exams or radiographs performed on Mrs. Schiavo on the day of, in the days after, or in the months after her initial collapse.

"Indeed, within one hour of her initial hospital admission, she received a radiograph of her cervical spine, which was negative for trauma." He said the doctors at the time were thinking of neck trauma, but ruled it out.

"No evidence of strangulation was found. No evidence of trauma whatsoever was noted by the physicians during her initial hospitalization." Later, as a result of her paralysis, Terri developed "severe osteoporosis," the medical examiner said.

The medical examiner said Terri's heart was "anatomically normal," but at the time of death, her brain had atrophied to the point where it was about half the weight it would have been under normal circumstances.

"There was massive neuronal loss or death," the medical examiner said, adding that no therapy or treatment would have regenerated the damaged brain tissue.

Would she have been able to eat by mouth: No, the medical examiner said: The findings "clearly indicate that she would not have been able to consume sustenance safely or in sufficient quantity by mouth."

The medical examiner said tthe records show that Terri was at high risk for "aspiration" and "not a candidate for oral nutrition or hydration."

The medical examiner also said Terri died from the effects of dehydration, not starvation.

The autopsy was performed on April 1 and a total of 274 images were recorded as part of the examination. Detailed dissections were performed.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.