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Autopsy: No sign Schiavo was abused

Findings show woman's brain 'profoundly atrophied'


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Terri Schiavo

LARGO, Florida (CNN) -- The autopsy of Terri Schiavo found no evidence that the severely brain-damaged woman was strangled or abused and that no amount of therapy would have reversed her condition, a medical examiner said Wednesday.

Schiavo's brain was damaged in 1990 after she collapsed and suffered heart failure.

Schiavo, 41, died March 31 at a Pinellas Park, Florida, hospice 13 days after her feeding tube was removed by a judge's order. (Full story)

A seven-year legal battle between Schiavo's husband and parents culminated in a national controversy and prompted action by Congress and the White House.

Jon Thogmartin, medical examiner for Florida's District Six, which includes Pasco and Pinellas counties, said the cause of death was "marked dehydration." Thogmartin said that the autopsy did not determine the cause of her collapse.

He said his examination turned up no sign of abuse or trauma -- allegations leveled by Terri Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, against her husband and legal guardian, Michael Schiavo.

A report from a neuropathologist who served as a consultant to the autopsy said Schiavo's brain was "grossly abnormal and weighed only 615 grams [1.35 pounds]."

That weight is less than half that expected for a woman of her age, said the report written by Dr. Stephen J. Nelson.

'Irreversible' brain damage

Schiavo's brain damage "was irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons," Thogmartin said.

"Her brain was profoundly atrophied," he said.

The vision centers of her brain were dead, he said.

But without removal of the feeding tube, and if conditions such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections -- common in bed-ridden patients -- were treated, Terri Schiavo could have lived another decade, Thogmartin estimated.

"Their report shows what we have said -- that Terri was not terminal," said the Schindlers' attorney, David Gibbs. "Terri Schiavo was not in an end-of-life situation. The decision was made to end her life, and we believe it was done in a barbaric manner."

He also said the autopsy still leaves unanswered questions, most notably what he called an unexplained gap in 1990 between the time Michael Schiavo has said his wife collapsed, at 4:30 a.m., and the time a 9-1-1 call was made, at 5:40 a.m., according to the medical examiner's report.

"I think those 70 minutes are very, very troubling," Gibbs said. "Michael Schiavo is the only person who was there."

He said he did not know if the gap was investigated at the time.

George Felos, Michael Schiavo's attorney, said later Wednesday there was no time gap. He pointed to Michael Schiavo's testimony in a malpractice trial in which he described hearing a thud, finding his wife on the floor and calling 9-1-1 immediately.

"There's no credible issue as to what happened that morning, in terms of the timing," Felos said, calling Gibbs' comment "a baseless claim to perpetuate a controversy."

Felos said Michael Schiavo was "pleased" to hear the autopsy results, saying they confirmed many of his long-held beliefs and claims.

"You have to understand, for years he feels like he's been talking in the wind," Felos said.

In the legal battle between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers, courts for years consistently ruled in Michael Schiavo's favor and said Terri Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state, a point hotly contested by her parents, who claimed she could improve with therapy.

Though the diagnosis for a persistent vegetative state normally is made in living persons, Nelson said he found nothing inconsistent with such a state when examining Terri Schiavo's brain.

The Schiavo controversy was fueled by the abuse allegations.

In a lawsuit, the Schindlers alleged to Florida's Department of Family and Children Services that Michael Schiavo tried to starve her, beat her, inappropriately medicated her and wanted her dead to gain financially.

According to documents released after her death, the department concluded after what it called extensive investigations that "no information or evidence was found to support the allegations," and noted that conclusion was supported by years of legal and medical documentation. (Full story)

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who tried to intervene on the Schindlers' behalf, said in a written statement Wednesday that "Terri's life and her death remind us all that life is so fragile and must be valued."

"We will continue to strive to protect our most vulnerable citizens. All innocent human life is precious and government has a duty to protect the weak, disabled and vulnerable," he wrote. "Our thoughts and prayers remain with the Schindler family during this most difficult time."

Cause of collapse unexplained

As for the cause of Terri Schiavo's initial collapse, her husband has theorized that perhaps she had bulimia that caused her potassium levels to plummet. Low potassium levels were found upon her arrival at a hospital.

Thogmartin, however, said those measurements were taken only after Terri Schiavo had received more than a quart and a half of intravenous fluid and epinephrine, both of which can cause low potassium levels. In addition, no one who knew Terri Schiavo had ever seen any symptoms of an eating disorder, including her husband, he said.

Thogmartin said he looked at other causes for the collapse. Drugs and strangulation were ruled out, as was a possible heart attack. He even considered caffeine toxicity from the tea she liked to drink, he said, but believes that was unlikely unless she was taking a supplement containing additional caffeine.

Terri Schiavo was cremated after the autopsy was completed, but her ashes have not been interred. Although a judge has required Michael Schiavo to tell the Schindlers of his burial plans for her, there has been no communication between the two sides since Terri Schiavo's death.

Michael Schiavo has said he plans to bury his wife's ashes in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she was born. Her family held a memorial service for her in Florida.

CNN producer Rich Phillips contributed to this report.


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