Joni Eareckson Tada Takes on the Battle over Terri Schiavo on CNN’s Larry King Live

By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA (ANS) — Joni Eareckson Tada, well-known for her Christian disability ministry around the world, took on the case for re-inserting Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube before an audience of millions during a cable television program that aired March 24, 2005.

Eareckson Tada, who founded Joni And Friends to help raise the visibility and awareness of those with disabilities, was a guest on CNN’S Larry King Live program. Tada is the author of many books, including “When is it Right to Die?” which has a foreword by former U.S Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop.

Also on the program with Larry King and Eareckson Tada was Jackie Cole, who suffered a brain hemorrhage which left her on a respirator and a feeding tube, and was also diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. The program also featured Kate Adamson who, in 1995, at age 33, suffered a devastating double brain stem stroke that left her paralyzed, and Dr. Ronald Cranford, a neurologist and medical ethicist.


Doctors claim that Terri Schiavo, 41, who lives in a hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida, is in such a state. Her husband, Michael, concurs, but her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, disagree, saying that Terri has responded to them on more than one occasion.

As the program aired, the United States Supreme Court and a Florida judge denied the desperate pleas of Terri Schiavo’s parents, seven days after her feeding tube was disconnected, to reinsert the tube which is keeping her alive.

At the start of the program Larry King said: “Joni, we’ll start with you. You’re interesting — you were not left for dead. You were not on a list where a tube was going to be pulled. So, what is your particular interest in this, just as one human for another? ”

Tada responded: “Well, I’m a disability advocate, and there are 26 disability organizations all across the United States from the National Organization on Disability, all the way to the Joni and Friends Disability Center, who believe that Terri Schiavo’s rights have been denied as a disabled person. We’ve heard from her parents, we’ve heard from her husband, but people with disabilities believe that her case ought to be heard in a federal court.”

King asked: “Do you discount all the courts, every court that has heard it, the United States Supreme Court, all of that doesn’t mean anything?”

“I believe that they’ve been making their assessments on the rulings of Judge Greer, who, as we know, has been giving this ruling of persistent vegetative state,” said Tada.

“But 15 years, other judges have heard it, other judges have ruled. Aren’t we a nation of laws?” King retorted.

“Therefore, we obey the law, right?” King asked.

“Yes, we do, and I believe that Terri — Terri’s Constitutional right to life as a person with a disability has been denied,” Tada said, adding: “Her last review medically was 15 years ago with a CAT scan, but there are new state-of-the-art medical assessment tools which, I believe, should be applied to her case. Let’s see what her cognitive abilities really are.”

“So, at this point, you disagree with the court?” King asked, to which Tada responded: “Yes, I do.”

“But it is a disagreement,” said King. “You don’t think the court is malicious, I hope.”

“I think the court has lacked mercy. No mercy,” Tada said.

Tada agreed that she had not attended the cases, “I have been at the hospice, but no, I’ve just been reading the court records.”


King turned his attention to Jackie Cole, who emerged from a persistent vegetative state.

“Jackie, you’re a little puzzling — you went through all this, right? You were considered persistent vegetative state. How did you come out of it?

“I just woke up one day. That’s all,” and agreed that before she saw videos of Terri Schiavo, had thought Schiavo should be disconnected from the feeding tube that was keeping her alive.

“I hadn’t realized that she was quite as alert as she seemed to be. I hadn’t seen any films of her until just now, and I’m pretty satisfied that the lady is definitely with us. I thought at one time that there was absolutely nothing going on, but I can’t say that after having seen her,” Cole told King.

“Before that,” King asked Cole, ” it was your opinion that she should be allowed to die?”

“Yes, but under the circumstances, I think that she’s got a real strong case for living,” Cole responded.

King introduced Kate Adamson who, in 1995, at age 33, suffered a devastating double brain stem stroke that left her paralyzed. She not only survived, she made what has been called a miraculous recovery, regaining mobility and function. She’s the author of the book “Kate’s Journey: Triumph Over Adversity.” I have the book right here.

King asked Adamson if she was brain dead or in a vegetative state?

“Well, first of all, my husband wouldn’t let me be labeled with anything,” said Adamson.

“You’ve got a woman here who is being labeled as in a persistent vegetative state. I think based on what’s going on, we need to find out what she can and can’t do. I had less than one in a million odds to survive. My husband hugged the doctor, he said, praise God, she’s going to be the one. He did everything possible to see that I got the necessary care. He was fighting…

“Larry, I was totally trapped in my body, aware of everything going on around me, unable to communicate with the outside world. I had to live through the horror of having a feeding tube inserted without enough anesthesia, so I felt everything being done to me, could not say anything. That feeding tube was turned off for eight days. I laid there and literally thought I was going insane. My body was screaming out. I’m on the inside screaming out, don’t let me die. I don’t want to die.

“That’s amazing,” said King.

“Yes, but what’s amazing is, I got into rehab. You’re looking at a woman (who has) been lying in a hospice in a nursing facility. You’ve shut me off from the sunlight, with no human contact, no radio, no TV. I had to have contact. I had to hear that I was going to survive,” Adamson said.

“Therefore, are you saying, in a sense, Kate, with your miraculous (recovery) — no one should be allowed to die?” King asked.

“Err on the side of life. Err on the side of life,” Adamson said.

“In all cases? Even with a living will?” King asked.

“First of all, at 33, I wasn’t thinking about dying. I was thinking about living,” Adamson said, adding: “Every case is different. This is a feeding tube. I was on life support. ”

“Before somebody’s death is proposed, we ought to be using state-of-the-art technology that will properly assess somebody’s mental capabilities,” Eareckson Tada added.


Larry King also introduced Dr. Ronald Cranford, a neurologist and medical ethicist who examined Schiavo on behalf of the Florida courts.

“I examined her in July of 2002 in the evidentiary hearing before Judge Greer was in October 2002,” Cranford said.

KING: And what did you find?

CRANFORD: Well, I found what all the other neurologists except for one found, that she was in a persistent vegetative state. We reviewed the records, we reviewed the CAT scans, we reviewed the EEGs. Four neurologists who had been examining her over 12 years said she was in a vegetative state and three of the four neurologists called the trial clean.

“The court appointed expert, Dr. Bambikidis from Cleveland said she was in a permanent vegetative state. And Judge Greer, in the longest evidentiary hearing in American law in a right to die case, said she was in a vegetative state to the highest degree of medical certainty.

“And the appeals court reviewed all the medical testimony, reviewed the tapes and reviewed everything and they said that she was in a persistent vegetative state. So that was in October 2002 and then 2003.”

KING: Dr. Cranford, if she were kept alive, what kind of life would it be and what is your estimate as to how long she could live?

CRANFORD: Normally a patient’s life — lives five to ten years. It’s unusual, but it can occur that they live 15 years. She’s been like this for 15 years with no change. She can live like this another five, or ten years, but she’ll never regain consciousness. She’s completely unconscious.

KING: So those pictures of years ago, even where we see — and you saw her three years ago — smiling and the like or seeming to react, are what?

CRANFORD: Well, it’s a typical vegetative state, because her eyes are open. If you look at her eyes very closely, even when she appears to smile at her mother, she’s not really smiling at her mother, she looking into space.

“As you can see, she has no visual pursuit. So, a neurologist can look at those clips and say that she’s in a vegetative state, but to the family and to a lot of people, it looks like the interact(ion) — it looks she’s laughing, smiling. But Judge Greer reviewed all this information and said she’s in a vegetative state. So that’s a typical vegetative state patient, just like Nancy Cruzan and all the others I have examined where they really aren’t interacting, but they look like they’re interacting.”


Larry King then turned his attention back to Joni Eareckson Tada, and the following exchange occurred about what other tests could have been carried out on Terri Schiavo.

KING: Joni — he’s a doctor, you are not. He’s a doctor, you are not. What exam do you want him to perform that you said he hasn’t done?”

TADA: A PET scan, an MRI. There are new modern technological tools to assess somebody’s mental capabilities.

KING: Then the question will be this. If the PET scan verified his findings, would you then say it’s OK to pull a tube?

TADA: I don’t think it’s right to a pull tube.

KING: Why the PET Scan, you aren’t going to change anyway?

TADA: I think what we need to determine is what in the world did Terri Schiavo want?

KING: So, why do a PET scan?

TADA: I would never want to live that way. How do you know what Terri Schiavo (wanted)?

KING: But even if the PET scan said what he said was true, you’d still want her to live?

TADA: I do believe she should live, because I don’t think a PVS state warrants a death sentence.

KING: Why not — before you go Kate — why not a PET scan, doctor?

CRANFORD: We can do a PET scan. We’d have to take her to New York. I investigated that in 2002. I contacted New York Cornell Medical Center, Atlanta, Miami. I recommended a PET scan.

“A PET scan might be of value, but honestly, in 2002, considering the findings on examination, the CAT scan which showed massive atrophy and the EEGs, which are flat, I didn’t think a PET scan would be of much value.

“And in 2002, Larry, both sides would never have agreed to send her to New York Cornell Medical Center, which is the only place in the country that could PET scan.

“This is just a smoke screen, Larry. If we did a PET scan and it showed consistent vegetative state, they still wouldn’t want us to stop treatment. So all this is smoke screen, the MRI, the PET scan, they’re never going to agree she’s in a vegetative state no matter what we do.

KING: Kate, how would you respond? Hold it, doctor. Kate?

COLE: You know what, doctor, just because someone is unresponsive, it doesn’t mean to say there isn’t a soul in there. None of us can get inside Terri Schiavo’s head.

KING: Of course not.

TADA: But when we look at those videos, it does raise doubt about the diagnosis of persistent vegetative state.

KING: But he’s a doctor.

TADA: That may be, but he’s offering a subjective, bias.

KING: How do you know?

TADA: Because he’s got the quality of life perspective that says, oh, people are better off dead than disabled.

KING: Do you know him?

TADA: No, I don’t. But those assessments by medical professionals assume that people with disabilities such as myself and others wouldn’t want to live this way.

Larry King then asked Dr. Cranford: “Doctor, why not do what the president said, simply, come down on the side of life.

CRANFORD: We did come down on the side of life. The longest right to die case in the history of American law, seven years in the Florida courts, Judge Greer bent over backwards every time to help the Schindler family. And he finally said he had enough. The courts have ruled that the Florida judicial system had extensive hearings. We have erred on the side of life for seven years. We can’t err more on the side of life than we already have.

KING: Why not ten years, why not fifteen years?

COLE: Well Larry, this is a feeding tube. We’re not talking about life support. What is the harm in treating here?

“Let me ask you, doctor, because I actually went through rehab. I had to hear that I was going to get better. I had wonderful people working with me. A team of 15 people: a speech pathologist, occupational therapists, physical therapists. Now we know Terri at one point was swallowing Jell-O, we know she was saying some words. What happened to the speech pathologist?

“What happens when you put a skilled nursing facility, in a hospice, in that kind of environment? Why not put her with the family who want to love for her as she is in the condition she’s in right now? What is the harm? And let’s find out what Terri can do?”

King asked if Kate Adamson and Joni Eareckson Tada would agree to that?

TADA: Yes, in fact, (with) the durable power of attorney for health care, you have an opportunity to designate a trusted loved one, one with whom you share life values as your health care proxy. And that takes a lot of worry and anxiety away should you become mentally incompetent.

ADAMSON: I’m certainly glad I was married to an attorney, because without him, I wouldn’t be here. I’m sorry, doctor, because if I was under your care, I would be dead. You’ve got to have a strong advocate, Larry.

TADA: We don’t know what Terri would have wanted.

KING: The courts had to make some determination. What do you do if you’re a judge?

TADA: I don’t think Terri would have said back then.

KING: You don’t know. That’s a guess.

TADA: If I become mentally incapacitated, I want you to take up with another woman, have two kids by her, and starve me to death, and let me die of thirst. I don’t think she would have said that.

“We do not know that she would want to die of thirst and starvation. The courts have not looked at that.

KING: Why are you attacking the husband, though?

TADA: No, I’m attacking the fact that the courts have not thoroughly looked at her case.

KING: You emphasize trusted friend as if this is not a trusted friend.

ADAMSON: Well, you need to have an advocate when you can’t speak for yourself, Larry.

KING: So you’re saying he’s not an advocate for her? So what is he gaining out of this?”

ADAMSON: Well, he gained a lot of money out of it. We know that.

KING: But that was in a lawsuit against the doctor for not treating her right.

ADAMSON: Exactly, but first of all, you don’t treat somebody. This woman was young, she was beautiful, she had youth on her side. You don’t treat someone.

Joni Eareckson Tada added: ” I just believe the federal courts did not listen to her case. The husband, yes.

ADAMSON: Larry, we have a lot of disabled people. And they’re doing therapy and haven’t gotten everything back, but do we get rid of them?

KING: We’re all talking about two people we don’t know. Right? We don’t know them.

ADAMSON: Right, but we’re talking to a lot of disabled people out there listening who are on feeding tubes.


Larry King then asked, “Dr. Cranford, what do you make of what the other doctor said yesterday, who changed his mind? ”

CRANFORD: It’s bogus. He didn’t do an examination. He did a 90-minute interview. He didn’t review the CAT scans. He certainly (didn’t) make any mention of the EEG. His examination actually shows she didn’t track, no conscious awareness, but the presence of a living cell. And Judge Greer has been fully educated with the vegetative state. He has dismissed it because it isn’t credible. It was at the last minute. They finally find a bioethicist — a Christian bioethicist, who (was) willing to say she wasn’t in a vegetative state. It was a last minute desperation effort, and Judge Greer didn’t fall for it. He’s been well educated on the vegetative state.

KING: Doctor, you’re saying there’s no doubt in your mind about the condition of Terri Schiavo?

CRANFORD: There’s no doubt in my mind. And you’ve got copies of the CAT scans there on CNN that were just recently released. There’s no doubt in my mind that she’s in a vegetative state. There’s no doubt in the Florida Courts that she’s in a vegetative state.

Larry King asked Kate Adamson what her CAT scan showed?

ADAMSON: I’m not going to get into my thing.

KING: Well, that’s why you’re here.

ADAMSON: Yes, that’s why I’m here. But we need to bring my husband on, who’s sitting right out here…You want him to get into the side of it, because I was the patient, unable to speak, and I’m telling you, doctor, just because someone is unresponsive, it doesn’t mean to say they’re not inside there.

KING: Had you told your husband to keep you alive under all circumstances?

ADAMSON: Well, first of all, he would do what was right. No, no, you exhaust every possible avenue.

KING: Had you told him anything about that?

ADAMSON: I didn’t think I was going to get sick. At 33, I was living life. You exhaust every possible avenue. Doctor, you let someone go, there’s no second chances.

KING: Then, therefore, you would be against capital punishment because if you kill an innocent person, as already, we’ve determined, 150 people have been released…

ADAMSON: Starvation is cruel.

KING: Wait a minute — there’s no second chance, right? How do you redress that grievance?

ADAMSON: We’ve got somebody on a feeding tube. Larry, she’s not on life support.

TADA: A man who’s on capital punishment — on death row — has access to the latest technology, DNA evidence.

KING: But, what if you killed him, and he didn’t do it? What is his redress of grievance?

TADA: Well, that — that’s it. The point is, if Terri Schiavo dies, life…

KING: But what I’m saying is, why not be against all death?

TADA: Life is the most irreplaceable and fundamental condition of what it means to be human.

ADAMSON: Err on the side of life.

KING: So, err on the side of life.

TADA: Err on the side of life. We do not know that Terri Schiavo, years ago, when she was on her feet, would have wanted to die of thirst and starvation. We do not know that.

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