Modern Greek Tragedy – Ten Years Later

Modern Greek Tragedy – Ten Years Later
By   Karen March 26, 2015

                                                                                                  Originally published by Seacoast Newspapers
                                                                                                                            Exeter News Letter, Exeter NH
                                                                                                                                                              March 2005


Modern Greek Tragedy – Ten Years Later


It has been ten years since the gut-wrenching story of Terri Schiavo dominated the news. The enduring legacy is that this story continues, and only the names have changed. This modern day medical drama contains so many elements of classic Greek Tragedy, and they deliver a powerful cautionary tale for us all. You may recall, the 41-year-old Florida woman lingered in a never land nightmare for fifteen years as a result of brain damage, and those who loved her got inexorably sucked into the abyss. As the principal character in this horrible story, Terri was literally in a conflict with the divine and the central question is whether she was trying to circumvent fate. In this twenty-first century version of tragedy, we never get to hear from our heroine. We were left to sort out her wishes, as others imperfectly understood them.

At issue was her diagnosis as being in a persistent vegetative state and whether Mrs. Schiavo would have wanted her life prolonged by the use of a gastric feeding tube. Her legal guardian/husband had struggled for at least seven years to discontinue the feeding and her parents had resolutely resisted his efforts.

Enter the Greek chorus/media spectacle. In true classic form, they held no positional power, but reviewed the events in excruciating detail. They are peripheral to, but affected by, the main interaction, and are entrusted to look at differing points of view. Husband was painted as a callous creep who wanted to get rid of the burden of a disabled wife. Mom and Dad were countered as denying their daughter’s wishes and promoting her suffering because they lacked the courage to admit she was never going to get better. Repeated media images of Terri as a vivacious 25 year old were compared to visions of her vacant stare and lolling head after 15 years in a nursing home. And then, there is the close up of her gastric bypass entry port. Those of us watching the tragedy unfold could only pray we never get any closer.

The diagnosis of persistent vegetative state is difficult and often controversial. It should be no surprise that family members very often reject the diagnosis and insist they observe responses that indicate a much higher level of brain activity than a dispassionate medical professional might encounter, as did Mrs. Schiavo’s parents.

The heart-wrenching pleas of Terri’s parents ratcheted up the stakes. Middle of the night Congressional legislation to re-insert Mrs. Schiavo’s feeding tube added another layer to a drama that certainly needed no more. This family’s private misery turned into a constitutional conundrum that, too, is subject to accusations of baser motives.

The last element of Greek tragedy is that of irony, defined as the outcome being mismatched with the character’s intentions. There is no greater irony than having to argue for the death of a loved one or being accused of doing nothing but adding suffering to a life you are trying to save.

Ten years later, the details of the Terri Schiavo case continue to be strictly legal and intensely, profoundly personal. As such, we should heed the message. The story here was not to about an attempt to circumvent fate and that message endures. Death will come to all of us but we live in a day of unprecedented, complicated and often agonizing medical choices. Make your wishes known and seek out the wishes of those you may be called to care for. In a true Greek tragedy, the audience’s job is to know the story.


Copyright March 2015                                                                                                                                  Karen Baetzel                                                                                                                                                  BattleAxe Consulting Services, LLC