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Michael Schiavo's side of the story

Matt Lauer interviews Terri Schiavo's husband on the bitter battle that divided two families... and America.

Michael Schiavo, the man who was praised by some and vilified by others for fighting to remove his wife Terri’s feeding tube, has decided to tell his side of the story.

“For 15 years, people had a lot to say that didn’t even know me. Now it’s my turn to talk,” he now says.

Schiavo invited us to his home in Clearwater, Florida to talk about the bitter battle that divided two families and gained the attention of the pope, the president and Congress. It’s all in his new book “Terri the Truth.”

Matt Lauer:  I guess you could’ve written a book to honor Terri. After reading it, it’s not really the book you wrote. This is a book that  in some ways settles some scores, doesn’t it?Michael Schiavo: Oh yes, it does.Lauer: You did think about writing that honoring Terri book?Michael Schiavo: Oh yes, many times. This book does honor Terri in a way. It sets her free. It tells the truth.

Before Terri Schiavo became a symbol— the young woman in the hospital bed at the center of an acrimonious fight between her husband and family— she was Theresa Marie Schindler, a shy overweight girl growing up in Pennsylvania. She and Michael met as college students in 1983.

Lauer: What do you remember about your first meeting?Schiavo: I remember that look, that face, that laugh. I was just drawn into that. She just had a sweetness about her.Lauer: You were her first date.Schiavo: Uh-huh.Lauer: You were her first kiss.Schiavo: Uh-huh.Lauer: How would you describe her personality back then?Schiavo: She was just this person you just wanna hold and grab and just hold onto. You just wanted to bring her in. She was just a sweet, loving girl.

Michael and Terri got married a year after they met. By this time, Terri, the once overweight teen, had worked hard to get her weight down and was reveling in her new appearance.

Schiavo: Now she was able to be the person she wanted to be. And it made me happy to see that.

The newlyweds decided to leave the cold Northeast and move to Terri’s parents’ condo in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Lauer: What was your relationship with her parents at that point?Schiavo: My relationship was very good with them.Lauer: You call them “mom and dad”?Schiavo: “Mom and dad” from the time I got engaged, actually probably a couple months before that. I called them “mom and dad.”Lauer: So it wasn’t “Robert” or “Mary” or “Mr. and Mrs. Schindler”? It was “mom and dad.”Schiavo: “Mom and dad.”Lauer: And they treated you like…Schiavo: A son.

But six years into his marriage, everything would change between Michael and his in-laws because of what happened in the early hours of a February morning.

Lauer: Take me back to the night that Terri collapsed. Talk me through that early morning.Schiavo: I got undressed and slipped into bed.  Terri woke up and she gave me a little kiss on the cheek.  She said, “Goodnight.  I love you.”  And we both went back to sleep.  And somewhere around 5 a.m., I heard a thud, a loud bang.I looked over and I noticed Terri wasn’t in bed.  So, I ran out in the hall and there was Terri laying on the ground. Lauer: What’d you say to her?  What were you—Schiavo: “Terri what’s wrong?  Wake up.  Terri.  Tell me something.  Talk to me.  What’s wrong?  What’s wrong?”  And right there she just made this noise and no response since then.  I laid her down and immediately ran over and called 911.

Terri Schiavo’s heart had stopped, apparently from a potassium imbalance doctors at the time suspected was caused by bulimia.  The lack of oxygen to her brain caused severe brain damage.

Lauer: You said to me, “somewhere around 5 a.m. I heard a thud and immediately called 911.” You know that the accusation has been leveled was that you waited.Schiavo: No.Lauer: That you waited a long time, according to some people, to pick up the phone and call the help she desperately needed.  How do you respond to that?Schiavo: They’re wrong.  I heard the thud.  Ran to Terri.  Called—after that little gasp, I mean, it was within a minute I was on the phone with 911.  They can think whatever. I didn’t wear a watch that day, Matt. My interest was not in the time. Lauer: The reason it’s so important to their side, Michael, is that they paint a different picture of your relationship with Terri and your marriage prior to her collapse on February 25th.  They say this wasn’t such a happy marriage, that there were problems.  And they allege, I think, that perhaps you waited to call 911 because you didn’t want her to get the help—Schiavo: That’s absurd.  Terri and I had a perfect marriage.  Matt, Terri and I were trying to get pregnant.  Now, tell me why would she have wanted to bring my child into this world if she wanted to divorce me? 

For the next two years, Michael says he tried to get Terri whatever medical care she needed, even taking her to California for experimental treatment.

He made a career change, leaving the restaurant business to become an emergency medical technician to learn how to better take care of his wife.

Schiavo: I stuck by Terri’s side. I took care of her.

And during that time, he says he and the Schindlers had no problems. They remained close, united in their concern for Terri’s care.

But according to Michael, money would change everything. In November  1992, Michael sued Terri’s physician, accusing him of failing to diagnosis bulimia while treating Terri for fertility problems prior to her collapse at 26.

Michael says the jury award, about $750,000 dollars in Terri’s name, is what set the Schindler-Schiavo battle in motion— starting with a fight with Terri’s father in her hospital room on February 14, 1993.

Lauer: So, you say Robert Schindler walked up to you on that Valentine’s Day and says to you, “When am I going to get my money?”

Schiavo: That’s when the money was coming down.  And then he asked me, “How much am I going to get?” I said to him, “I’m giving it all to Terri.” And then with some anger in his voice, he pointed at Terri and said, “Well, how much is she going to give me?”“She’s not going to give you anything.  The money is in trust with a guardian for her care.”  So, he then he starts getting angry.  And says he’s going to take over the guardianship.  He’s going to get a lawyer. I’m like, “Well, if that’s what you need to do, go do it.”  And Mrs. Schindler jumps in front.  “You know, he’s right.  This is our daughter.  We deserve money.”Lauer: Talk about two sides to every story.  You know that the Schindlers basically allege the same thing with you.  They allege that it was only after the malpractice suit was settled and the money was placed in trust for Terri that you began the process of trying to get the feeding tube pulled from Terri.  Because then you stood to inherit that money.Schiavo: Matt, we offered them three times in writing, in the media, that we would give every cent of that money to charity in Terri’s name. The Schindlers were the ones that refused that.  They didn’t want it to happen.

And as this family split became more bitter, the Schindlers would put Michael’s every move under a microscope, even intimating that he may have been the cause of Terri’s collapse.

Lauer: Bobby Schindler on “Larry King Live” one night says the following, “We have collected or gathered a tremendous amount of evidence that possibly suggests something violent happened to my sister the night she collapsed.  And it could’ve been or could be that Michael doesn’t want Terri to ever speak again.  Because if she did, she could shed some light on what happened the night she collapsed.”Schiavo: Bobby has no proof, he has offered no proof to this. Where is this evidence?  Cause they had none.

In fact, the autopsy report released last June backs up what Michael says, finding no signs of strangulation or abuse. And Michael points out that he never heard those accusations until Terri’s story made front page news.

Schiavo: If they knew this, why did my mother-in-law, during the malpractice trials, state that I was the best son-in-law? But then in a few years later, it’s something different.

Jodi Schiavo, Michael Schiavo's new wife: I knew the score when I met him. It was very clear that Mike had a wife. And I was okay with that. And just because our relationship changed and I fell in love with him, it didn’t mean that I could go back and change the rules.

This is Jodi Schiavo’s first interview. She’s the woman Michael Schiavo calls his rock, the mother of his two children. The couple was married two months ago, but Jodi has been by Michael’s side for more than a decade.

Michael Schiavo: She was my biggest supporter. She stood behind me the whole time. Cause she knew that Terri was my heart. And she knew that I still loved her. (crying.) That’s a lot.Matt Lauer, NBC News: The woman whose ten years of a relationship with you… was all about someone else. That’s hard.Michael Schiavo: And I love her to death.

Jodi met Michael three years after Terri’s collapse. At that time, she says both she and Michael were lost souls.

Jodi Schiavo: I knew Terri came first. And I would never have asked him to change that. I mean there were difficult times.Lauer: Where you said, “enough about Terri”?Jodi Schiavo: Yeah, there were probably some times. But at that time I would never asked him to walk away. He was kind of starting to say, “Maybe this is reality. Maybe she’s not coming back now.”

After three years of hopes and prayers, Michael now had to face the fact that the Terri he knew was gone. Doctors said she was in a persistent vegetative state and would never recover, and so he started thinking about the significance of a conversation he said he had with Terri years before on a train ride to Florida.

Michael Schiavo: Her uncle was very disabled.  And he lived with his mother.  And Terri said to me, “If I ever become a burden to anybody, don’t ever let me live like that.”  And I said, “Okay.  And you do the same for me.”Lauer: She’s how old at that point?Schiavo: 22?Lauer: 22. I mean, I’m trying to remember when I was 22, Michael.  And you know what?  At that point, you never think you’re gonna die.Schiavo: But when you’re—Lauer: Is that the same thing as really stopping and thinking and saying, “No, Michael listen to me, if it happens to me, I don’t want to live like that”? You never followed it up.  You never, “Okay.  Terri, you know, you said something a second ago and that was pretty dramatic. Let me make sure I understand what you’re talking’ about”?Schiavo: No. Because I understood Terri.  Lauer: Her parents say they don’t remember her ever saying anything like that.Schiavo: They weren’t there, Matt.Lauer: But, that she never had a conversation like that with them.Schiavo: But, I’m saying— Terri couldn’t talk to her parents like that.  

But Terri’s parents insisted the daughter they knew would never want her life to end that way and they weren’t giving up without a fight.

They went to court to try and gain guardianship of Terri, but the court ruled in Michael’s favor.
And the fact that Michael remained in charge of Terri’s care, even though by this time, he was engaged and living with Jodi only further incensed the Schindlers.

Lauer: I think maybe the average person watching TV every once in a while and catching bits and pieces of the story might have thought, “Well, wait a second.  He’s her husband.  But he has this whole other life over here.  And if he’s moved on with his life, why can’t he give her—Terri’s parents care of Terri?”Schiavo: You had to live what I lived, Matt, to understand.  But I wasn’t going to give Terri back to somebody that would do what they wanted to do with Terri.Lauer: People have often asked. Michael why didn’t you divorce Terri, you were living with Jodi.Schiavo: Why do I have to divorce Terri? Terri wasn’t like a football… an inanimate object you pass back and forth. She was my wife. You mean because your wife gets sick, do you give her back?Jodi Schiavo: I would think so much less of Michael had he walked away from her. That is one of the qualities in him that I so admire. That up against everything, everything.... he stuck by her and did it anyway. 

In 1998, Michael petitioned the Florida court to remove Terri’s feeding tube, saying he was fulfilling Terri’s wish not to be kept alive that way. It was the beginning of an epic legal battle between Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers who were fighting desperately to keep their daughter alive.

They had their own doctors present testimony that Terri could one day recover and took their battle to the media, releasing a video that seemed to show Terri responding to her family.

But after seven years of litigation, Michael won. The court ordered Terri’s feeding tube removed on March 18, 2005.

Terri’s hospice in Pinellas Park, Florida became a scene of protest— a rallying place for  right to life groups who said Terri would suffer a cruel death. Michael was called everything from “an abuser” to “a murderer,” and Jodi says even their two young children were threatened.

Jodi Schiavo:  It’s very hard to accept when you get letters addressed to “the bastard children of Michael Schiavo” and they talk about how children are stolen out of their home every day and they just disappear.  And to always look over your shoulder, saying  “I’ll be there.” And then at the end of the letter, they’re quoting scripture. 

And with Terri off the feeding tube and facing imminent death, the battle became political. Florida Governor Jeb Bush who used his executivepowers to reinsert the feeding tube when it was removed a year and a half earlier, now threatened to take Terri into state custody.

Then in an extraordinary move, the U.S. Congress got involved, passing a bill signed later by President Bush that would transfer jurisdiction of the case from the state to the federal courts— keeping the case, and possibly Terri alive.

Lauer: Congress meets in a special session.  The president interrupts a vacation; comes back to Washington to sign it into law.  You’re now facing off against the Schindlers, the governor, a lot of people in the state of Florida, members of Congress, the president, and the pope.

Schiavo: Uh-huh.Lauer: The Vatican weighs in on this case.Lauer: We’re a long way from that conversation you had with Terri when you were 21 years old.Schiavo: Yeah, well it, Matt, I guess when it all boiled down, I couldn’t understand why these people were so passionate about my wife. This happens to people across the country every day. People are allowed to die every day. Feeding tubes are removed every day.Lauer: Did you think at all at that point— and I think Jodi even came to you one day and said— “Give it up.”

Schiavo: I couldn’t.  I couldn’t.  You know, my parents, they raised me to be a fighter.  And I was doing something that Terri wanted.  And I couldn’t give it up on her.  I came this far.  And I wasn’t gonna let anybody stand in my way.

Despite the involvement of the U.S. Congress and the president, a federal judge denied their petition to re-insert Terri's feeding tube and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene. There were no more legal options: Terri would die.

Matt Lauer, NBC News: You know people have said, Michael, over the years, “He was her husband for a couple of years.  They were her parents for 20 something years.  Why couldn't he just say, ‘Let them have their way.  Let them have their daughter.’”Michael Schiavo: Well, you know something, when you sit in a courtroom and you hear the father say, "I'll cut her arms and legs off just to keep her alive," why would I want to put their daughter back in their care if he's going to do that to her?Lauer: Let make sure we understand that statement: I think the statement was if she were to develop gangrene and and had to have limbs amputated, he would do that and okay that as long as he could still have her alive.  It's a little different than--Schiavo: And they also said that even if this was Terri's wish, it wouldn't have been theirs. They would have kept her alive.  Even if they knew that, they would have kept her alive.

On March 31, 2005, 13 days after Terri's feeding tube was removed, Michael Schiavo, now a registered nurse, knew that Terri was near death.

Lauer: Take me through the final hour or so of Terri's life.Schiavo: It was really peaceful, Matt. As night fell, we had a candle going. And there were some flowers in the room and some soft music.Lauer: Did you talk to her?Schiavo: I caressed her head, caressed her arms, and told her it was okay.Lauer: Okay to go?Schiavo: Uh-huh. And about 7 a.m., we got a phone call that her brother and sister wanted to come in and see her.  So we left the room.  And I'd say, about quarter of nine, they came and said, "If you wanna see Terri, you got to come now."

But there  would be one more ugly family face-off. Terri's brother Bobby was still at the hospice telling the police officer providing security that he wanted to come back to Terri's room for a final goodbye. Bobby Schindler said he just wanted to say goodbye to his sister, and Michael said no.

Schiavo: I had seconds to go say goodbye to my wife.  I didn't have time to sit there and say, "Bobby, are you gonna come in here and you're gonna behave?  You're not going to sit there and get all crazy on me?  Bobby, are we going to have to bring a cop in here to watch you?"  I didn't have time for that, Matt.  I had time to say goodbye to my wife.  Lauer: I have to tell you, it was the hardest thing for me to come to terms with.  I thought to myself, these two families have gone at each other for 15 years.Schiavo: But Matt, this man, her brother—Lauer: I know.  But I thought, at the moment that she would slip away from this earth, why couldn't these two families take one deep breath together?  And then say, "We'll disagree in five minutes. But let's usher her out together.”Schiavo: I didn't want a police officer standing over her head— not when she died. I didn't want the animosity.  I didn't want the feelings.  I didn't want the aura that, you know, Bobby and I, you know, we hate each other.  Lauer: Do you think, Michael, in that last minute, Bobby's in the hallway...  he wants to come in, her brother.  You're walking into the room.  Did you stop and think, "What would Terri want?" Would she want her brother or sister--Schiavo: I'm sure Terri would want the families to get along and be happy.  But it didn't happen.  I had to get to Terri.  I had seconds then.  Seconds.  I got into her room, and I could see that she'd changed, like that.I went around to the side of the bed.  I knelt next to her. I lifted her up in my arms, just like the night it happened (crying).  I told her I loved her; and she died.Lauer: Did you love her still, at that moment?Schiavo: I love her right now. 

In the end, according to the autopsy report, Terri died at the age of 41 of "marked dehydration."

And despite the hope of the Schindlers, and the now famous video they said showed that their daughter was responsive — the medical examiner said Terri suffered severe, damage to her brain including the area responsible for sight. And "no amount of treatment or rehabilitation would have reversed it."

But the medical examiner was skeptical that Terri was bulimic and could not conclusively determine just what caused her collapse 16 years ago.

Lauer (at Terri Schiavo’s grave site): How often do you come to her grave?Schiavo: I try to get out here at least two or three times a month. I drive by a lot though.

On this day, approaching the one year anniversary of Terri's death, someone had left a crucifix by her grave, a grave marked with three dates: her birth date, the date of her collapse, and her death, with a final note from Michael: "I kept my promise."

Lauer: Why was it so important to put that in there?Schiavo: It was from me to her — it had nothing to do with anybody else. It was very important for me.Lauer: Do you ever come here Michael and wonder how she feels about this promise, so many years afterwards? Do you think it was it as important to her as it was to you?Schiavo: Definitely, definitely. She's up there praising me right  now… and saying thank you.