Published March 25, 2005
TAMPA, Fla. – Jennifer Johnson, barefoot and in her pajamas, ran to her grandfather's bedside once a hospice worker said his death was moments away.
She got there — one minute too late.
Johnson said the chaos surrounding the hospice where Terri Schiavo (search) lies dying kept her from saying goodbye. When Johnson arrived, a police officer demanded identification; she had none. And after a hospice employee cleared her, another officer halted her for a metal-detecting search.
The delays lasted three to four minutes — the last minutes of her grandfather's life.
"It's a terrible, extra obstacle to put in front of a family. ... Everything is about Schiavo," Johnson said. "It's all about her and in my family's case, it cost us dearly."
Woodside Hospice (search) has 70 patients, in addition to Schiavo, whose parents are desperately trying to have her feeding tube reconnected. Dozens of protesters have arrived from around the nation since the tube was removed March 18; at least 22 have been arrested, prompting a police barricade around the facility and unprecedented security measures.
Family members visiting patients must pass through a police checkpoint to park, then show identification outside the door before another security screening inside. They also must walk by scores of signs decrying Schiavo's "crucifixion," "torture," and "starvation," plus navigate around hordes of media who have been camped outside the facility.
"To have to maneuver through all of this and have a hostile environment outside when all they want is peace and quiet and to enjoy those few days they have left with a loved one is a horror," said Dr. Morton Getz, executive director of Douglas Gardens Hospice in Miami.
Getz said many people with a family member in a hospice have to make the same excruciating decision that courts have made for Schiavo.
"It's causing a lot of grief and questions in their own mind on whether they did the right thing," he said. "It's unconscionable to have a family member to be near the end stages of life and to get there, you have to walk through signs that say, 'Murderer."'
Most protesters direct their signs and their chants against the courts and Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband who insists she would not want to be kept alive artificially. But walking through a hostile environment can only add stress to what's already an emotionally draining situation.
"It probably has the same psychological effect on the residents' families as it does on someone who is walking into an abortion clinic and facing signs and aggressive behavior," said Elizabeth Foley (search), a Florida International University law professor who specializes in bioethics. "And unfortunately, that is the price you have to pay in a free society."
Over the past few days, as Schiavo's parents' attempts to have their daughter's feeding tube reinserted repeatedly fail, signs outside the hospice have grown more desperate. Messages compare Michael Schiavo to the likes of Scott Peterson, convicted of killing his wife and unborn child in California, and John Evander Couey, who allegedly murdered a 9-year-old girl in Homosassa.
The mood has become somber and tense. One woman in a wheelchair regularly moves up and down sidewalks in front of the hospice yelling in a megaphone, "We're disabled, not disposable!" and "Terri is a person, not a vegetable!"
"They're defenders of life — but some of these protesters have no respect for the last few days these patients have," said Tim Harmon, 44, one of the few who held a sign supporting Michael Schiavo.
Relatives of hospice residents say the clamor — intended to rattle Michael Schiavo — rattles their patience.
"It's a real pain in the neck," said Bill Douglass, whose mother-in-law is a resident. He said the only consolation is that she is "oblivious" to the outside scene.
Police and hospice officials say they are trying to minimize the intrusion on hospice residents and their families, and that the security measures are meant to protect the privacy and safety of all residents, not just Schiavo.
But Johnson says her grandfather, Thomas Bone, 73, was restricted from moving freely around the hospice grounds during his final days. He died just hours after Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was removed and protests intensified.
"They've taken away hospice's greatest quality, that it is peaceful and serene and quiet and calming — and it's not fair," Johnson said.
Pinellas Park police Capt. Michael Haworth said he sympathized with the Johnson family. "Whatever time was spent on security for this family, whether it was 30 seconds or one minute, would have been too much," Haworth said.
Johnson, 24, said Schiavo should have been moved before the protests began to protect the sanctity of the hospice.
Her grandfather was brought there three months ago after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer — and repeatedly told his only grandchild he did not want to die alone.
"Everybody who's in there is dying or has somebody who's dying, and we're being denied our rights," she said. "It's almost like Terri Schiavo's rights are more important than ours."