Michael Schiavo's Dilemma


March 18, 2005 — -- The man in the middle of a nationwide media firestorm seemed destined to lead a simple, typically American life.

Michael Schiavo is the product of a middle-class upbringing in Levittown, Pa., a small city near Philadelphia. He was born in April 1963, the youngest of Bill and Clara Schiavo's five sons.

As a youth, Michael attended Lutheran church services on Sundays. He followed his older brothers to summer Bible camp. He grew into a tall, good-looking young man, and was a popular athlete at Levittown's Woodrow Wilson High School.

It was at Bucks County Community College that Michael Schiavo met the woman who would change his life.

Theresa Marie Schindler, known to her friends as Terri, was a quiet young woman who loved animals. The two met in 1982 and were married two years later.

The couple left their Pennsylvania home in 1986 and moved to St. Petersburg, a small city on the Gulf coast of Florida popular with retirees. Terri's parents owned a condominium there that the Schiavos occupied.

Michael began working as a restaurant manager, and Terri took a job as an insurance clerk for Prudential. It is at this point in their lives together that accounts of the couple's marriage begin to differ.

While Michael and his family describe the marriage as a happy one, Terri's parents, who moved to Florida about the same time, have referred to Michael and Terri's relationship as argumentative.

Bob and Mary Schindler have also depicted Michael as a controlling and verbally abusive husband. The couple never had any children.

In February 1990, Terri was rushed to the hospital after suffering a heart attack that rendered her unconscious. She was 26 at the time.

The heart attack was apparently caused by a potassium imbalance, possibly associated with an eating disorder -- Michael and others have described Terri as bulimic.

When doctors determined that Terri had entered a persistent vegetative state, Michael flew Terri to California for experimental surgical treatments, sleeping on a cot in her hospital room.

Even after doctors in California determined surgery would do nothing to help Terri, Michael continued to seek help. He admitted Terri to a Florida brain-injury center and hired an aide to take her out to parks and museums, in the hope it might stimulate her reawakening. It didn't.

In November 1992, almost three years after Terri was stricken, Michael sued the doctor who treated her. He was awarded $1 million -- $700,000 of which was earmarked for her care.

This money is part of the ongoing acrimony between the Schindlers and Michael. Both sides contend the other is interested more in that money than in Terri's care, and the friendly relationship Michael once enjoyed with his in-laws has dissolved into a bitter and public mudslinging contest.

Terri's parents remain convinced their daughter can communicate, see and hear. They believe she can be rehabilitated, though court-appointed doctors have said there is virtually no hope she will ever recover.

With his wife in a nursing home, Michael began taking classes in health care at St. Petersburg Junior College. He eventually became a certified respiratory therapist and a registered nurse. Michael today works in an emergency room at a hospital in Florida.

He has said his own mother's death from cancer helped him come to terms with death and dying. In 1998, Michael began to petition the court for the removal of the feeding tube that had kept Terri alive for eight years.

In Tuesday's interview with Chris Bury on ABC News' "Nightline," Michael commented on the allegations that removing Terri's feeding tube would be a cruel act.

"Death through removing somebody's nutrition is very painless," he said. "That has been brought to the courts many ... times. Doctors have come in and testified. It is a very painless procedure."

Terri's feeding tube was removed in 2001, but a judge ordered her feeding resumed two days later following a new lawsuit filed by the Schindlers.

The following year, a judge again ordered the tube removed, and again the Schindlers filed an appeal, which resulted in the tube being replaced after six days.

Michael, now 41, lives with Jodi Centonze, a 40-year-old resident of the Clearwater, Fla., area. According to reports, she occasionally accompanies Michael when he visits Terri.

Michael and Centonze have two children together, a fact that the Schindlers have cited as proof of Michael's lack of devotion to his wife, a charge that Michael angrily denies.

When asked on CNN's "Larry King Live" why he doesn't simply divorce his wife, Michael said, "This is Terri's wish, this is Terri's choice. And I'm going to follow that wish if it's the last thing I can do for Terri."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events