Schiavo's 'Dr. Humane Death'
Got 1980 Diagnosis Wrong
By Jeff Johnson
CNSNews.com Senior Staff Writer
April 12, 2005
(CNSNews.com) - A neurologist hired by Michael Schiavo to
confirm that his wife Terri was in a persistent vegetative state said
he was "105 percent sure" of that diagnosis, but Dr. Ronald Cranford
expressed similar certainty about a patient he examined in 1980 who
later regained both consciousness and the ability to communicate.
Three days before Terri Schiavo's death, Cranford appeared on the
MSNBC talk program, "Scarborough Country," to discuss her condition.
Cranford was interviewed by reporter Lisa Daniels.
DANIELS: Are you 100 percent correct in your opinion that Terri
Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state? Do you agree with that?
CRANFORD: I am 105 percent sure she is in a vegetative state. And the
autopsy will show severe irreversible brain damage to the higher
DANIELS: Why are you so sure, doctor?
CRANFORD: Because I examined her ...
Cranford - who is assistant chief in neurology at the Hennepin County
Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minn., professor of neurology at the
University of Minnesota Medical School and a faculty associate at the
university's Center for Bioethics - went on to call another
neurologist who disagreed with his diagnosis "a charlatan" and accused
Daniels of being "stupid."
Host and former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough interrupted to defend
Daniels, touching off a clash with Cranford, which included the doctor
admonishing Scarborough with: "You've got to get your facts straight."
Cranford also certain, but wrong about 1980 diagnosis
Cranford expressed similar certainty about another patient he declared
to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) in 1980, former
Minneapolis Police Sgt. David Mack.
''Sergeant Mack will never regain cognitive, sapient functioning,''
Cranford said six months after Mack was shot while serving a search
warrant on Dec. 13, 1979. ''He will never be aware of his condition
nor resume any degree of meaningful voluntary conscious interaction
with his family or friends.''
Based on Cranford's unequivocal diagnosis of Mack, the officer's
relatives removed him from a respirator in August 1980 "because his
family felt he should be allowed to die rather than exist in such a
state," according to published reports.
But Mack did not die.
On Oct. 22, 1981, 18 months after Cranford declared Mack's case
hopeless, doctors at the advanced care facility where Mack was being
treated noticed that he was awake. The Associated Press described
"A policeman considered 'vegetative' after being shot in the head in
1979 has come out of his coma and, although doctors caution he may
never recover fully, he is spelling out some of his desires: 'TALK.
WALK. SKI. DOG,'" the news report stated, explaining that someone
would point to letters displayed in alphabetical order on a board
while Mack nodded "yes" or "no" until the correct letter was reached.
Asked how he felt about his recovery, Mack smiled and spelled out
"Doctors say Mack has recovered about 95 percent of his intellectual
capabilities," the news account continued, "and can understand
everything said to him."
Mack's wife, Marlies, said her husband could initially respond only by
taking a deep breath in response to a doctor's request.
"Then his eyes started following hand movements," she continued. "He
got better and better, but it was slow."
Cranford insisted at the time that his initial diagnosis was correct.
"There is no doubt in the world that he was in the persistent
vegetative state," Cranford said of Mack in a 1981 interview. "He had
no interaction with the environment."
In an interview last week with Cybercast News Service, Cranford
acknowledged a "mistake," but maintained that his original assessment
of Mack was accurate.
"At the time I said that, he was in a vegetative state," Cranford
said. "But, I did make that misstatement about Sgt. Mack and I was
wrong and I did make a mistake in that case."
Cranford argued that Mack's case is different from Terri Schiavo's
because a CAT scan of Mack's brain showed no atrophy, while Schiavo's
CAT scan showed severe deterioration.
"We learned something very valuable," Cranford said. "If you have a
CAT scan on a patient that you think is in a vegetative state and it
does not show progressive atrophy within six to 12 months, then you
might want to reconsider the diagnosis."
Making absolute diagnosis 'not totally responsible'
Dr. David Stevens is a physician and medical ethicist who serves as
executive director of the Christian Medical Association. He believes
there is a different and more important lesson to be learned -- that
"being an absolutist" when making a medical diagnosis based only on
observation and opinion "is not totally responsible.
"Unfortunately, oftentimes, medical opinions can be 'flavored' with
the individual's own worldview and preconceptions," Stevens said.
"And, in Dr. Cranford's situation, I think, though he accuses others
of that, he is guilty of the same thing.
"He is a 'right-to-die' proponent. He believes there are people who
have lives not worthy to be lived, and those lives should be ended,"
Stevens continued, "and that colors him and his medical opinions. And
examples of that are overstating the case to assure that people's
feeding tubes are removed."
Cranford said that he has "never been a member of any organization
that's primary purpose was to advocate active euthanasia because I'm
not that supportive of active euthanasia."
However, he joined the board of directors of the Choice in Dying
Society, an organization created when the Society for the Right to Die
and Concern for Dying merged in 1991. Research by Cybercast News
Service shows that both of those groups had previously changed
their names to remove the word "euthanasia" in response to negative
Cranford also told reporters in 1991 that he wanted to be known as
"Doctor Humane Death." He has since publicly claimed to have
facilitated the deaths of between 25 and 50 disabled patients by
removing the feeding tubes that provided their nutrition and
PVS diagnosis 'based on probabilities, not absolutes'
The American Academy of Neurology (AAN)
defines a "persistent vegetative state" as a condition that
appears within one month after a brain injury and in which the patient
- No evidence of awareness of self or environment and an inability to
interact with others;
- No evidence of sustained, reproducible, purposeful, or voluntary
behavioral responses to visual, auditory, tactile, or noxious
- No evidence of language comprehension or expression;
- Intermittent wakefulness manifested by the presence of
- Sufficiently preserved hypothalamic and brainstem autonomic
functions to permit survival with medical and nursing care;
- Bowel and bladder incontinence; and
- Variably preserved cranial nerve (pupillary, oculocephalic,
corneal, vestibulo-ocular, gag) and spinal reflexes.
The academy also states that "recovery of consciousness from
post-traumatic PVS after 12 months in adults and children is unlikely.
Recovery from non-traumatic PVS after 3 months is exceedingly rare."
AAN guidelines finally explain that the diagnosis of a "permanent
vegetative state" is, "as with all clinical diagnoses in medicine,
based on probabilities, not absolutes."
Stevens said that last criterion is the main problem with the types of
absolute statements made by doctors like Cranford when giving a PVS
"With persistent vegetative state, that diagnosis is based upon an
observation and an opinion," Stevens said. "The diagnosis itself
carries with it a prognosis -- in other words, that people are not
going to recover, that this is permanent and that, therefore, you can
do things like were done with Terri Schiavo, where her feeding tube
"A number of cases have shown this not to be the case," Stevens said.
"The one that [Cranford] was involved in is a good example of that,
but there are other cases as well, where patients thought to be in a
persistent vegetative state have then recovered, some of them quite
Cybercast News Service found more than two dozen cases where
published news reports document patients diagnosed as being in a
persistent or permanent vegetative state, or coma "waking up,"
- Recovery after three years - Marcello Manunza suffered a brain injury
during a car crash in November 1987. In July 1990, relatives noticed
that he was following them around the room with his eyes and
appeared to be trying to read encouraging signs that had been placed
in his nursing home room. Within days he was able to eat, control
the movement of his limbs and speak;
- Recovery after seven years - Hawaii resident Peter Sana lapsed
into a coma after contracting meningitis, an inflammation of the
membrane that encloses the brain and spinal cord. He was in a
Honolulu nursing home in September 2001 when he began responding to
commands from nurses. Sana's father visited him every day during the
seven years. His caregivers credit visits by family members with
giving Sana the will to wake up;
- Recovery after eight years - The first thing Conley Holbrook
said after rousing from a PVS in 1991 was "Momma." He then
identified the two men who had beaten him unconscious with a log on
Nov. 27, 1982. Holbrook awoke while he was hospitalized for
- Recovery after 18 years - In 1983, Patti White Bull of South
Dakota was diagnosed as being in a coma or PVS due to complications
from a Caesarean section. Two months later, her husband and other
family members removed her from life support. On Christmas Day 1999,
White Bull woke up and asked to see her children. A day later, she
was walking around her nursing home room with assistance.
A 1996 study published in the British Medical Journal found that 43
percent of patients in the United Kingdom thought to be in a PVS had
been misdiagnosed. Of the 40 patients whose cases were reviewed, 17
were later found to be "alert, aware and often able to express a
study of 49 patients found that 18 of them, or 37 percent, "were
"Errors in diagnosis may result from confusion in terminology, lack
of\super \nosupersub extended observation of patients, and lack of
skill or training in the assessment of neurologically devastated
patients," according to the study, published in "Neurology," the
journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Stevens said this is all the evidence that should be needed to call
for a higher standard when it comes to diagnosing a patient as being
in a persistent or permanent vegetative state.
"Unfortunately, right now, it's a circular diagnosis," Stevens
explained. "Doctors who are advocates for it are willing to state
absolutely that a patient is in PVS and then, when the patient comes
out of PVS, then they use circular reasoning and say, 'Well, then they
weren't in it at all.'"
Cranford admitted that a positron emission tomography, or PET scan,
could have been conducted to confirm or disprove the diagnosis in the
Schiavo case. The test measures the metabolism of the cerebral cortex
and patients in a verifiable PVS typically have less than 50 percent
of the PET scan activity of a healthy brain.
"The only reliable PET scan in the country that could do this would be
in New York City. And had I known this case would have gone to this
point, I would have advocated that (PET scan) three years ago during
the evidentiary hearing," Cranford said. "But we never knew Congress
would get involved."
Cranford said he also did not recommend the test because he believed
that neither Terri's husband, nor her parents would want her moved to
New York City. That explanation troubled Stevens.
"If you cannot make a firm and absolute diagnosis, you shouldn't make
a firm and absolute decision about what you're going to do with those
patients based on that diagnosis," Stevens said.
The Christian bio-ethicist also believes that the circumstances under
which a patient, like Terri Schiavo, can be denied nutrition and
hydration should be much more limited.
"We must have clear, compelling and written evidence that that is the
patient's desire before that is removed," Stevens argued, adding that
allowing such decisions to be made based on hearsay testimony creates
the potential for conflicts of interest, especially when those
testifying stand to gain financially from the death of the disabled
Even when such a written directive not to use a feeding tube to keep a
patient alive exists, Stevens argued that the physician's ethical
"The critical issue is that, if you do not put a feeding tube in, you
must, you must offer food and water by mouth," Stevens said. "If you
don't do that, it's not the disease that kills the patient. It's you
that kills the patient.
"That was the big ethical issue, the most foundational issue in the
Terri Schiavo case," Stevens said. "That is like not only taking
someone off a respirator because it's futile, but also, at the same
time, removing all of the oxygen from the room.
"Your intent is not to remove a burdensome therapy," Stevens
concluded. "Your intent is to remove a burdensome patient."
Schiavo's 'Dr. Humane Death' Got 1980 Diagnosis Wrong -- 04/12/2005
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