By Sophia A. Niarchos
Oyster Bay, N.Y. – It wasn’t the first time George Felos represented a case involving right-to-die issues, but he never expected it to be as controversial as it was. The attorney for Michael Schiavo since 1997, Felos had already been involved as the attorney in a Florida case concerning Estelle Browning, a stroke victim whom a nursing home did not allow to die through the removal of a feeding tube despite her living will, which instructed caregivers to not keep her alive by artificial means if she ever became ill.
Although Browning died in 1989 of natural causes before the case was resolved, in 1990, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a living will can allow caregivers to withhold food and water from an incapacitated person, even when death is not imminent.
“I was surprised by the notoriety that the Schiavo case received because it didn’t present new legal propositions. The Browning case was very controversial because it was making new law; there had been no statute that allowed a feeding tube to be removed without a court order, and although it took two or three years for the law to settle down, things worked pretty well [after that].
“The difference in the Schiavo case was the intense family disagreement.”
A student and teacher of topics involving spirituality, Felos draws from his Greek Orthodox upbringing and his exploration of Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam to inform his spiritual evolution.
“I believe that Christ was God incarnate and was resurrected. But, by the same token, I believe that there were other incarnations of God as well,” he says. “All the great religions in their essence express the same fundamental truths.”
Presented with statements made by Orthodox hierarchs in the days surrounding Terri Schiavo’s death, Felos expressed his disagreement with the rationale used by Metropolitans Maximos and Iakovos in condemning the withdrawal of her feeding tube.
“She deserves to live,” Maximos had said. “A miracle is always possible for her to be restored from minimum consciousness to full consciousness….”
“I believe in miracles,” Felos responded. [But Maximos is] incorrect in saying that she could be restored. She had no consciousness, no cerebral cortex; the thinking brain had atrophied and was replaced by spinal fluid.
“The rationale about miracles,” he added, “is incorrect because you could apply it to any case, whatsoever, to withdraw or stop any artificial life support. People would have to be hooked up until they die with the machine in place.
“Most people believe that medical treatment is great and wonderful and to the extent that it can restore a lost bodily function, they would say they want it. But when artificial means are used to perpetuate a bodily existence when a patient’s thought process and personality are gone, most people would say they don’t want their body perpetuated in that manner.”
In his statement, Metropolitan Iakovos acknowledges that “there are times when artificial life support is more expressive of a fear of death than concern for loved ones in tragic circumstances” and that when the body is unable to sustain life on its own in any manner, ceasing artificial and mechanical means “is often acceptable, since it is not actually causing death,” but qualified his remarks by adding that “we do not view feeding and hydration in such terms, for in the case of Terri Schiavo and others who are in similar conditions, death is not imminent as long as the body is nourished.”
Felos noted that “the artificial provision of nutrition and hydration [he gave a graphic description of the invasive surgical procedure, which has many side effects, required to begin the artificial feeding process], is medical treatment under the law; receiving nutrition [artificially] is no more essential or natural than receiving air [artificially].” Felos pointed to a papal statement in the late 1950’s that presented the Catholic Church’s position that patients were not bound to take extraordinary measures to preserve their life. “What’s ‘extraordinary’ is up to that person; one person may find it to be a treatment that is not burdensome to their dignity and another may find it burdensome,” he said.
To the Orthodox Church of America’s statement which expresses the nature of Terri Schiavo’s condition as one for which “no clear consensus has been determined” and asserts that “[e]xtraordinary means of prolonging life, as well as extraordinary means of ending life, [including the “removal of Mrs. Schiavo from feeding tubes”] are inconsistent with wise stewardship of God’s gift of life,” and “can in no way be condoned or supported,” Felos again voiced his disagreement.
“There has been no dispute as to her medical condition,” he asserted. “Anyone who has read the record, every judge who has reviewed not the fiction, but the facts and credible medical evidence, has recognized she’s in a persistent vegetative state.”
Introduced to yoga as a stress reliever by a friend when he was attending law school at Boston University, Felos expressed his appreciation for the “profound mystical process” that is death, a process he became intimately familiar with as a hospice patient volunteer after the Browning case was over.
“The volunteer sits with a dying patient once or twice a week, giving the caregiver time for relief. I found that work very satisfying. When somebody walks into my office, and they say their spouse is dying and they have to make an end-of-life medical choice, I don’t care what their status or persona is; when you meet people like that, you are relating to them in a very core way. Pretense and personality seem to fall by the wayside, and you are relating to them on a deep and personal level. When you’re invited into someone’s home and are there to help them through a profound mystical process like death, it’s an honor and a privilege. Just the feeling that you’ve helped somebody through that process is very rewarding.
“I’ve recognized from Estelle Browning’s case that there’s so much fear related to death and the dying process; we don’t like to make decisions regarding death. It’s a great public benefit to have such issues looked at by Americans and people around the world, and the fact that families are discussing these wishes is very beneficial.”
Felos is a strong believer in setting time aside for daily spiritual practice, for inner reflection, “because we’re so exteriorized, we’re out there doing this and that, and we need time for connection with our inner self to be more effective as human beings.”
Recognizing that this practice is a personal one, he describes his own spiritual regimen as consisting of “meditation, prayer, contemplation, study of Scripture, tai chi, and yoga.”
He has recently written a book, Litigation as Spiritual Practice.
“It teaches people in all types of work environments how to work in an atmosphere that is aggressive and harsh and maintain their spiritual center,” Felos explained.
“All of us have these relationships and areas where we encounter aggressiveness and negative energy; one of the primary outlooks of the book is that you have a choice of how to encounter your life; one is blame—of the other person, government, fate, God; but this disassociates your self from your own experience and is an exclusionary approach to life.
“Another approach is that every situation that is presented to you in your life carries with it a lesson…, and when you stop relating to people as your adversaries, when you ask ‘what do I have to learn from this situation?’, interesting, beneficial things happen; answers start to occur.”