Terri Schiavo suffered a heart attack in 1990 resulting in severe brain damage. She had no mental capacity and very little functional capacity. Since she couldn't eat or swallow, she was being kept alive using a feeding tube.
Despite numerous unsuccessful attempts at rehabilitation, Terri's parents believed she had a consciousness and deserved the chance to live. Terri's husband Michael, believed she had no consciousness and would not have wanted to live in the persistent vegetative state that she was in.
Terri did not have an "Advance Health Care Directive" (AHCD), also known as a "living will", which unfortunately meant that, the one person who could have conclusively decided her fate Terri herself never did.
An AHCD is typically drafted as part of an overall estate plan and allows a person to "speak" their wishes when they no longer can. It allows a person to state their medical wishes, which are to be implemented by the named agent, usually a spouse or child. Such wishes include whether they would desire services to reduce discomfort and pain, preferences against certain procedures, and ultimately, whether they would want life-sustaining treatment. The document typically includes post-death wishes as well, such as wishes for certain religious or traditional ceremonies, organ donation, burial instructions and the disposition of their remains.
Granted, an AHCD addresses issues of our own mortality that people generally do not want to consider. However, in Terri Schiavo's case and presumably hundreds more each year that don't receive media attention that document alone could have allowed Terri's wishes to be heard and avoided years of heartache for those left behind having to guess.