The Starvation of Christine
The Christian Reader - Jan/Feb 1995
The Time magazine cover startled me. The stark black-and-white photo showed a disfigured young woman lying comatose in a hospital bed. A feeding tube protruded from her stomach, and her father sat forlornly next to her. The headline stated: “The Right To Die.”
I couldn’t believe it. This young woman looked like the comatose patients my wife, Gail, and I ministered to every day. The only difference was that this lady appeared to have a higher level of awareness than many comatose patients. Her name was Christine Busalacchi (pronounced boo-sa-LOCK-ee). From the Time story (March 19, 1990) and from other reports, we learned that Christine’s father was asking the courts for the right to have Christine’s feeding tube removed. The story also mentioned that another comatose woman, Nancy Cruzan, was at the same rehabilitation center in Missouri.
Gail and I were scheduled to speak the following Spring at several churches in the Midwest, including Missouri. But Christine's
picture touched us deeply. As we prayed, we sensed the Holy Spirit prompting us to reschedule the trip for mid-December to allow us to visit the Missouri Rehabilitation Center sooner. On December 14 we had traveled from our home in New York and were speaking at a church in Indiana when we learned that the courts had ruled to allow Nancy Cruzan’s parents to remove Nancy’s feeding tube and allow her to starve.
Gail and I were shocked-we hadn’t been aware of any pending decision. God surely had known this was going to happen, I thought. He allowed us to reschedule our trip so we could let Nancy Cruzan hear the gospel.
The following day brought more news from Missouri. People from all over the country were converging on the rehabilitation center to protest the court’s ruling.
On December 18, when I finally pulled the van up to the Missouri Rehabilitation Center, the grounds looked like a circus. Helicopters circled overhead, television crews lit up the ground, police blocked the hospital entrance, and protesters swarmed everywhere-setting up a tent village, marching in front of the hospital, holding up signs and placards.
I parked the van and made my way to the hospital entrance. After listening to my story, the officers allowed me inside to see the chaplain, Ted Coleman.
Watching God at Work
“This is what we do,” I explained, handing the chaplain a brochure that described our ministry of singing and encouragement to comatose patients. “I feel strongly the Lord brought us here to minister to Nancy Cruzan and to Christine Busalacchi.”
There was kindness in Ted’s eyes, but he shook his head. “You’re about the three-hundredth person here today who’s been sent by God,” he said. He began describing some of the bizarre characters who had shown up as God’s emissaries.
“I can see why you’re hesitant,” I persisted, “but we’re not...well, we just came here to minister Christ to these women.”
He thought for a moment and finally offered, “I’ll give the Cruzans your brochure and tell them you’re here, but I’ll have to get back to you.”
My heart sank. It all seemed tragically ironic. Never before had we ever had trouble getting in to see head-injured patients. Few people ever bothered to see them.
But now, because a comatose person’s fate had become a media event-and well-meaning Christians had banded together to fight for her life-she might not hear the gospel at all. The next morning Ted informed us that he’d given the brochure to the Cruzan family, but because of all the strange events they simply didn’t want to see anyone.
We would never see Nancy Cruzan. The day after Christmas the newspapers carried her obituary. Why, God? How strongly Gail and I had believed we would get to share Jesus with Nancy before she died. All the way back to New York we questioned Did we miss God somehow? What good could come of it?
But in late January the phone rang. “I’m Peggy Cooper,” the voice said, “one of the chaplains at the Missouri Rehabilitation Center. I saw the brochure you gave Ted Coleman when you were here, and I wondered if you’d like to see Christine Busalacchi.”
Suddenly, all the feelings I experienced when I first saw Christine’s picture on the Time cover flooded me again.
“There’s just one catch,” Peggy added. “There’s not much time. Christine’s father is trying to move her to a different hospital to make it easier to pull her feeding tube, since the Missouri Rehabilitation Center has legal guardianship over her.
Three days later were packed and headed back to Missouri, this time with our six-month-old son John Samuel. When we arrived, the hospital grounds lay bare. No tents, no protesters, no media crews. The doors were wide open, and chaplains Ted Coleman and Peggy Cooper greeted us warmly. Several nurses showed us to Christine’s room. They seemed genuinely excited that we had come.
Christine lay motionless in bed, facing the window. As we entered her room, a nurse called her name-and Christine turned her head and looked at us.
This can’t be the same woman I saw on the magazine, I thought when I saw her gaze. She’s so alive! She was dressed up, her hair styled- and she was smiling. She had been badly injured in a car accident in 1987 as a 17-year-old, but six years later her eyes still exuded life and liveliness.
When we gathered around her bed, Christine saw little John Samuel and exhaled a long wheeze- a laugh. John Samuel cooed back at her, and Christine let out an awkward giggle. I took out my guitar and began strumming the opening cords of “There Is None Holy as the Lord.” As we sang, I sensed God’s presence filling the room. Christine remained focused on us, absorbing everything, and her body relaxing as we sang.
After a few songs, I explained to Christine why we had come. I spoke to her about salvation and how Jesus had died for her sins. I told her about his forgiveness and that all she needed to do was open her heart to Him, and she could enjoy new life just as she was. We prayed for her.
The next day we mat again with Christine for worship. As the music echoed down the hallway, a high-level patient wheeled himself over to our group. Soon wheelchairs holding low-level patients were wheeled into the circle.
Gail read aloud from Psalm 119: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word... It is good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees,” We could see many of the patients were visibly moved as we ended our time by praying for them.
As we turned to say good-bye, Christine answered with a long, loud gasp-“uuuuuhhhh”- the sound the head injured people often make when they want to speak. We knew it was her “good-bye.” Then, incredibly, she lifted her arm about fifteen inches above the tray on her wheelchair. A wave!
The next morning, as our group filed from the elevator onto her floor Christine spotted us from about thirty feet away and began smiling. “Uuuuuhhhn,” she gasped, and raised her arm in that same deliberate wave.
I read the words “ Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters” from Isaiah 55. “Christine,” I asked, “God says if you’re thirsty, you can drink in His Spirit. Are you Thirsty?”
She slowly turned her head to look at me. Then she opened her mouth. Lifting her arm, Christine pointed her index finger to her tongue. She made a low sound “Nnnnnhhhh.”
We were astonished!
“Yes, you’re thirsty,” I could only whisper. “Christine, Jesus’ Spirit in you will never run dry.”
Christine was able to stay at the Missouri Rehabilitation Center for several months before her father succeeded in having her moved to a St. Louis facility. As the months passed, news reporters outlined the latest decision in Christine’s father’s legal quest. In late February 1993, Christine’s feeding tube was removed, depriving her of all food and water. Christine died on March 7 at age 23. The New York Times quoted a hospital spokesman as saying the cause of death was cardiac arrest due to dehydration, and went on to report, “The medical at [the St. Louis hospital] said Miss Busalacchi did not feel pain or suffer as her body dehydrated” and that “it was impossible for people in her condition ‘to feel thirst, hunger, pain or suffering.’ The article quoted the medical team as stating that “Miss Busalacchi was in a persistent vegetative state,” which is defined as “the incapacity to speak, think, or move voluntarily.”
We knew otherwise, as did many of the medical professionals and chaplains who worked closest with Christine. We learned later that a number of nurses at the Missouri Rehabilitation Center had tried to legally adopt her to prevent the tube from being removed. There request was refused.
Today we still don’t understand why Christine Busalacchi needed to die. But we are more convinced than ever that Christians should be caring for those comatose patients as the human beings they are, rather than merely protesting to keep them alive.
During that week in March when Christine was without food and water, we couldn't bear to think of her undergoing the agony of starvation. At the same time, we praised God that we and many others had been given opportunity to love Christine and to receive her love. She had been robbed of life and justice. But she had also hungered and thirsted for righteousness, and we knew she would be fulfilled.
By Scott and Joy Sawyer, staff members of Time Square Church in New York City.