Do they suffer from the process?
When Wesley Smith, attorney and author conducted research on this question in preparation for writing his book "Forced Exit," he asked St. Louis neurologist William Burke these very questions. Here is what he was told:
A conscious [cognitively disabled] person would feel it just as you or I would. They will go into seizures. Their skin cracks, their tongue cracks, their lips crack. They may have nosebleeds because of the drying of the mucus membranes, and heaving and vomiting might ensue because of the drying out of the stomach lining. They feel the pangs of hunger and thirst. Imagine going one day without a glass of water! Death by dehydration takes ten to fourteen days. It is an extremely agonizing death.
Dr. Burke opposes removing feeding tubes from cognitively disabled people and so some might dismiss his opinion as biased. But Minnesota neurologist Ronald Cranford's pro-dehydration testimony in the Robert Wendland case--Cranford also testified that Terri's feeding tube should be removed--supports much of what Dr. Burke asserted. While Cranford called seizures "rare," his detailed description of the dehydration process reveals its gruesome reality:
After seven to nine days [from commencing dehydration] they begin to lose all fluids in the body, a lot of fluids in the body. And their blood pressure starts to go down. When their blood pressure goes down, their heart rate goes up. . . . Their respiration may increase and then . . .
the blood is shunted to the central part of the body from the periphery of the body. So, that usually two to three days prior to death, sometimes four days, the hands and the feet become extremely cold. They become mottled. That is you look at the hands and they have a bluish appearance. And the mouth dries a great deal, and the eyes dry a great deal and other parts of the body become mottled. And that is because the blood is now so low in the system it's shunted to the heart and other visceral organs and away from the periphery of the body .
Apologists for dehydrating patients like Terri Schiavo might respond that Terri is in a persistent vegetative state and thus would feel nothing. Yet, the PVS diagnosis is often mistaken--as indeed it was in other cases. And while the courts have all ruled that Terri is unconscious based on medical testimony, this is strongly disputed by other medical experts and Terri's family who insist that she is interactive with them. Moreover, it is undisputed that whatever her actual level of awareness, Terri does react to painful stimuli. Intriguingly, her doctor testified he prescribes pain medication for her every month during the course of her menstrual period.
View a video of Terri interacting with her Dad