News outlets ignored questions about doctor who claimed Schiavo can be helped

Dr. William Hammesfahr,* a Florida neurologist who claims that he can help Terri Schiavo, has promoted his treatment plan on Christian Broadcasting Network's The 700 Club and has been cited by anti-abortion activist Randall Terry, a spokesman for Schiavo's parents, in newspaper articles. But questions have been raised about Hammesfahr, and news outlets that have repeated Hammesfahr's claims have ignored those questions.

On the March 18 edition of The 700 Club, senior reporter Wendy Griffith described Hammesfahr as “a Nobel Prize nominee for his work in helping people with severe brain injuries” and said Hammesfahr claims that “about 40 percent of his patients are worse than Terri, yet have seen remarkable progress. He says Terri would do just as well.” Hammesfahr appears on screen saying: “Oh, absolutely. She'll definitely be able to communicate. She'll probably be able to communicate verbally over the course of about two years of treatment with medication. And then as far as being able to use her arms and use her legs, she'll be able to use those. This woman is not in a coma. She's not in PVS [persistent vegetative state]. She's not that bad.”

Terry touted Hammesfahr's proposed treatment in a March 21 Los Angeles Times article, saying that Hammesfahr would try to persuade state senators by using a recording that showed Schiavo responding to commands and attempting to speak. “Dr. Hammesfahr is going to tell them, 'I can treat this woman,' ” Terry said. Terry also cited Hammesfahr's contentions in a February 25 St. Petersburg Times article. Neither article addresses Hammesfahr's controversial past.

An October 23, 2002, Tampa Tribune article reported that during an October 2002 hearing, George Felos, attorney for Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, questioned Hammesfahr's qualifications, noting that he “charges cash for treatments and advertises himself as a nominee for a Nobel Prize based on a letter his congressman wrote to the Nobel committee.” An October 25, 2003, St. Petersburg Times article noted that Greer, who presided over the hearing, called Hammesfahr a “self-promoter” who “offered no names, no case studies, no videos and no test results to support his claim” that he had treated patients worse off than Terri Schiavo.

In October 2001, a Florida appellate court ruled that five doctors should examine Terri Schiavo, all of whom testified at the October 2002 hearing, along with her attending physician. Hammesfahr was one of two doctors chosen by Terri Schiavo's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler. Two others were chosen by Michael Schiavo, and one was appointed by the court. An October 17, 2002, Philadelphia Inquirer article noted that while Hammesfahr and the other doctor chosen by the Schindlers claimed that Terri Schiavo could be helped, her attending physician, the court-appointed physician, and the doctors selected by Michael Schiavo all stated that her condition would not improve.

In addition to his appearance on The 700 Club, Hammesfahr has discussed the case on the October 27, 2003, edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, during which he repeated his claim that Terri Schiavo is “not in a coma.” Co-host Sean Hannity did not note Hammesfahr's disciplinary action by the Florida Board of Medicine, and he encouraged Hammesfahr to speculate on other aspects of the Schiavo case. A clip of Hammesfahr from his Fox News appearance was played on the November 9, 2003, edition of CBS' Sunday Morning.

In this item, Media Matters previously wrote that the Florida Board of Medicine disciplined Hammesfahr in 2003. We have subsequently learned that the board's action was reversed on appeal in 2004 by the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal. We regret the error.