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Short, Sad Life Of Terri Schiavo

Terri Schiavo was a shy woman who treasured simple joys and married her first love. She was at the center of national drama, but her public presence was compressed into a few photos and several seconds of video repeatedly broadcast around the world.

She died Thursday in her small hospice room in Pinellas Park, Fla., surrounded by stuffed animals and medical equipment.

Theresa Marie Schindler Schiavo was 41.

She appeared to the world made up and dressed, although she had not enunciated a word nor made any choices since a 1990 heart attack that ravaged her body and mind.

Her case was called "the most-reviewed and the most-litigated death in American history" by legal expert David Garrow in The Baltimore Sun.

Since 1998, when her husband Michael Schiavo first tried to have his wife's feeding tube and hydration stopped after she'd been declared by doctors to be in a "permanent vegetative state," Terri Schiavo's life has been played out in countless courts, the halls of congress and even in the executive office of United States.

President Bush was roused in the middle of the night to sign emergency legislation. The Vatican has commented on her case.

The object of this unprecedented attention grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, a shy girl who giggled easily, but who hated to stand out in a crowd.

"She was quiet," childhood friend Sue Pickwell told The Washington Post. Pickwell served as a bridesmaid in her friend's wedding to Michael Schiavo. "She didn't like the limelight. How ironic is that?"

Even as Schiavo's life dwindled in the Florida hospice, a marquee in front of her alma mater — a sprawling, tree-speckled Catholic academy — Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster Township, Pa., read, "Terri Schiavo, Class of '81, We Pray That You May Live."

Schiavo grew up not far from Warminster, just off the Philadelphia Turnpike in Huntingdon Valley, Pa. Friends describe her neighborhood as a picturesque suburb built into a former farming community just north of the city. Her Catholic schooling was not unusual for the area: Bryn Athym Catholic College is nearby.

Born in Pennsylvania on December 3, 1963, her childhood home was a neat, two-story home; her bedroom lavender and quaint.

Schiavo's father, Robert, was an industrial equipment dealer, a quiet man who would surprise his children's friends with a dry wit. According to news reports, Mrs. Schindler was a classic Italian mother who adorned guests with hugs and kisses. Together, they were a tight-knit group.

Terri Schiavo was locked in a battle with her own personal image as far back as anyone can remember. She was a chubby child who gained more weight through adolescence, reaching at least 200 pounds by her senior year of high school.

She loved popular magazines and idolized celebrities like David Cassidy and the actors who played Starsky and Hutch in the old TV series. She only showed a boisterous side to a handful of close friends.

Those close friends have said Terri never excelled in school. She sometimes talked about becoming a veterinarian, but got barely passing grades. Her other interests during her school years were unclear, and she shied away from boys and parties.


Once in college, she stuck to old friends. But when she met Michael Schiavo, that changed. They met in 1982 when Terri was a 19-year-old freshman at Bucks County Community College.

They kissed, dated and got engaged within a year. She organized the wedding at the Catholic parish her family had attended since her youth, Our Lady of Good Council. She was a month shy of her 21st birthday when she walked down the aisle in 1984.

According to friends and relatives, Michael Schiavo was Terri's only love. He was the first man she kissed, and they were engaged within a year of meeting. His big-but-tight-knit family took in Michael's bride, and she befriended his siblings, including his brother, Scott.

Terri Schiavo's life as a newlywed exemplified her small-town dreams. After she and Michael returned from a honeymoon at Disney World, the Schiavos lived in her parents' basement because they couldn't afford to pay rent.

The couple barely scraped by. Terri also cut herself off from some close friends because her marriage became her life.

But things looked up when the pair moved to Florida two years later. Michael got a job managing a restaurant at nights and Terri worked at an insurance company during the day. She made a few friends and began to lose a significant amount of weight.

According to court papers, the couple wanted to have a baby, but even after consulting fertility doctors, failed to conceive.

By that time, Terri had shed nearly 100 pounds. Her brother and sister have said that she was unhappy in the marriage.

Most accounts say she ate regularly, or even ate large portions. But medical experts say her loss of weight was too rapid, and probably due to an acute case of bulimia, which led to an imbalance of electrolytes that caused her heart to stop.

On the evening of her heart attack, according to lawyer Gary Fox, who represented Michael Schiavo in a successful medical malpractice suit against two doctors who failed to diagnose Terri as bulimic, Terri and Michael had eaten a large meal.

One account says that after they had finished, Michael rushed to the bathroom upon hearing thumping coming from behind the door. When he opened it, Terri was lying on the floor.

"She had purged, apparently, or vomited, binged, which is what bulimics do," Fox said.

By the time an ambulance arrived early on morning in February 1990, Terri had suffered severe brain damage. She fell into a coma on Feb. 25, 1990, and had been in a diagnosed as being in a "persistent vegetative state" ever since.

But Terri's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, hotly disputed that medical diagnosis. They repeatedly said they saw signs of life, and got muted responses to questions when they visit their daughter's hospice room.

Michael Schiavo, who was granted legal guardianship of Terri in June 1990, disputes that Terri can or does respond to stimulus. So do many doctors.

But a deep rift opened up between parents and son-in-law after Michael Schiavo sought damages for medical malpractice from the doctors who examined Terri. He won a total of $1.3 million, some of which went to Terri's medical care.

While the fight appears to have started over money, it soon escalated into an increasingly bitter quarrel over Terri's life that eventually spilled into public view.

The feeding tube keeping Terri alive was removed twice and then reinserted, once through an emergency court order and once on the order of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. The third feeding tube removal, March 18, was ordered by a Florida judge granting the husband's petition.

This ultimately led to her death on Thursday.

By Christine Lagorio

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