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Archive for Saturday, October 25, 2003

Friends, family remember life before right-to-die debate

October 25, 2003

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— Diane Meyer can recall only one time her best friend Terri Schiavo really got angry with her. It was 1981, and it haunts her still.

The recent high school graduates had just seen a television movie about Karen Ann Quinlan, who had been in a coma since collapsing six years earlier and was the subject of a bitter court battle over her parents' decision to take her off a respirator. Meyer told a cruel joke about Quinlan, and it set Terri off.

"She went down my throat about this joke, that it was inappropriate," Meyer says. She remembers Terri wondering how the doctors and lawyers could possibly know what Quinlan was really feeling or what she would want.

"Where there's life," Meyer recalls her saying, "there's hope."

Twenty-two years later and suffering from brain damage, Terri is now the subject of a similar debate -- and so is the question of just what choice she would make about her life and death.

She has not been fully conscious since collapsing in 1990 at age 26 from what doctors have said was a potassium imbalance that stopped her heart.

In contrast to Meyer's recollection, her husband, Michael Schiavo, and members of his family have said Terri told them she would not want to be kept alive artificially if she were incapable of getting better.

Michael Schiavo petitioned in 1998 to remove Terri's feeding tube. The courts have ruled Terri is in a persistent vegetative state and last week approved the request. But after six days without food or water, the tube was restored Wednesday by order of Gov. Jeb Bush, who acted on a bill rushed through the Legislature.

Amid the swirl of court filings and the cries of protesters, family and friends say people seem to have forgotten that Terri is a person. That before people became obsessed with whether she should die, she had a life.

Terri Schiavo, who has been in a comalike state since 1990, is
shown in this Aug. 11, 2001, file video, released by her family.

Terri Schiavo, who has been in a comalike state since 1990, is shown in this Aug. 11, 2001, file video, released by her family.

A love of animals

Theresa Marie Schindler was born Dec. 3, 1963, to a well-to-do family in the Philadelphia suburbs. The oldest of three children, she was always shy and retiring.

Her mother, Mary, says Terri would spend hours in her room, arranging her more than 100 stuffed animals into a private zoo. Always heavy, Terri hated sports, except horseback riding, which fed her love for animals.

Terri never said anything about her weight, but her mother always sensed it bothered her.

"She cried a lot when she went to get clothes," Mrs. Schindler says.

Terri didn't go to school dances, not even her senior prom. Instead, she and her friends would go to the movies. Meyer remembers they went to see "An Officer and a Gentleman" four times in one day.

Terri Schiavo, center, is shown in an undated family photo with her
mother, Mary, and father, Bob. Schiavo has been in a comalike state
since 1990 when she collapsed in her home after her heart stopped.
Her parents are battling to keep her alive.

Terri Schiavo, center, is shown in an undated family photo with her mother, Mary, and father, Bob. Schiavo has been in a comalike state since 1990 when she collapsed in her home after her heart stopped. Her parents are battling to keep her alive.

Her junior year, Mrs. Schindler took Terri to the doctor to ask about her weight, which had ballooned to more than 200 pounds on a 5-foot-3 frame. The doctor told her Terri would lose the weight when she was ready.

After graduation from Archbishop Wood Catholic School, she was ready. On a structured diet program, she got her weight down to 140 to 150 pounds initially.

"Terri has always been beautiful from the inside out," Meyer says. "And then when she lost all the weight, she really became quite beautiful on the outside as well. What was inside she allowed to shine out at that point."

Head over heels

Terri enrolled in Bucks County Community College with the goal of working with animals, and there she met Michael Schiavo. Mrs. Schindler says Terri went head over heels.

"It was the first guy who ever, ever paid any attention to her," she says.

After a little more than a year of dating, the two were married in 1984. Terri wrote to her favorite entertainer, John Denver, to ask him to sing at her wedding, but he never replied.

In 1986, the couple moved to Florida. Schiavo managed restaurants, and Terri got a clerk's job at an insurance agency.

Mrs. Schindler says Terri began complaining that Schiavo never wanted to go anywhere. When she would go visit her parents or a friend from work, Mrs. Schindler says, Schiavo would check the mileage on her car.

"She could go to those places," she says. "Any other place, he gave her crap."

Jackie Rhodes, who worked and socialized with Terri, says Schiavo would frequently call his wife at work and leave her in tears. She says she and Terri had each discussed divorcing their husbands and moving in together.

"We actually discussed how much we could afford and where we would want to live," she says.

But Scott Schiavo, Michael's brother, says he wasn't aware of any trouble in the marriage.

And when the couple went to his grandmother's funeral, Scott Schiavo says, Terri told him she would not want to be put on a respirator, as the grandmother had been.

"Terri turned around and looked right in my eyes, and I can still see her sitting there on my lefthand side," he recalls, repeating testimony he gave in court. "'If I'm gone, just let me go."'

Bobby Schindler says his sister began talking about leaving Schiavo in 1989. "She said she wished she had the strength or the energy or the know-how to get a divorce," he says.

By this time, Terri's weight had dropped below 120 and Mrs. Schindler says she confronted her daughter about how thin she was getting.

Terri's reply: "I eat, Mom. I eat."

Potassium disorders and heart failure have been linked to anorexia, but the family doesn't think Terri had a real eating disorder. Doctors have never been able to say with certainty what caused the collapse.

'She's a person'

Terri is 39 now, living in a hospice in Pinellas Park. After working so hard to come out of her shell, she spends most of her days alone in a single room.

Michael Schiavo, who has since become a registered nurse and has a daughter with his girlfriend, could not be reached for comment. But Scott Schiavo says his brother is merely trying to let Terri die with dignity.

"When it sunk into Mike's head, Mike decided to stop being selfish. 'I can't bring her back, and I've got to grant her wish,'" he says. "The bottom line is that Mike never wanted this to be a side show."

Her family and friends say they love her, too, and think she can get better with therapy. And they are just as convinced that she would not want to be let go.

One thing they are sure of. She would not like all this attention and fuss over her.

"She's not a cause," Meyer says. "She's a person. A very special person."

But, like everything else in her life, that is beyond her control.

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