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Saturday, October 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
By Allen G. Breed
PINELLAS PARK, Fla. Diane Meyer can recall only one time her best friend Terri Schiavo really was angry with her. It was 1981, and it haunts her still.
The recent high-school graduates had 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 Schiavo off.
"She went down my throat about this joke, that it was inappropriate," Meyer said. She remembers Terri wondering how the doctors and lawyers possibly could know what Quinlan was feeling or what she would want.
"Where there's life," Meyer recalls Schiavo saying, "there's hope."
Twenty-two years later and suffering from brain damage, Schiavo now is the subject of a similar debate and so is the question of 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.
A different recollection
In contrast to Meyer's recollection, Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, and members of his family have said the woman told them she would not want to be kept alive artificially if she were incapable of improving.
Michael Schiavo petitioned in 1998 to remove his wife's feeding tube. The courts approved the request last week, ruling that Terri Schiavo is in a persistent vegetative state. But the tube was restored Wednesday, after six days without food or water, 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 Schiavo is a person that before people became obsessed with whether she should die, she had a life.
Theresa Marie Schindler was born Dec. 3, 1963, to a well-to-do family in the Philadelphia suburbs. The oldest of three children, she always was shy and retiring.
Her mother, Mary, says she would spend hours in her room, arranging her more than 100 stuffed animals into a private zoo. She 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.
Schiavo was always very tenderhearted, especially when it came to animals.
She came home crying one night, saying she thought she'd run over a rabbit or squirrel. Knowing she would be devastated if she saw the animal the next day, her brother Bobby went out and threw it in the bushes, then assured Terri he'd found nothing.
When her yellow Labrador collapsed, Schiavo performed mouth-to-nose resuscitation on him, says her mother, Mary.
"She was puffing away for all she was worth," she says. "He died in her arms."
In her daughter's junior year, Mary Schindler took Schiavo to the doctor to ask about her weight, which had ballooned to over 200 pounds on a 5-foot-3 frame. The doctor told her she 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."
She enrolled in Bucks County Community College with the goal of working with animals, and there she met Michael Schiavo. Mary Schindler says her daughter went head over heels.
"It was the first guy who ever, ever paid any attention to her," she says.
He was the "Officer and a Gentleman" to a chubby girl who had lived vicariously through Danielle Steele romances, Meyer believes.
After a little more than a year of dating, the two were married in 1984. She wrote to her favorite entertainer, John Denver, to ask him to sing at her wedding, but he never replied.
By a year later, Schiavo had gained a little of her weight back. Meyer says Schiavo told her that her husband had seen her high-school graduation picture and warned her "if she ever got fat like that again he'd divorce her."
"I said, 'He's probably kidding,' " she says. "But it was upsetting to her."
Scott Schiavo, Michael's brother, says it was the Schindlers who rode her about her weight. He says her brother sometimes showed one of her old driver's licenses for a laugh.
In 1986, the couple moved to Florida. Michael Schiavo managed restaurants, and Terri got a clerk's job at an insurance agency.
Mary Schindler says Terri began complaining that Michael never wanted to go anywhere. When she would go visit her parents or a friend from work, Mary Schindler says, he would check the mileage on her car.
Jackie Rhodes, who worked and socialized with Terri, says Michael 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.
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," Scott Schiavo recalls, repeating testimony he gave in court. " 'If I'm gone, just let me go.' "
Bobby Schindler says his sister began talking about leaving Michael 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 Mary 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 she had a real eating disorder. Doctors have never been able to say with certainty what caused the collapse.
The day before she collapsed, she had complained to her mother that she was having menstrual problems and wasn't satisfied with her doctor. Mary Schindler said they'd get together after the weekend and find her a new one.
They never got to.
Terri Schiavo 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.
She still has her "stuffies," only not as many as before, just a couple of stuffed dogs and a pair of plush pumpkins her mother hung up for Halloween.
Her family says she laughs when they play John Denver for her and follows them with her eyes. Doctors say those are unconscious responses.
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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