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Terri Schiavo is 'not a cause. She's a person'

http://www.suntimes.com/output/news/cst-nws-schiavo26.html

October 26, 2003

BY ALLEN G. BREED

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. -- 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.

''Where there's life,'' Meyer recalls Terri 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, 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.

***

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.

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. On the other hand, she enjoyed horseback riding, which fed her love for animals.

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

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.

Her junior year, Mary Schindler took Terri to the doctor to ask about her weight, which increased 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, she was ready. On a structured diet program, she got her weight down to 140 to 150 pounds initially.

**

Terri enrolled in Bucks County (Pa.) Community College with the goal of working with animals, and there she met Michael Schiavo. Mary 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.

***

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

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.

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.

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 Mary Schindler says she confronted her daughter about how thin she was.

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.

***

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.

Her family says she laughs 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 sideshow.''

Her family and friends say they love her, too, and think she can get better with therapy.

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.'' AP

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