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Struggle for acceptance, then a tragic turn

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. -- Theresa Marie Schiavo strived for acceptance during the first 26 years of her life, struggling with her weight and self-image as a girl, then finding love as a young woman, only to have it all snatched away just as she prepared to start a family.

Over the 15 years of disability that ensued -- and especially at her death yesterday at the age of 41 -- she became the focal point of a heart-rending national debate that forced Americans to confront questions about the sanctity of life and the limits of medical care.

Schiavo was born Dec. 3, 1963, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and named after St. Theresa of Avila by her Catholic parents, Robert and Mary Schindler.

Her father was a salesman, her mother a homemaker. Their daughter -- the eldest of the three Schindler children -- was a bashful young girl who drew pictures of horses and dogs, particularly of her beloved Labrador, Bucky.

From a young age, Terri was overweight. Her family said she would weep while buying school clothes, worried that classmates would ridicule her size. When she graduated from Archbishop Wood High School in 1981, she weighed more than 200 pounds.

But then she made a change. She went on a diet, dropping to 150 pounds. She dyed her hair blonde and started wearing more form-fitting clothes, showing a self-confidence her family had never seen before.

During a psychology class in her second semester at Bucks County Community College, she met another student, who would change her life: Michael Schiavo. He has said that it was love at first sight. The Schindler family stood on the lawn and applauded when Michael picked her up for her first-ever date.

The couple dated for two years, then married on Nov. 10, 1984. Terri had written to singer John Denver, a favorite of hers, asking him to perform at the wedding. The fact the pop star did not respond did not ruin her big day, though. In photos from the occasion, the bride flashed a wide grin.

Finances were tight for the new couple. He worked as a manager at McDonald's, she as a clerk at the Prudential Life Insurance Company. Terri, who loved animals, wanted to be a veterinarian.

In 1986, the Schiavos moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., where her parents had retired. Terri continued to shed weight. By age 26, the 5-foot-4-inch woman weighed 110 pounds; she proudly wore a bikini in photos. To maintain her figure, she dieted strictly and drank nearly a gallon of iced tea daily. She devoured Danielle Steele potboilers and drove a T-top Trans Am.

The couple received fertility treatments in the late 1980s, according to court documents, but they did not have children.

On Feb. 25, 1990, after five years of marriage, Michael Schiavo called 911, reporting that he woke up to find his wife lying unconscious on the floor. Her heart had stopped beating, depriving her brain of oxygen for about five minutes before paramedics arrived. Later, doctors would say her extreme dieting resulted in very low potassium levels, which may have caused the heart attack that permanently disabled her.

After two months, she emerged from a coma. By all accounts, Michael grew close to his in-laws, and together they tended to Terri as she was moved between hospitals and rehabilitation centers, undergoing aggressive therapy.

Michael hired an aide to care for Terri's appearance, giving her makeovers, and he took her to art museums, hoping familiar pleasures would stimulate her brain. He took her to California for experimental treament with implanted electrodes.

But Terri Schiavo had entered a persistent vegetative state. Her cerebral cortex had been decimated. She was unaware of herself and her environment, doctors said. She could not think or feel. But occasionally she cried out or rolled her eyes or moved her head -- the gestures that have been beamed across the world during her family's battle over her fate. Her doctors described them as purely reflexive actions. Her parents saw them as flashes of the old Terri, evidence that she was at least marginally conscious.

The Schindlers and Michael Schiavo had an acrimonious falling-out over whether she should be kept alive with the aid of a feeding tube. Her husband, who argued that Terri would not have wanted artificial feeding, prevailed time and again in court. Two weeks ago, the tube was removed for the last time.

Yesterday, at the end of a 15-year odyssey that polarized her family and sparked a national debate, Terri Schiavo died.

She is survived by her husband; her parents, who live in St. Petersburg; a brother, Bobby; and a sister, Suzanne Vitadamo.

The Schiavo Case
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