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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 March, 2005, 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK
Obituary: Terri Schiavo
Terri Schiavo
Terri Schiavo: US housewife whose illness became a cause celebre
Terri Schiavo was a US housewife whose illness became a cause celebre, provoking a bitter legal dispute and dividing America over the debate about the "right to die".

Her life was ordinary. It was the manner of Terri Schiavo's dying that obsessed a nation, as she lay on her bed at the Woodside Hospice House in Pinellas Park, Florida, presumably unaware of the bitter legal wrangle swirling around her.

Ultimately this involved not only her family, but America's legislative, executive and judicial powers.

Terri Schiavo's true wishes will never be known, since she never left any written instructions about what she would have desired if she lapsed into a persistent vegetative state, as doctors described her condition.

Terri had been unable to speak for herself for 15 years, since tragedy befell her in the early hours of 25 February 1990, when she suffered a heart attack which robbed her brain of oxygen, causing permanent damage and destroying her cognitive ability.

Terri Schiavo was visited by her mother in 2001
Terri Schiavo is visited by her mother in 2001

Theresa Marie Schindler grew up in a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia, the oldest of three children. She was shy and her pet hamsters and birds outnumbered her human friends.

Sometimes she giggled, but most of the time she was quiet, according to a friend who was a bridesmaid at her wedding.

"She didn't like the limelight," she said. "How ironic is that?"

By the time Terri was 16, attending an all-girl Roman Catholic high school, she was very anxious about her weight. She weighed nearly 18 stones, but went on a diet and rapidly lost about seven stones.

Controversial husband

Soon after, she met Michael Schiavo, apparently the first young man to show an interest in her, and in 1984, they married. Moving to Florida and deciding to start a family, Terri had trouble getting pregnant.

By now, she weighed just under eight stones and delighted that she felt good in a bikini for the first time. In reality, though, she had an eating disorder. Doctors believe her suspected bulimia was the primary cause of her collapse when she was 26.

Terri emerged from her coma, but did not regain consciousness. Her husband was appointed her guardian by a Florida court and took control of his wife's needs, as he defined them.

Michael Schiavo
Michael Schiavo said his wife's feeding tube should be removed

He was fastidious about Terri's appearance, spraying her with perfume and insisting that she be dressed in the latest fashion.

According to a former worker at one nursing home, he was so demanding that managers sought a court order against him.

But she recalled a frequent comment by nurses: "He may be a bastard, but if I was sick like that, I [would] wish he was my husband."

Initially, relations between Michael and Terri's parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, were close and co-operative. But the relationship soured, first over questions of money, and then over Terri's life and death.

Michael Schiavo came to advocate removing Terri's feeding tube, saying that she had told him before her accident that she would not want to be artificially kept alive.

Under American law he was her legal guardian, and he remained married to her, despite starting a family with another woman.

Her parents rejected the doctors' diagnosis that Terri was in a persistent vegetative state, and insisted she could recover. They did everything they could to keep her alive.

The rest of the story became an almost daily international headline story. In the end, her divided family couldn't even agree on whether she appeared to be in torment or in peace.

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