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Michelle Caudle, 42, health-care symbol

MILWAUKEE -- Michelle Caudle, a mother of three and ovarian cancer patient who became a reluctant symbol of the nation's fight over health care reform when her husband joined the Army to get coverage for her, died Friday. She was 42.

After receiving chemotherapy for 30 of the last 57 months, after brain surgery, after days when she couldn't stand the smell of the hospital or the click-click-click of the chemo pump, Michelle longed finally for relief.

"I just feel like I've fought all I can fight," she said from her hospital bed a few weeks ago. "I want to be peaceful." Sitting at her bedside that day, gently combing her hair, was her husband of 23 years, Bill, who'd returned in late April from his base near Tacoma, Wash., to be with her. On a sofa in her hospital room was the youngest of their three children, Chelsea, now 16.

In 2009, the Watertown, Wis., family made international news when Bill Caudle, laid off from the plastics company where he'd worked for 20 years, and facing dramatic increases in the cost of health insurance, took the unusual step of signing up for a four-year stint in the Army. His decision meant that in order to get coverage for Michelle, he would have to leave her side for the first time in her then three-year battle with cancer.

Bill had been interested in the Army for years, but it was not a decision he made lightly. Michelle needed the coverage, and his efforts to find a new job with benefits had gone nowhere. He knew the decision would have consequences. He would be on his way to a base in another state, while Michelle chose to remain in Wisconsin with her doctors, family and friends. To pay for her care, Bill would be trading away their time together. He would be accepting the risk of deployment to the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan.

He signed the papers on May 13, 2009, his 39th birthday, wondering: What did I do? Michelle had her own reservations.

"Yeah, I questioned it," she said recently. "But I've always trusted him to be the man he is and make his own decisions. You can't say there weren't days when you felt angry or frustrated, but he's taken care of us." Like Bill, Michelle never sought attention for their dilemma. When approached by the Journal Sentinel, Michelle agreed to talk in the belief that her story might make other women more aware of ovarian cancer.

The warning signs that had led Michelle to the doctor in 2006 seemed almost banal: abdominal tenderness and constipation.

"If I could get just a few women to take the time out to go to the doctor. It doesn't hurt to check these things out. I kept saying, 'I've got time. I've got time. I've got time,' " she said, turning to the present. "Time is disappearing faster."

Her message reached a large audience. The family's story set a record for traffic on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's website, jsonline.com, with 1.7 million page views; it was linked on websites around the globe.

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