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Stephanie Kuleba

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Stephanie Kuleba had a charmed life: captain of the varsity cheerleading squad at West Boca High, a nearly perfect grade-point average, good looks and a ticket to the University of Florida, where she would start her journey toward becoming a medical doctor.

Her friends said she was "perfect," so when Kuleba died Saturday of complications from breast augmentation surgery, none of them could understand how the girl whose success in life "was a sure thing" could perish in such a strange and devastating fashion.

"She was a role model for a lot of people," said friend and classmate Vicky Goldring, 16. "She was incredibly smart. She wanted to help people. She was just a happy 18-year-old girl."

While no official cause of death was released by authorities or Kuleba's family, many of her friends said she suffered a severe reaction to anesthesia given to her during a breast augmentation procedure on Friday, March 21, 2008.

Paramedics were called to an outpatient surgery center at 1905 Clint Moore Road in Boca Raton and rushed Kuleba to Delray Medical Center, where she died Saturday, March 22, 2008.

"The surgery itself was very personal," said Benny Perlman, a friend of Kuleba's who spoke on behalf of her grieving family Monday night. "She passed away from complications during surgery.

"She was a wonderful person and she changed all our lives."

Kuleba was beloved by classmates at West Boca High, more than 400 of whom gathered outside the school Sunday night for a candlelight vigil. They hung Kuleba's shining silver pompons and cheerleading T-shirt on the fence outside the school and left flowers, pictures and handwritten notes beneath the display.

One note had lyrics to Hey Jude, a Beatles song that Kuleba loved.

"Take a sad song and make it better," the note read.

In her reserved "senior" parking spot, the one where she parked her white Lexus every school day, friends placed more flowers, teddy bears and pictures.

"It's hard to believe she's gone," said classmate Vanessa Villegas 16. "She just made everybody's day by having a good attitude about life. Today was a hard day for a lot of people."

Organizers charged $1 for each candle at the vigil - money that will be given to Kuleba's family for expenses.

With her long blond hair and shy smile, Kuleba charmed people from an early age, friends said. A talented athlete, her path toward cheerleading began with competitive gymnastics.

In 2000, National Gymnastics of Boca Raton took 30 of its students, including Kuleba, to one of the nation's biggest gymnastics invitationals - the Gasparilla Gymnastics Classic in Tampa. Competing in bars, beam, floor and vault against others in her age group and skill level, an 11-year-old Kuleba placed first all-around.

"She was very talented," said Leila Milgrim, 16, a friend of Kuleba's. "She was a great athlete. And she had all of these other things going for her, too. She did everything well."

Kuleba had brains to match her beauty, friends said, earning a GPA above 4.0, acing advanced placement courses and earning an acceptance letter from the University of Florida.

She was excited about taking pre-med courses in Gainesville. But the day she really looked forward to was in May, when she was to go to her senior prom for one last hurrah with her friends.

She'd just bought a stunning dress and made plans with a date.

"It was a great time in her life," said friend and classmate Larraine Saavedra, 16.

Cheerleading and academics made for a rigorous schedule but Kuleba still spent three years working an after-school waitressing job at a Rotelli's restaurant.

On her days off she would often stop by the restaurant with friends and order her favorite dish: a Malibu salad with fresh mozzarella.

Her name was still scribbled on the Rotelli's schedule, slated to work after school Thursday.

"She was fantastic and she stood out, because of how positive and friendly she was," said Cathy Bilotti, 37, who owns the Rotelli's. "She had a glow about her that attracted and soothed people."
Published in The Palm Beach Post from Mar. 24 to Mar. 29, 2008
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