11/22/2006 at 04:00 PM EST
Before her death last week from anorexia
, Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston was robbed of both her beauty and her strength by the disease, friends say.
Earlier this year, when she arrived at the Mexico City airport after a job in Japan, she was too emaciated and weak to carry her luggage, fellow Brazilian model Aliana Idibar, 21, tells PEOPLE in its new issue. "I helped her," Idibar says. "I was holding myself not to cry."
Once luminous, Reston had become a virtual skeleton. "The skin was gray. The eyes were sad and without light," recalls Estela Saenz, owner of a Mexican modeling agency, who last saw Reston at that time.
Still, the ambitious model continued to work, posing for a fashion Web site as late as Oct. 18. The next day she canceled a bridal magazine booking to enter a São Paulo hospital, carrying only 88 lbs. on her 5'7" frame.
Friends were grieved, but not entirely surprised, to learn that on Nov. 14 Reston, 21, had died from multiple organ failure caused by anorexia.
Reston's passing adds fuel to the outrage over too-thin models
. "I understand that in the industry there is pressure to be skinny," says Gisele Bündchen, the Brazilian supermodel, who never met Reston. "But (this) is what happens when people take things to extremes."
In truth, Reston's illness was one more hardship in a life riven with them. Five years ago robbers stole everything from her impoverished family's rural home outside São Paulo. "From that moment, Ana Carolina had to work to help pay our bills," says her grieving mother, Miriam, 58, whose husband suffers from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Signed with Ford Brazil in her early teens, Reston never grew "tall enough for the (runway)," says Lica Kohlrausch, director of Brazil's L'Equipe agency, which took her on last year. She tried to compensate by losing weight, says Miriam. "She said, 'Mum, I will get thinner. I can work more if I'm skinny.' "
Her health declined, but Carol, as she was known, brushed off the concern of family and friends, many of whom donated blood during her hospitalization. There would be no saving her. Says Miriam Reston: "I want this to be an alert to other mothers."