August 12, 1996 12:00 PM

AS FORMER CHILD STAR DANA HILL Goetz lay dying at 32 in a Burbank, Calif., hospital last month, her parents, who were keeping a vigil at her bedside, suddenly felt a peculiar sense of euphoria. Dana, the oldest of three children of Ted, 68, a retired TV commercial producer, and Sandy, 62, a homemaker, had been diagnosed with diabetes at 10, yet went on to a busy acting career. Billing herself as Dana Hill—her mother’s maiden name—she proved adept at playing a cherubic moppet (The Two of Us, a 1981-82 sitcom), an anguished child of divorce (1982’s Shoot the Moon) and a boy-crazy teen (1985’s National Lampoon’s European Vacation). But now, six weeks after a stroke that left Hill barely able to move, her life was ebbing away. “It was in the middle of the night,” says Sandy. “She just slipped out of that ruined physical body, and her soul was freed.”

In recent years her illness had begun to exact a heavy toll on Hill’s fragile body and once indomitable spirit. The diabetes, which had stunted her growth as a child (she stood just under 5’2″), later damaged her kidneys. As a result, her physical appearance deteriorated to the point where casting directors stopped calling. Gamely, she forged a second career doing voice-overs for cartoons and commercials. But after being hospitalized dozens of times for a diabetes-related stomach disorder—and suffering mood swings caused by her illness—last May, Hill fell into a diabetic coma that was followed by a stroke. Though she woke periodically, she could communicate only by blinking her eyes yes or no.

To hear her friends tell it, Hill possessed an uncanny optimism. “Her laugh was the most contagious thing—so deep and from the soul,” recalls Amy Heckerling, who directed Hill in European Vacation, her last major film. “She wasn’t intimidated by anything.”

Especially her illness. Born in Encino, Calif., Hill had been a grade school phenom in swimming, basketball and track. It wasn’t until she collapsed on a track at age 10 that doctors discovered her diabetes. They placed her on a sugar-free diet and a daily regimen of insulin shots. “I was really mad at first,” Hill told PEOPLE in 1982. “I didn’t want to accept the restrictions.”

She did so only after being hospitalized several times. Her early neglect of her illness might have contributed to the complications she later suffered. Even as a teen, she had to give up athletics. The diabetes “totally robbed her of her physical strength,” says Sandy.

But not her ambition. Claiming Mary Tyler Moore, a fellow diabetic, as her role model, Hill acted in plays at the now-defunct Cal Prep High School in Van Nuys. Before she graduated in 1981, she had a half-dozen TV commercials under her belt.

Ironically the disease that arrested Dana’s physical growth may have helped her career initially. At 17, she still looked 12—and won the role of Mimi Kennedy’s pubescent daughter on CBS’s The Two of Us. And her tour de force, at 18, in Shoot the Moon, opposite Albert Finney and Diane Keaton, was lauded by a Washington Post critic as “one of the greatest adolescent performances ever filmed.”

Three years later her film career was over. Her diabetes-impaired kidneys had caused her face to get puffy. “[After Vacation], she did some TV, but she began to look worse and worse,” says her mother. “She felt discouraged when she saw herself.”

When Hill was 22, an agent, impressed by her performance in an L.A. stage production of Picnic, persuaded her to try voice-over work. Hill flourished in minor roles: She was Charles, the two-headed duck on TV’s Duck-man and Jerry the mouse in 1992’s Tom. & Jerry: The Movie.

By then her parents had moved to San Diego, and Hill was living alone in a Studio City apartment. If she had any boyfriends, she never discussed them with her parents. Nor did she dwell on her ailments—in particular, gastroparesis, a diabetic complication that severely impaired her ability to digest food. “Dana never complained to anybody,” says her mother. She did, however, come to rely on a close-knit circle of showbiz friends to drive her to the hospital.

Last spring, Hill began taking an antidepressant to combat mood swings. In response to tabloid reports that in despair she had deliberately strayed from her diet, her mother will only say, “She did not take as good care of herself as she could have.”

“Diabetics who take care of themselves can live for years and years,” says Dr. David Garbowit, an endocrinologist at the Joslin Diabetes Center at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J. “It can greatly decrease your chances of getting advanced complications.”

Late last May, Hill slipped into a diabetic coma; on June 5, she suffered a massive stroke. Forty days later, at Burbank’s Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, “she just gave up,” says her mother. “She had succeeded at everything she ever tried to do. There was only one area of her life where she was a loser, and that was her infirmity.” And yet, Goetz adds, “every masterpiece has a flaw. I like to think of Dana as our masterpiece.”

MICHAEL A. LIPTON

ANNA DAVID and MICHELE KELLER in Los Angeles

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