Karen Anne Quinlan, the 23-year-old comatose New Jersey woman whose "right to die" case focused worldwide attention on the rights of the terminally ill, was near death for several days but has regained some strength, a family friend said today.

The friend, who asked that his name be withheld, said Quinlan's condition was "unpredictable," but added that the woman, who has been in a coma for more than two years with irreparable brain damage, had improved somewhat in the last day.

"Joe [Quinlan's adoptive father] called and said Karen had a good night and he seemed relaxed," the friend said. "He didn't seem disturbed.

Her parents spent most of the last several days at her bedside. They left the Morris View Nursing Home early today only after it appeared her condition had stabalized.

Paul Armstrong, the family attorney, said Quinlan had been "suffering medically" for several days but he refused to elaborate.

"[The family] is trying to avoid the spectre of a macabre vigil . . . so that the world is not at the beside of Karen," Armstrong said.

In response to the news of Quinland's brush with death, reporters crowded outside the three-story red brick nursing home to await word of her condition, but county sheriff's officers prevented them from entring the home.