PLATTEVILLE — Grainy footage of the brain-damaged, bedridden Terri Schiavo periodically flickered on Nancy Ring’s living room television this week.
But this single Colorado mother sees the Florida woman’s story unfolding through first-hand experience.
Ring’s adopted son Daniel, born in 1995 with just a brain stem, died in her living room in January, eight days after his feeding tube was removed.
Ring took the 9-year-old boy off the tube after his abdomen grew rock hard with undigested fluid, his heart rate accelerated and he stopped urinating.
A doctor confirmed that multiple organ failure was under way.
More of the same
The boy’s Schiavo-like death may be repeated many times for Ring, 52.
She has four other severely brain-damaged children — all adopted, all in diapers and all hooked up to feeding tubes.
Some have perfectly formed eyeballs, but no sight because their optic nerves dead end in fluid.
Others don’t get feverish when they catch a bug because they lack the neurons to fire up an immune response.
And, unlike the typical room filled with children, there’s no interaction — no play, no teasing.
Each child arrived at Ring’s home a product of abuse or birth defects and now lives on a Pluto of
“Nancy’s given up her life to take care of other people’s children who are doomed,” said Beth Johnston, administrator at Top of the Trail, a Montrose-based private child placement agency. “They are doomed children.”
Ring sees them differently and hunts for “doomed” kids on national adoption Web sites, such as www.adoptamerica
network.org and www.adopt
“With Daniel, I was alone in the belief that there was someone in there,” she said. “I was told (by doctors and social workers) to turn away when he was choking. With Terri Schiavo, I saw America come out and stand up for life. I think Terri is worth it, even if she doesn’t get better.”
To Ring, the sanctity of life is a black-and-white issue.
But plenty of people feel profound brain damage is a gray matter.
“I have lists of children needing this type of care,” said TOT’s Johnston, who licensed Ring in 1996 and has coordinated all her interstate adoptions.
Besides providing the basics, Ring said she has found ways to connect with the children.
A nurse once compared Daniel and her relationship to “ET and the boy” for her ongoing communication efforts — giggles, tickles, loving baby talk.
“But there just aren’t a lot of people like Nancy who will do that and the medical aspects,” Johnston said. “More specifically, I think it’s difficult for a potential adoptive parent to watch (brain-damaged) children die, since most of them are terminal.”
Meet the family
Ring has three healthy biological children: Torre, 33, and fraternal twins Patrick and Michael, 13.
Her eldest lives where he was born and where Ring lived until 2002, in Montrose.
Ring home-schools the other two boys, who read books like “Barron’s Guide to Companion Parrot Behavior,” sketch cartoon superheroes and enjoy outings with their mom to the Golden Corral’s all-you-can-eat buffet in Greeley.
These children return Ring’s love in traditional ways, and that helps her carry on for the others, she said.
The others include 9-year-old Kiki, Ring’s only daughter, who suffers from shaken-baby syndrome.
When her brain swelled, doctors in Annapolis, Md., sawed the left side of her skull open and removed part of her brain to relieve the pressure.
The procedure saved her life, but Kiki will never be the same girl.
Brain damage caused her right arm and leg to go limp, and she often uses her strong left arm to hit herself repeatedly in the head.
Unless that arm is secured to her wheelchair or she is held, Kiki must wear a red padded Everlast boxing helmet to protect her from herself.
Sometimes, she still manages to punch herself hard enough to make her teeth click and her eyes roll back in her head.
Her one apparent delight happens when she listens to Stevie Wonder songs.
Then, this brain-damaged girl moves her head to the music as if she’s dancing.
Thomas, also 9, was born and abandoned in a McDonald’s parking lot in Las Vegas. Hypothermia from extended exposure damaged his brain.
Yet, he represents the highest functioning of his adopted siblings. He can recognize the yellow school bus passing outside. He can crawl, and he can make eye contact and smile when he hears his name.
Ring’s third 9-year-old, Josh, was just 4 weeks old when his Orange County, Calif., father broke his ribs, which complicated his breathing, caused oxygen deprivation and damaged his brain.
The oldest, Ben, 12, was born in Las Vegas with cerebral palsy — brain damage that paralyzes his ability to suppress involuntary movements and make voluntary ones.
Jonah, the youngest at 3, was born in Tucson, Ariz., like the late Daniel with a brain stem and not much more.
Caring for these adopted children, even with help — certified nurse assistants, a registered nurse, a physical and respiratory therapist — still seems like something beyond even a mother’s love.
A storeroom hints at this family’s daunting and unusual needs.
Rows of canned Nestlé Nutren Fiber for feeding tubes line the walls, along with stacks of oversized diapers, hoses for Jonah’s ventilator, syringes and spare tracheotomy pieces.
And it’s a busy place.
Certified nurse assistant Amanda Alvarado arrives before 5 a.m. Monday through Friday to bathe the children, brush their teeth and change their diapers — 40 diapers a shift.
The young woman figured it would be just a job, with no emotional attachments, given her patients’ condition.
“Nancy told me the first day I was working, she said, ‘You’re going to fall in love with my kids,’” Alvarado, 20, said. “I thought, ‘Sure, lady. Whatever.’ But I did.”
She calls Ben “Handsome,” and has gotten Kiki to trust her enough to hold hands for a few seconds.
Who is she?
Ring said some people might accuse her of being in it for the money.
Besides getting Medicaid to cover health-care expenses, she gets subsidies ranging from $500 to $4,000 a month from each child’s state of origin, according to TOT’s Johnston.
But Ring said it’s nearly a wash, given her bills, which include a $1,900 mortgage; a monthly $600 car payment for a 15-passenger van; $500 and $300 electric and water bills, respectively.
“I always say the children own the home, and they just let me live here,” Ring joked.
Others might think she’s in it to stay home or because she’s mentally unbalanced.
But she knows caring for children, managing professional caregivers and keeping bills and payments straight is a full-time job that’s worth time and tears.
She said her compassion goes back to her childhood.
When her dad asked her what she wanted to do on his day off, the Jersey City youngster typically told him she wanted to go to the Bowery in New York City.
She would bring a handful of change to pass through the car window at stoplights to the bums there, who would give her red paper poppies.
Ring also remembered going to church by herself in third grade until her family started calling her a “holy roller.”
Years later, as an adult in 1978, she returned to that simple faith in God, she said.
And that, she said, explains a big part of why she does what she does.
“I don’t feel like it’s works at all — not like going down and cleaning the church,” she said. “That’s works. This is a calling.”
It has to be, given the inevitable grief of loving someone who has a tenuous toehold on life, a life that is destined to be short.
When Ring picked up one of Daniel’s stuffed animals — a teddy bear with a tracheotomy tube attached to the neck — the practical woman allowed herself to muse.
“Sometimes Daniel would look up, just like Terri does, and it seemed like an angel just went by,” she said.
Pam Mellskog can be reached
at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail