LONGMONT — For Laura Shepherd, this morning will be like nearly every other in her 18 years.
The sun will creep up the four east-facing window panes of her Longmont bedroom, slant over the bushes outside and illuminate the room.
Except for blinking, sticking out her tongue and crinkling her face occasionally, Laura Shepherd lies motionless amid stuffed animals, green shamrock-shaped helium balloons and a ventilator that whooshes and hums every few seconds.
But this day is different for Shepherd, who has had brain damage for most of her life.
Circuit Judge George W. Greer has ordered the plug pulled today on Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged Florida woman who needs a feeding tube to survive.
Laura Shepherd was an 18-month-old with a 40-word vocabulary in 1987 when she suffered brain damage in an automobile accident.
She is now a 5-foot, 2-inch tall teenager who weighs 107 pounds and wears her dark hair in braids around her chubby face.
But there is no controversy surrounding her end-of-life wishes because she had not yet reached the age of accountability when her life changed.
Still, Laura Shepherd and the 41-year-old Terri Schiavo share footing in the right-to-life debate.
Besides suffering disability, both have parents who are passionate about keeping them on life support to prevent starvation, dehydration or suffocation.
“They don’t treat dogs like that in Florida,” Linda Shepherd, 47, said of the Schiavo news. “They don’t allow people to starve dogs. Why would they allow them to starve people?”
Linda Shepherd and her husband of 26 years, Paul Shepherd, 48, have championed the right to life since that rainy day in Beaumont, Texas, in a 50-mph spinout during a family vacation.
Doctors there wanted to call it quits six weeks into Laura Shepherd’s coma, Linda Shepherd recalled, but the family refused.
A year after the accident, about the time her brother, Jimmy, was born, Laura Shepherd emerged from her coma at The Children’s Hospital in Denver.
Linda Shepherd, who is a Christian author and speaker, considered it a breakthrough. But after meeting with 21 health-care professionals to discuss her daughter’s case, she realized she was still alone in her hope.
“They said her brain looked like Swiss cheese. ... Many said they would be denying therapies, that there was still no point,” she said.
To the Shepherds, there has always been a point to keeping Laura Shepherd on life support.
“Children look at Laura, and they will just get it. They will see her innocent spirit and her joy,” Linda Shepherd said. “Parents think, ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to be hooked up like that.’ They see the apparatus. They don’t see the person.”
So the Shepherds took their daughter home from the hospital and set up a special, first-floor bedroom.
Paul Shepherd, an engineer, designed a pulley system with a ceiling rail, thick chains and wide bands to help round-the-clock caretakers transfer their daughter between her bed, her chair and her “stander.”
The stander backboard with multiple straps helps Laura Shepherd safely put weight on her bones every day to keep them from turning to mush.
But her most impressive therapy involves the longtime efforts of Boulder speech pathologist Pam Hyink.
Hyink, over many years, has taught Laura Shepherd to stick her tongue out to answer questions.
A flat tongue means “yes,” she said. A bunched tongue means “no.”
To onlookers, neither tongue action may seem distinct or much beyond random.
But the Shepherds’ team of caregivers, some of whom have tended to their daughter for 16 years, vouch that the tongue motions make sense.
According to Hyink, Laura Shepherd’s tongue is also like a right hand. It is the only thing she has to act on her world.
So, part of Hyink’s visits include oral exercises. By wrapping M&Ms; or Dentyne Fire chewing gum in gauze, she can get Laura Shepherd to move the treat back and forth or up and down.
“We have this sense of what life should be. Then when it isn’t, we don’t know how to deal with it,” Hyink said, after pulling off the sky-blue latex glove she wears during the therapy. “But I believe there’s a purpose for everybody.”
Tragedies nevertheless force society to analyze burden-benefit ratios for severely brain-damaged people.
Tough questions in cases such as Terri Schiavo’s keep Mark Yarborough in business.
As director of the Center for Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Colorado at Denver and the Health Sciences Center, he admits there are no easy answers.
“You want to make a decision that reflects the character and the individuality of the patient in question,” he said.
But sometimes soul-searching to guess a patient’s wishes proves overwhelming.
That is especially true, he continued, because of the undercurrent of Christian teaching found in Matthew 25:34-36, which discusses giving drink to the thirsty and food to the hungry.
But sometimes the teaching goes too far, he said.
“I think our obligation is to offer food and water rather than to force food and water into people,” he said.
He added that some brain-damaged people do not perceive hunger or pain.
Lindsey O’Connor, a Castle Rock mother and freelance journalist, understands that point of view.
But she shared another point of view to support the Schiavos today.
In 2002, she ruptured her uterus during childbirth, zipped through 21 units of blood and slipped into a three-month coma caused by oxygen deprivation.
“I was on a life-and-death roller coaster then,” O’Connor, 43, said. “On Sept. 13, they told my husband to prepare our children because they didn’t think I was going to make it through the night.”
Without life support, her story would never have played out into the near full recovery she enjoys today.
“We don’t really know. We never really know,” she said. “So, err on the side of life. ... Leave the door open for an unexpected recovery because they do happen, and it might happen to your loved one or you.”
In Laura Shepherd’s case, no one is pushing the pull-the-plug issue.
But when she got a bladder infection a few years back, Children’s Hospital doctors again — three times — told the family that it might be God’s way of letting the family let her go.
The infection had spread to Laura Shepherd’s bloodstream and without antibiotics she would die.
But Linda Shepherd ordered the prescription and remembers one doctor teared up when her daughter perked up and started vocalizing with recognizable emotion.
“It’s a kind of singing Laura does. She sings wordless songs to just let us know she’s enjoying the moment,” Linda Shepherd said. “And she giggles when her brother gets into trouble in the other room.”
Over the past two decades the family a few times agreed to clinical trials under a doctor’s supervision to see if Laura could breathe on her own.
“But she gasped like a goldfish,” Linda Shepherd said.
Sharon Williams, Laura Shepherd’s primary home nurse since 1989, described her charge as a person with a viable life.
“She just takes longer to get to know. Laura’s like a little Christmas present with a note that says, ‘Do not open,’” Williams explained. “I hoped in time that I would see her. And I have.”
Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at email@example.com.