By MICHELLE GREEN Joni H. Blackman Victoria Balfour
February 27, 1989 12:00 PM

On a chilly day in February, the Blodgett house in Yakima, Wash., is astir with the comings and goings of relatives who have come to care for Barbara Blodgett and to help with her son Davey, 1½, and Simon, the baby. The once-talkative Barbara, 24, sits silently in her wheelchair as Karen, her sister-in-law, flips the TV channels. “Tell me when you want me to stop,” Karen says. As she pauses on one channel, there is a news update: Nancy Klein, a comatose woman on Long Island, far away on the other side of the country, has just undergone an abortion. Karen quickly switches the station, turning to see whether Barbara has noticed. Apparently she has not

Nancy Klein, 32, was two months pregnant with her second child when she was rushed to a Long Island hospital after her car was struck broadside in a snowstorm last Dec. 13. Doctors told her husband, Martin, 34, that his wife had suffered extensive brain damage. They put her chances for a full recovery at less than 5 percent, and some said that her pregnancy made recovery even less probable. Hoping that his wife would emerge from her coma if she had an abortion, Martin reached a painful decision.

But that decision—to end Nancy’s pregnancy—was only the beginning of Klein’s ordeal. Before he could legally authorize the abortion, Martin had to be appointed Nancy’s guardian. At that point, antiabortion activists, previously unacquainted with the Kleins, intervened. John Short, a founder of a Long Island group called Coalition for Life, petitioned to be named Nancy’s guardian. He took his case through three New York courts and then finally to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who refused an appeal to stay the abortion.

After fighting Short every inch of the way, an exhausted Klein told reporters on Feb. 11 that doctors had performed the abortion. His wife remained comatose, he said, but he believed there were signs of improvement. “I’m tired and wounded,” he said. “No other family should ever have to go through what we’ve gone through.”

As it happened, the Blodgett family was all too familiar with the sort of tragedy that had befallen the Kleins, and their story emerged as an ironic counterpoint to it. Four days before Nancy Klein’s accident, a healthy 8-lb. 1-oz. boy had been born to the comatose Barbara Blodgett, who had been injured in a car wreck the previous June. And while doctors had held out little hope for her survival, Barbara had begun to emerge from the coma after the birth. By late January she was back at home with her husband, David, 25, and their two children, trying to reconstruct the life she had come so close to losing.

Barbara’s is only the sixth known case in which a comatose mother has given birth to a healthy infant, and her doctors are equally astonished at her own recovery. Four weeks after leaving Seattle’s University Hospital, she is able to move her left hand, nod her head and spell out answers to questions by pointing to letters written on a manila folder. Understandable speech is still impossible, but she can mouth a few words. When a visitor asks what she thinks of her new baby, she mouths silently, “I feel wonderful.”

With his seasonal work as a U.S. Forest Service fire fighter not due to resume until April, her husband spends his days attending to Barbara and their sons. Although she seems to be regaining her ability to swallow, Barbara must still be fed through a stomach tube. She tires easily, and he watches her closely for signs of exhaustion. “My whole life has changed now,” he says without anger. “I just work around Barbie.”

For the Blodgetts, life as usual came to an end suddenly last June 30, when the family’s Jeep was struck by a drunk driver. David and Davey, who were wearing seat belts, sustained only minor injuries. Riding without seat belts in the back seat, Barbara’s cousin Nichole, 19, was killed and Barbara, then three months pregnant, suffered severe head injuries when she was thrown from the vehicle.

Transferred in August from a Yakima hospital, she was 20 weeks pregnant by the time she was put under the care of Dr. Thomas Benedetti, director of perinatal medicine at University Hospital in Seattle. Benedetti told her family that he could not predict what would happen to her. “We kept the pregnancy going because the patient’s parents and husband wanted to have it continue,” he says. “These are tough decisions. If you’re talking strictly about the mother’s life, pregnancy is always more hazardous than not being pregnant.”

But those around her never lost hope. Barbara’s father, who works for the state employment office, got a temporal) transfer to Seattle, while David, plus several dozen members of his and Barbara’s families, took turns traveling the 150 miles to Seattle to be at her bedside. Three months after she was admitted, Barbara’s nurses were the first to notice when she began to respond to light and to pain. By late November she was tracking people’s movement with her eyes, and she winced when a nurse who was combing her hair tugged at a knot. Every reaction was regarded as a tiny victory over insensibility.

On Dec. 9 Barbara was 37 weeks pregnant, and amniocentesis had revealed that the baby’s lungs were mature. Dr. Benedetti induced labor, and in the days after Simon’s delivery, Barbara’s condition improved rapidly. “She began to nod yes or no to questions and to do some things like move a leg or grasp a hand on command,” says Lynne Muñoz, nurse coordinator for the hospital’s newborn unit. ‘They seem like small steps to someone who is normal, but in her situation they were dramatic. It really fell like a miracle.”

Even now, experts are at a loss to explain Barbara’s recovery. Dr. William Blackerby, a Nashville head-injury specialist, has speculated that massive hormonal shifts triggered by the birth may have been responsible. But Dr. Loren Winterscheid, medical director at University Hospital, has expressed doubt that there was any connection. “There is no way of knowing when or how much a patient in a coma like Mrs. Blodgett’s is going to recover,” he said.

At this point, Barbara can do little for Simon, save stroke his head and occasionally hold a bottle to his lips. Last week she entered St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Yakima for a two-week evaluation, and later she will begin a 10-week rehabilitation program there. But her prognosis remains uncertain. On the morning of the TV report about Nancy Klein’s abortion, Barbara was in her wheelchair for a little more than 90 minutes. “Are you doing okay?” David asked anxiously. “You’re real tired, aren’t you? Come on,” he said to Davey. “We’re going to put Mama back in bed. Help me pull her there.” The toddler tugged at the wheelchair as David pushed his wife back into their room, which is filled with family pictures and newspaper clippings about her remarkable progress. After David and Barbara’s aunt, Ricky Valenzuela, helped her into the bed, Barbara motioned tow aid her alphabet board. Ricky held it in front of her, and she pointed slowly to one letter after another. “T-h-a-n-k y-o-u,” she told them.

—Michelle Green, and Joni H. Blackman in Yakima and Victoria Balfour in New York