On Jan. 3, 1970, 16-year-old Edwarda O’Bara grew frightened as she began to lose consciousness. From a hospital room nearby, she heard a younger child cry for his mother.
Edwarda, searching her own mother’s face for reassurance, whispered: “Mommy, you won’t leave me?”
Those were the last words she ever spoke. Now, that pretty teenager is 42 and has been comatose for 26 years.
Kaye O’Bara has cared for her daughter all these years. She remains confident Edwarda will awaken someday and they will stride together into church and sing and laugh and play the piano again.
Although Edwarda can do little more than move her eyes and stretch her legs, Kaye is sure that locked inside the middle-aged body is the shy girl who liked Barbie dolls (she had 18) and yellow ribbons for her ponytail, who said her prayers at night and told her problems to a floppy old clown doll with orange hair.
Edwarda, a diabetic, came down with flu five days before Christmas 1969. Her condition worsened over two weeks, and her parents took her to the hospital. Four hours later, at 3 a.m. on Jan. 3, Edwarda slipped into a diabetic coma.
Her heart faltered. The beat was restored - but not before she had suffered brain damage, said Edwarda’s physician, Dr. Louis Chaykin. Her lungs collapsed, her kidneys failed, she got pneumonia and she had to have a tracheotomy to breathe.
Joe and Kaye O’Bara decided to care for their daughter at home and quickly fell into debt as $35,000 of health insurance vanished in a flash.
Government programs would have paid for institutional care, but Joe and Kaye felt Edwarda needed love only they could provide.
Joe O’Bara, a halfback at the University of Pittsburgh in 1952 and the Navy’s middleweight boxing champion during World War II, would not surrender.
“Joe learned how to do everything for Edwarda,” Kaye said. “He prepared her food and medicine, turned her every few hours so she wouldn’t get bedsores, read to her, talked to her. His attitude was: Everything was going to get better. He loved her so much.”
But Joe’s loving heart could not keep up.
“He got only five hours of sleep a night. He was a physical education teacher. After Edwarda got sick, he started painting houses after school and on weekends. And he would fix boat motors out there in the garage.”
Joe had a heart attack in 1972 and died four years later at age 50.
Since then, Kaye, now 68, has cared for Edwarda full time. Kaye says she tries to do things the 16-year-old liked. She reads to her and plays her favorite music.
Edwarda was reading the novel “Hawaii” before she became ill, “so I still read that to her. I guess I’ve read it to her 10 times,” Kaye says. “I know she likes it. She tells me with her blinks. One blink means ‘yes,’ and two mean ‘no,’ you know.”
Since Joe died, Kaye has slept no more than two hours at a time; that’s how often she gets up to turn Edwarda in bed and feed her baby food through a tube in her abdomen.
Kaye had a heart attack in 1982 and was hospitalized 10 days. Edwarda’s younger sister, Colleen, and a volunteer nurse cared for Edwarda until Kaye recovered.
But Kaye now has high blood pressure.
What happens to Edwarda if Kaye should die first? The question is whispered, lest Edwarda hear.
Kaye says Colleen has been emotionally shattered by Edwarda’s ordeal and would be unable to care for her sister. Then, with a smile that deepens the crinkles around her mouth and blue eyes, Kaye adds: “I’m not going to die. I won’t let myself die. God won’t let me die.”
Edwarda moans. Her eyelids flutter. Kaye rushes to her side and takes one of her hands. “What is it, honey? What is it, sweetie pie?”
She answers the question herself: “She’s trying to tell me that she is tired of lying on that side.” Mother rolls daughter to a different position, her face toward a 17-inch television.
A daily rerun of “Perry Mason” is switched on. The moaning stops, and, yes, it looks as if one side of Edwarda’s mouth curves up in a smile.
Kaye believes Edwarda sees, hears and understands everything, as if living inside a glass house. But the windows are opaque, and no one can see inside.
Some tell Kaye they think Edwarda is a vegetable and should be allowed to die.
“I’ve never seen a vegetable smile,” Kaye says defiantly. “She follows people across the room with her eyes. She watches reruns of ‘Andy Griffith’ and ‘Perry Mason’ and gets really agitated if I turn her over and she can’t keep watching them.”
Those were the shows Edwarda liked when she was 16 and had a collection of 45s. Her favorite song was “Bobby’s Girl” because she had a crush on a 17-year-old named Bobby.
Bobby, now a fireman, still comes by. Other childhood friends still visit, too, such as Betty Zorovich, a playmate when Edwarda was 5 and who had just moved to Miami from Pennsylvania, and Dr. Karen Simmons, a friend since eighth grade and now head of the rape crisis center at the University of Miami.
Kaye says her fixed income is about $1,000 a month from her husband’s pension and Social Security. But bills come to about $3,000 a month. She is $65,000 behind on the bills.
To help meet expenses, Kaye holds an annual auction of autographed equipment donated by athletes.
The next auction will be in March. Past donations and the successful bids include a basketball signed by Larry Bird ($300), another signed by Magic Johnson just before he retired ($400) and Joe Montana’s football jersey ($400).
Will Edwarda ever recover?
“Very unlikely, and I’ve told Kaye that - that it would be a true miracle if she awakens one day,” said Chaykin, the endocrinologist who has cared for Edwarda 26 years without requesting payment.
But ask the question another way: Is it time for that miracle?
“Yes,” Kaye says. “I’ve had my miracle. I have been colorblind all my life. All I could ever see were varying shades of gray. Three weeks ago, I saw colors. Now I see them all. Yes. It’s time for miracles.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: How to help Donations can be sent to the Edwarda O’Bara Fund, 1340 NW 173rd Terrace, Miami 33169.