Putting a face on the stem cell argument

Published: February 3, 2009  |  Source: seattlepi.com
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SOMETIME SOON, perhaps even this week, President Barack Obama is expected to lift federal regulations on the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research.

With recently awarded FDA approval, a California biotech firm sits poised to begin the world’s first human trial that will involve injecting embryonic stem cells into the spinal cords of people who are paralyzed.

The subject spurs heated debate. Advocates believe it will throw open the door to medicine’s future. Opponents say it destroys life.

At the heart of the debate, but on the sidelines of the fight, Jacob Coffron, soon to turn 18, sits in a wheelchair and breathes with the help of a ventilator.

His is the human face of the argument for embryonic stem cell research.

At 15, he fell while climbing over a fence outside his mother’s Des Moines apartment.

He hasn’t breathed on his own since. A month at Harborview was followed by four months at Seattle Children’s, then he came home.

His mom, Amy Garnett, cares for him during the day. An aide comes in at night. Twice a week, he goes to Redmond’s Pushing Boundaries, an organization that offers exercise therapy for victims of spinal cord injury.

Time has transformed him from a young teen into a near-man. He is husky and has the beginnings of a beard.

Dressed in dark sweat pants, and a black and gray T-shirt decorated with the image of a wizard and a dragon, he sat in a wheelchair in his bedroom one recent morning with a black watch cap pulled down close to his eyes. For a time he sat covered by a comforter he has to ask to have removed.

“I get so cold sometimes that I can’t get warm,” said Coffron, who by nature is quiet, understated — and given to a dry sense of humor that surfaces in one-liners.

He wears metal studs in his lips and metal wires in his ears.

A poster from “Lord of the Rings” and one of the Three Stooges decorate the walls. A collection of miniature dragons sits on one shelf. Across the room, wire baskets holding an assortment of medical supplies hang on the wall next to his bed where his 12-year-old brother Cole sprawls companionably.

A silver-colored basketball — a gift from a friend — serves as a bittersweet reminder of a former passion.”What I miss most is basketball, just playing for fun,” Coffron said.

He’s planning on a tattoo when he turns 18 next month, dreams about someday living in his own apartment and smiles wryly when he’s asked about his “good” days.

“A good day is when they’re not yelling,” he said, mounting a lighthearted jab at his mother and grandmother, Jane Coffron of Kent. They laughed.

He drew more laughter when asked what he liked to eat.

“A lot,” he deadpanned, flashing a fleeting smile.

After his accident, Coffron went back to Mount Rainier High briefly but eventually dropped out. At his mother’s urging, he’s now talking about getting a tutor and working on his GED.

His father, Terry Hornbeck, lives nearby and has a knack for treating his son like a buddy, a gift not lost on his son, who calls him “more like a friend than a dad.”

Struggling to understand why an act as innocent as climbing over a fence ended so badly, he said, “I still haven’t found the answer.”

Behind him, Jane Coffron dabbed at her eyes. That ques-

tion — and its unfathomable an-

swer — is still emotional for her.

But she is steadfast in her belief that embryonic stem cell research is the key to her grandson’s future.

“With it, there’s hope,” she said. “This is the first time that someone with his type of injury can look forward and have real hope.”

As discussion swirled around him, he listened without speaking, his expression set.

Coffron’s not about to kiss off hope. But right now he’s busy coping with the present — not politics.

“I don’t know,” he said softly when he spoke again. “I just take one day at a time.”

By MARY SWIFT
P-I COLUMNIST