Grandmother's devotion is steadfast after 19 years
The doctors at Tampa General Hospital told Gregory Shifflett's family to go home and get some sleep. There was nothing they could do for the 13-month-old baby. Consensus was that the child had left them forever that February evening in a drowning, floundering unheard in the cold waters of the family's backyard pool in Seffner. Yes, paramedics got him breathing, but the only thing still functioning was the baby's brain stem, the doctors said. It controls blood pressure, body temperature, digestion and other autonomic functions. But the little boy everyone called "Greggie" — or "Tank Baby," for the way he mowed down anything in his path — was gone. He likely wouldn't survive the night.The scene earlier had been bedlam, as the family realized in a panic that no one had an eye on the ever-inquisitive and newly ambulatory Gregory. Immediately they checked the pool, only to see him floating there, purple and lifeless. Betty Shifflett, the baby's grandmother, knew CPR but flat forgot it in her panic. She ran for the house to call 911, slipped and fell. The screaming attracted a neighbor, who quickly jumped over two 6-foot fences to begin CPR before paramedics arrived. Now, everyone was waiting for Greggie to die. Shifflett went home along with everyone else but couldn't sleep. At 3 a.m., she headed back to TGH. If any trace of Tank Baby remained, he would need his Mee-Maw's comfort. Her Greggie was pale and so still. Shifflett noticed that sometimes the nurses suctioned his throat, but other times just his mouth. She asked a nurse to teach her how to do the more thorough job and took over as best she could. They seemed glad to have the help, and besides, the grandmother couldn't really do any harm. The boy was dying. Morning came, and Gregory was still alive. He's 20 years old now. His growth is stunted, he lost part of a foot to infection and he requires a feeding tube and tracheostomy care. Shifflett, 70, has remained by her grandson's side, sometimes getting by on two hours sleep. For several years, she didn't leave the house at all. Even though he couldn't talk or walk or return her hugs, Shifflett never accepted the idea that Greggie wasn't in there. She quit her 25-year career working at the Army and Air Force Exchange Services as a PX manager, a job she valued, one that gave her an identity. After trying to figure out the best place for him — her grandson lived for a time in a nursing home — she finally was given custody in 1995, and Gregory moved in for good. Shifflett shifted all her energy to his care, reading to him for hours, watching TV with him, talking to him. She'll never forget the day he "talked" back. He seemed to love Barney, the purple dinosaur favored by most preschoolers watching PBS in the 1990s. So, she asked Gregory, then about 3, if he wanted to watch Barney. No response. She asked if he wanted to listen to music. No response. Then she asked if he wanted her to rock him and he came alive, raising his right arm and his eyebrows, moving as best as he could. She recalls jumping into the air, her fists held high, rejoicing. If she had had any doubts, they were gone. Gregory was in there, by golly. Through the years, grandmother and grandson have learned to communicate well. To say "yes," he raises his eyebrows or lifts his right arm. If the answer is "no," he stares at her unblinkingly. He let her know he didn't care for the nickname "Greggie," she says, preferring Gregory or Greg. He likes to laugh, too, most recently at a group of women walking across the TV screen in bikinis. Gregory Taylor Shifflett! She started out reading books for preschoolers to him, and as he grew, so did his preferences. Now, he listens to audiobooks for adults, although nothing with bad words or that take the Lord's name in vain. Shifflett became an ordained minister in 2006 and credits God with many of the miracles she believes she and Greg have received. But he is a young man now, entitled to some adult fare. His favorite TV shows are "NCIS," "Criminal Minds" and "Bones." He can watch the reruns repeatedly without getting bored. Greg, who is tutored at home, also enjoys studying butterflies. He and his grandmother watched some emerge from cocoons, and when they were ready, Mee-Maw set them loose outside. Greg can watch them from the large window beside one of his beds, this one in the living room; he has his own bedroom, too. He also made it clear to Mee-Maw that he wanted a dog. Russell, a Labradoodle, joined the household and kicks up a fuss when Greg has a problem or if a warning buzzer sounds on his equipment. Shifflett fought for and received an overhead track that allows her to strap Greg in a hammock-like apparatus, hook it to the track and slide him from room to room. Shifflett frequently must challenge government agencies to get what her grandson needs and to keep nurses on around the clock. Greg must be watched constantly, and if there's no nurse available to help, she'll take the shifts herself. At times, she has believed that some people — even Greg's nurses — have wondered why she didn't just let him die. Richelle Schoenherr, Greg's occupational therapist, has worked with him for three years. She says she knows Shifflett would sacrifice anything in the world for her grandson. She's phenomenal, Schoenherr believes. Retired Judge Betty Martinez, who nominated Shifflett as a Tampa Tribune Hometown Hero, says her friend often wakes up singing. If Shifflett worries about what will happen to Greg when she's no longer around, she keeps it to herself. For now, Schoenherr says, Shifflett isn't just Greg's grandmother. She's his savior.
Want to nominate someone as a Hometown Hero? Send an email to Donna Koehn at email@example.com.