Finding safe Haven: Suicide prompts swimmer’s family journey
CARTHAGE, Mo. (AP) — Miracle No. 1: Haven Shepherd wasn’t killed.
Her dad, destitute, desperate and unable to support a child, brought a pair of bombs to their small hut in Vietnam. He strapped one to himself and the other to Haven’s mom and placed Haven, then 14 months old, in between.
The parents died instantly.
Haven was catapulted out the door. Her legs were mangled beyond repair, but she survived.
Her adopted parents, Rob and Shelly Shepherd, have pictures of Haven sitting on her maternal grandmother’s lap a few days after the explosions. The baby’s legs are meticulously wrapped at the ends of the stumps that remained after doctors removed everything below both knees.
Months later, when the Shepherds brought Haven to a hospital in Kansas City, the surgeons were amazed. Often, children whose legs are amputated at a very young age encounter problems that require revisions through the years — surgeries that can be every bit as daunting and debilitating as the original amputations.
Not for Haven.
“They said the amputation was, like, perfect,” Shelly Shepherd said.
It’s one of the many reasons Haven, now 15, has developed into an elite swimmer and now has her sights set on the Paralympics in 2020.
Miracle No. 2: Forgiveness.
Maybe it’s adolescent naiveté, or perhaps it’s due to wisdom beyond her years. But Haven harbors no resentment toward the birth parents who tried to blow her up.
She was too young to remember any of it — not her birth mother who raised her in the early months, not the explosion that propelled her 30 feet out the door, not the grieving grandparents who took care of her until the Shepherds came.
“This is the dilemma about me,” Haven says. “I don’t feel anything toward them because, in the end, they gave me the best life I could imagine.”
That life begins in a desolate, thatched-roof hut in a remote village in Quang Nam Province in Vietnam.
Her birth family was, by accounts from local newspapers at the time, the poorest in the village.
According to the story told to Rob and Shelly when they arrived to bring Haven back to the United States, her parents weren’t married to each other.
Divorce in Vietnam was taboo, not considered an option. And because Haven’s birth parents were each married to other people and had very little to live on, they felt stuck.
The Shepherds made the journey to accompany Pam and Randy Cope, who ran a foundation to help care for street kids in Vietnam. The story of the baby girl who survived her parents’ suicide made big news in Vietnam, and when the Copes heard about it, they used their connections to open a path to place Haven with a family in the United States.
But almost as soon as the Shepherds met the baby, they felt something was changing.
One night in Saigon, as they waited at the hospital for Haven to get the shots and medical papers needed for the trip back to America, Haven wore Shelly’s sunglasses and bounced on her knee.
Shelly swung her up high and Haven let out a huge belly laugh.
“I felt something inside of me,” Shelly said. “It was like, ‘Oh ... she’s my child.’”
She had fallen in love with this young girl — nurtured her during the precious moments after her grandparents gave her away, been wooed by the infectious smile and the way she’d charmed Rob.
Already the mother of six, Shelly had become obsessed with the idea of adopting and bringing a seventh child into the family.
She didn’t head to Vietnam to adopt. But she was devastated to have to give the baby away.
Miracle No. 3: A second chance.
Though the placement family had the best of intentions, it was not a perfect fit. Shelly returned back to her busy life and gave up the idea of adoption. She had found her baby but was forced to hand her off. No other child could replace that.
Pam Cope made occasional visits to ensure everything was going well at the adopting home. When Shelly asked her friend how things were going, she noticed Cope’s hesitation.
After several more weeks, the call came. It was Shelly’s birthday.
“She said, ‘I think we need to talk,’” Shelly said.
The adopting family agreed to hand the baby over to the Shepherds, who live in Carthage, Missouri — population 14,000. They named her Haven.
These days, Haven swims 4,000 to 6,000 yards a day in preparation for a possible trip to Tokyo, for the Paralympics in 2020.
It’s a pressure-packed journey that, at times, can feel overwhelming.
There are so many people following her story, so many people Haven doesn’t want to disappoint.
And yet, when the pressure does seem too intense, Haven is brought back to the humbling reality of how fortunate she is — how swimming is only one part of the grand scheme.
“I don’t think I could’ve lived anywhere else or been raised any differently than how I was,” she said. “I’m a small-town girl from Missouri. When it comes to getting adopted, I got the long end of the stick.”