BALTIMORE -- Friends and family members of former Maryland representative Gladys Noon Spellman don't visit her very much, if at all, because they say the experience drains them emotionally.

"She does not recognize or speak," said Edna McLellan, her former employe and friend. "She's not cognizant at all."

Spellman is in a coma, as she has been for nearly seven years. On Oct. 31, 1980, the enormously popular Prince George's County Democrat had a heart attack while campaigning at a Laurel shopping center and lost consciousness. She has never awakened.

Her heart beats and she breathes independently. She is fed a liquid diet six times a day through a tube in her stomach. No one expects a recovery; no one knows how long she will live.

She is 69. Her husband, Reuben Spellman, 77, visits her at a Montgomery County nursing facility from "time to time."

"You go there," he said, "and you almost feel like you're at a wake. Like you have a body in the coffin. The body lies in the bed there, the arms drawn up.

"The skin and her face look all right. It's almost strange."

As another anniversary of the tragedy approaches, Spellman's family and friends take some comfort from the many public efforts to honor her.

The Baltimore-Washington Expressway and Parkway have been renamed the Gladys Noon Spellman Parkway, while other public projects and programs also bear her name.

"I feel she would be very happy with the recognition," McLellan said.

Gladys Spellman, a former elementary school teacher and PTA activist, won election to the board of county commissioners and the County Council when it replaced the board. She was elected to Congress in 1974.

Although some people questioned the appropriateness of dedicating a road to her, Spellman's younger sister, Dorothy Noon Lupo, disagreed.

"She was always busy, vibrant, ever moving and that's what I thought the parkway was," Lupo said. "To me, that represents her."

The contrast between what she was and is now disturbs those who love Spellman. Lupo recalled recoiling from a photograph of her sister -- "smiling, always so beautiful" -- that a grandchild placed in her sister's room.

"Then to see the form lying there in the bed, I just could not take that," Lupo said. "Lately, when I go into that room it's as though it were not my sister, but someone I care for."

Coping with her condition year after year is painful.

"I have said this to many people," said Ruth Davis, a longtime friend of Spellman's and her former office manager. "It's really worse than death. You just can't close the book and go on and live your life and have your memories."

Spellman's brain was deprived of oxygen after her heart stopped. Her heart resumed beating, however, encouraging belief she would recover. Voters overwhelmingly elected her to a fourth term the week after she was stricken.

In February 1981, then-House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. declared her seat vacant after reading a physician's pessimistic report.

Reuben Spellman still lives in the family's home in Laurel and continues to pay for his wife's care, more than $2,000 a month.

"He has never been able to get himself to move," Lupo said.