Maryland woman departs 7 weeks after attack
JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF
Erika Brannock spent more than seven weeks in a Boston hospital, undergoing surgery after surgery for injuries she sustained in the Marathon bombings. But she is happy to be meeting her personal deadlines for getting home: On Friday, she’ll attend her students’ preschool graduation in Maryland. The next day, she will be the maid of honor in a friend’s wedding.
After spending 50 days at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brannock left the hospital with tears and smiles Monday to fly home to suburban Baltimore.
She was the last of the victims to be discharged from the myriad hospitals that took care of the wounded. Her departure marked the close of one chapter in her life, and in the life of the city.
Brannock, 29, was near the finish line with her sister and brother-in-law, waiting for her mother, Carol Downing, to finish her first Boston Marathon. In the weeks that followed, Brannock would undergo 11 surgeries, including the amputation of her left leg above the knee.
Her right leg was badly injured, too. “I’ve got a space this big missing from my fibula,” she said, holding her fingers about three inches apart.
On Saturday, two days before her discharge, Brannock spoke in the sixth-floor hospital room that had been her home for almost two months. Wearing a green shirt that matches her eyes, she talked about how her life changed in an instant, about her goals, and her new best friends: the trauma doctors and nurses who treated her injuries.
As crazy as it might sound, Brannock had mixed feelings about leaving the hospital. Yes, she was ready to go home, but she would miss her caregivers terribly. “I’m very excited about getting home, but it’s kind of bittersweet,” she said. “The staff has been amazing. They joke that I’ve been a princess because they give me everything I want.”
The nursing staff made her a farewell scrapbook filled with pictures of them with their patient, some of them snuggling with her in her bed, others with all of them goofing around, sticking out tongues.
The photos are accompanied by personal notes: “It is so rewarding to work with a patient with such a positive, inspiring attitude” and “You are amazing!” The album is dotted with dragonfly stickers: Brannock has long loved the insects.
“Dragonflies represent new beginnings,” Brannock said. “They symbolize strength and courage.” She wears a silver dragonfly necklace given to her by her mother. And when actors Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner — in Boston shooting a film — stopped by for a visit, Adams brought her another such necklace. Brannock’s occupational therapist even baked her a footlong dragonfly cookie, colorfully frosted.
Brannock will need strength and courage as she adjusts to the new normal. She will move in with her mother, who lives in Monkton, Md., about 20 minutes from Brannock’s Towson apartment.
At the time of the Marathon, Brannock was nearly finished with the semester’s classes at Towson University, where she is working on a master’s degree in early childhood education.
“The day before the Marathon, I was doing homework,” said Brannock, an upbeat woman with a ready smile and neon-green toenails. The school has given her six months to complete the coursework.
Then, of course, there are her kids, as she calls the preschoolers she teaches — and babysits some nights and weekends. “I can’t wait to sit on the floor and read them books.” She plans to work part time at the school, Trinity Episcopal Children’s Center, this summer.
The walls of her hospital room were papered with pictures of and notes from the children and their parents. One child sent her a “Gift Card Good for 1 Free Hug. Expires: Never.” There’s also a coupon for “One Free Smile!"
Brannock, in turn, sent her kids a couple of videos. In the first one, she told them that she loved and missed them, and couldn’t wait to see them. In the second, she gave them a wheelchair tour of her floor. “So they could see me,” she said. “I wanted them to get prepared for it.”
At a press conference outside the hospital Monday morning, Brannock sat with her surgeon, Dr. Edward Rodriguez, and her mother. She thanked her medical team and the people of Boston for “the care and compassion” they have shown her and her family. She said she will miss those who treated her. “I’m leaving a family behind,” she said tearfully.
She also expressed condolences to those who lost a loved one in the bombings and admiration for the other survivors. She has met with some of the women amputees and said they “developed a sisterhood and a bond. We cried and we laughed.”
Unlike some other victims, Brannock remembers everything that happened that day — right up until she was put under anesthesia for surgery. She remembers being excited to have such a good view at the finish line so “Mom could see us and give us a hug.”
She remembers the first bomb going off, seeing “oranges and yellows” and thinking that a transformer had blown. She was knocked to the pavement. “My left foot didn’t move. I’m lying there and I have this horrible moment that I’m going to die. I had a conversation with God. I said, ‘I’m not ready to go. I’m not done yet.’ ”
As if she could read her thoughts, a woman approached Brannock. “I’m Joan from California, and I’m not going to let you go,” Brannock recalls her saying. The woman gave a belt to an EMT to make a tourniquet for Brannock.
Brannock is eager to find her. “She had short brown hair and a yellow jacket. I honestly don’t believe I’d be here if it weren’t for her.”
After the bomb went off, Brannock said she screamed for her sister and brother-in-law, Nicole and Michael Gross from Charlotte, N.C., but got no reply. (Nicole Gross suffered serious leg injuries and was released from Brigham and Women’s Hospital on May 10; she is back in North Carolina, still on crutches. Michael, with burns and lacerations on his arms, has recovered.)
At the scene, Brannock managed to grab her glasses, purse, and Kindle from the pavement. Her camera was still strapped around her wrist.
Then she was put in an ambulance with another woman. “The EMT said, ‘We have two criticals that need to get to the hospital now,’ ” Brannock recalled.
At the medical center, she was rolled straight into the operating room. “They cut through my clothing, and I was really upset that they cut through my Ravens shirt,” she said. Brannock is a rabid Baltimore Ravens fan, and her hospital room bore splashes of Ravens purple, including her bed throw and suitcase.
Indeed, some of the Ravens reached out to wish her well. “Ray Lewis called and told me to stay strong,” she said. “I freaked out.”
Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. called, too. “We talked for about half an hour. He’s going to send me a copy of the children’s book he wrote."
During the Marathon, the runners yet to complete the route were stopped in their tracks, Downing less than half a mile from the finish. The news filtered back: first, an electrical explosion, then a bomb. Her son-in-law texted that Nicole was taken to the hospital with a broken leg. They didn’t know where Erika was.
It was not until 9 p.m. that Downing found her, at Beth Israel Deaconess.
“I was frantic, to say the least,” said Downing, 57. A fellow runner and his wife — Tim and Patty Island — live in Boston, and when Tim saw Downing’s confusion over how to find her daughter, the couple offered help.
“They said, ‘We live here. Come with us, take a shower and eat some food. We’ll take you to see your daughters,’ ” said Downing.
Through her workplace, Patty Island found Downing a furnished apartment, for free. It was just around the corner from the bombing site.
By the time Downing arrived at Beth Israel Deaconess, Brannock had already had her first amputation, below her left knee, and was in intensive care. Her daughter’s first question to her, Downing said, was: “What happened to Nicole and Michael?” Her second: “What did they tell my kids?” And last: “What happened to my leg?”
After that last question, doctors had to perform another amputation on the same leg, above the knee.
“It was really for the better,” said Brannock, “because of the painful spasms I was having.”
A chunk of her right leg was gone, too. Two muscle grafts failed. She’s had skin grafts. There’s a metal rod in the left side of her leg, and angry burns running up and down the right side and back of her leg, which remains in a surgical boot.
It will be awhile before Brannock can be fitted for a prosthesis, which requires a “synthetic skin” to help protect against skin breakdown and infection. Brannock said the skin alone costs $85,000 and must be periodically replaced.
Her colleagues have started a fund-raiser for her (www.the brannockfund.com).
Is she angry at the bombers for what they have taken from her, and others? “I’ve definitely had my moments of anger, but I can’t waste my energy being angry,” she said. “I need to save energy for getting well and for being with people who care about me and want me to get better.”
Both she and her mother say they will definitely return to Boston, a city they have come to love.
“If I had to leave Baltimore and choose another city, this would be it,” Downing said. “It’s beautiful, the people are wonderful, and to be here after the disaster, with the hospitals and people, has been a blessing.”
At 8 a.m. one weekday, Downing donned her running shoes and finally crossed the finish line: “It brought closure to it.”
She plans to return next year and run the Marathon again.
Her daughter says she will miss Boston, which she visited for the first time in April.
“The people have been so wonderful, and treated us so well,’’ she said. “I have all these friends here now.”
At the press conference, half a dozen nurses stood nearby, wearing green “Team Brannock” T-shirts with dragonflies on them.
Brannock said she is looking forward to “hugging my friends and seeing my students.” And eating Maryland’s famed steamed crabs.
In a written statement, she said: “I will use what I’ve learned to pay it forward. I know the road ahead won’t be easy, but I will remain Boston Strong as I move forward. Thank you, Boston.”
What she has learned, she said, were lessons of “love and support” from the people here: once strangers, now friends. “We will show love to others we don’t know, as much as we’ve been shown love here.”
Brannock will continue physical therapy at home. Rodriguez, her surgeon, said she may face more surgery “down the line,” but he is hopeful about her future.
In her very near future, Brannock is looking forward to the wedding. She’ll be the one going down the aisle in her wheelchair, wearing a coral dress and, no doubt, a smile on her face.
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