By Yvonne Wenger
The Baltimore Sun
11:00 AM EST, November 10, 2013
Erika Brannock slides to the edge of her wheelchair. She looks down at a pair of carefully selected gray New Balance sneakers. And stands. Her thigh slides deeper into a flexible plastic socket as she shifts her weight from her right leg to her new prosthetic leg. The bone where her left leg was amputated above the knee sends a sharp, shooting pain, and she starts to cry. Not because it hurts. Because she is about to walk again.
“It’s been a long time,” she says to her mother, Carol Downing, among those watching at an orthotics and prosthetics supplier in Linthicum.
One hundred and seventy-three days, to be exact. Almost six months since the homemade bombs filled with nails, shards of metal and pellets exploded into crowds of spectators near the Boston Marathon finish line.
On a cool and clear Monday in April, Brannock, a teacher at a Towson preschool, was preparing to watch her mother finish the marathon. She wanted to wait some distance from the blue-and-yellow finish line painted across Boylston Street so she could give her mother a hug, a boost for the final, grueling yards of the 26.2-mile race.
But her older sister, Nicole Gross — wanted to watch from another spot. So the women, along with Gross’ husband, Michael, ended up in front of a LensCrafters store, near a row of flags representing nations from around the world.
“I started crying — for some reason I was just crying — that we had moved,” Brannock, 29, recalls. Her sister “could tell that I was upset, so she just rubbed my back and said, ‘It’s going to be OK.’
“Instantly after that, the bomb went off.”
Brannock saw flashes of light and started falling as a column of fire shot into the sky and a thick gray cloud of smoke rose above the street. She blacked out. After regaining consciousness, she tried to move her left leg but couldn’t. She reached down. Her hand was covered in blood.
All around Brannock, the sidewalk was coated in bright red blood and her family’s possessions were strewn about: a Philadelphia Marathon bag filled with their phone chargers, a couple of cowbells and Downing’s change of clothes.
Just inches away was Jeff Bauman, whose legs were so severely injured that both were amputated above the knee. Bauman — captured in a memorable Associated Press photograph being pushed in a wheelchair alongside a man wearing a cowboy hat — would later help the FBI identify Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his late brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as the bombing suspects. Nicole Gross, who was blown away from her sister by the force of the blast, sat dazed on the sidewalk, her red shirt and black pants shredded by the explosion. She had broken bones, a nearly severed Achilles tendon and damage to critical blood vessels. She opened her month to scream for her husband but couldn’t manage a sound.
Michael Gross, with lacerations and burns, searched in the chaos for Brannock and his wife. He had stepped back from them before the blast to find a perfect spot to snap a picture of Downing finishing the race and was spared more serious injuries.
Brannock said she closed her eyes and tried to speak to God: “ ‘I am not ready to go yet. You’re not taking me.’ ’
And in that moment, a woman, Amanda North, grabbed her hand. They both held on. The woman screamed for help.
North, of Woodside, Calif., had been waiting for her daughter to finish the race. In the aftermath of the explosions — another bomb went off farther down Boylston Street — she asked Brannock to look into her eyes, to stay calm. North put out the burning embers on her jacket and wrapped it around Brannock. At the suggestion of a man nearby, she gave her belt to an emergency medical technician to use as a tourniquet on Brannock’s leg.
“Every fiber of my being was connected to her,” recalls North, who suffered a gash on her leg and burns. “I never felt anything. I didn’t know I was injured.”
Within minutes, Brannock was rushed by ambulance to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which was setting up a command center to handle the mass casualties.
She had lost so much blood, her body went into shock and she needed to be resuscitated inside an elevator on the way to an operating room.
“I, without a doubt, believe that [North] was my angel, and she still is,” Brannock says. Tears, as they often do, spill from her green-blue eyes. “Right before she had come over and grabbed my hand, I closed my eyes and I could feel myself slipping away.”
The next day, as armed guards stood watch over the front doors of the medical center, Downing — still wearing black running shorts and a fleece that she had borrowed — kept vigil at Brannock’s bedside while taking breaks to visit her other daughter at another hospital in the city.
Outside the intensive-care unit, family and friends of other bombing victims crowded together on a series of padded blue benches lined along a sunny hallway.
In all, more than 260 men, women and children were injured in the attack. Three were killed.
Brannock spent 50 days in the Boston hospital, while other victims were discharged days and weeks earlier. The decision to save her right leg, rather than amputate part of it, prolonged her stay.
Even as doctors cared for her, she was overwhelmed by the fear that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was initially treated at the same hospital, “would get out and find the survivors and try to finish us off, or get out and blow the hospital up.”
Talking with an FBI victim specialist — who said the suspect was shackled to his bed, sedated and under constant watch — helped to comfort her. A hospital psychologist and social workers allowed Brannock to process her fears, although the anxiety returned when she passed Tsarnaev’s unit on her way to surgery.
When Brannock headed home, nurses threw her a surprise party and gave her an elaborate scrapbook made of purple fabric and filled with photos of her stay. They lined the hallways and applauded as she left the hospital in her wheelchair.
She was the last bombing victim to be discharged.
The surgeries — more than a dozen in all — continued through the summer; in early August she was at Maryland Shock Trauma Center for a 10-hour procedure, the third attempt to reconstruct her right leg with transplanted muscle and tissue. Five days after the surgery, she was still attached to a heart monitor, an intravenous line and a machine that measured her oxygen levels.
Hanging by her bedside was a periwinkle silk scarf accented with white, yellow and black — a gift from North, with whom Brannock was reunited two months earlier at a local rehab hospital. The scarf, purchased by North in Paris, was her second-favorite; the clothing she was wearing at the marathon, including a yellow cardigan and green scarf, was collected as evidence by the FBI.
The scarf was just one of the keepsakes by Brannock’s bedside at Shock Trauma — items that represented the support she had received from loved ones and strangers. She held on to a black-and-white polka-dot doll with pink hair, from her brother-in-law’s family, and a shaggy stuffed dog. A card on the hospital room wall mirrored her optimism: “The barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”
On her wrist she wore three rubber bracelets: one from a surgeon said, “Beastmode,” and the others, “Be Strong Brannock” and “Be Strong,” were for the nonprofits set up for her recovery funds.
Some of the keepsakes, which she likened to “security blankets,” also came with her to the operating room, as doctors fought to save her right leg. After the bombing, that leg lost so much tissue and muscle, it looked as if she had been bitten by a shark. But she had one strong artery in the leg, and in the months between surgeries, new pathways developed to carry blood to and from her foot.
She’s grateful to her doctors and medical team, for their dedication in saving her right leg — even though it meant a longer hospital stay in Boston and required subsequent surgeries.
“It means I am going to have a normal life, a more normal life than I would without any of these surgeries,” she says. “I think it’s going to prove to me that down the road I can handle anything because I have been able to get through this.”
Still, there are dark moments for Brannock.
She acknowledges, when pressed, that she feels hatred toward the bombers for disrupting her life so drastically. She and her mother do not mention the suspects by name, but in moments of anger or frustration refer to them with a short-hand expression: “FB” for “F---ing Bombers.” Brannock says, “How can you not feel angry about someone who basically tried to blow you up?”
Though her nightmares have stopped, she occasionally has flashbacks of the bombing, or emotional reactions to footage of the attack. At times, such as after a painful physical therapy session, she has posted Facebook messages about feeling defeated.
Brannock sees a therapist to cope but is reluctant to talk publicly about her inner struggles.
Even when she touches on problems, she instinctively coats them with a silver lining.
For example, she mentions having to move from her Mount Washington apartment to her mother and stepfather’s Monkton home and having to “bump up the stairs” to her second-floor bedroom. In the next breath, she says she’s excited about getting toned arms. (In the end, a company donated a chairlift to carry Brannock upstairs.)
She missed the chance to attend a good friend’s bridal shower and bachelorette party over the summer. But she was thrilled to be a bridesmaid in the June wedding — even if it meant the groom’s best man had to push her down the aisle and she had to sit out the dances.
Meanwhile, Brannock tries to help her sister work through feelings of guilt for leading her to a spot along Boylston Street that was closer to the marathon’s finish line — and the bomb.
To Brannock, it is a last-minute nudge that she chooses to focus on. In the seconds before the blast, her sister saw an opening in the crowd and gave Brannock a push forward, putting her a few more inches away from the bomb.
These days, Brannock says, it’s moments of gratitude, not anger, that matter to her.
Her insurance coverage — which costs $500 a month — has covered much of her medical expenses and up to about $55,000 toward her prosthetic leg, which must be replaced every three to five years with as much as $16,500 in maintenance in between.
Brannock also has received about $1.2 million through the One Fund Boston charity, established to benefit the bombing victims. The nonprofit received about $61 million between April 16 and June 26, and an additional $10 million has been donated since.
Still, the total medical costs for Brannock, who faces decades of care, are being tallied. The family remains unsure how much she’ll owe out of pocket.
To help with medical bills, other charitable funds have been set up, including an account at Graul’s Market in Hereford, where she worked for more than six years while in school. Brannock expects to convert another charity, The Brannock Fund, into an account for young amputees in the coming months.
She still asks, “Why me? and “What if?” but refuses to dwell on the questions.
“You have to acknowledge them and say, ‘This is how I feel,’ but worrying about them and asking yourself so many times, it’s just going to drive you crazy,” she says.
“This is the life that I have been given now, and I can either sit here and go, ‘Oh, my God. This sucks.’ And be a miserable person. Or I can go, ‘All right. This has happened. What am I going to do with this?’ “
At an August orientation session at Davenport Preschool, Brannock’s new school, an energetic boy tries to squeeze past her and she reaches down to tickle his tiny body, saying “Watch my leg.” Her right leg, wrapped in cotton and gauze, protrudes from her wheelchair, as it has for about five months.
Many of the children stand back tentatively and stare at Brannock’s foot, whose silver toenails peek out.
Three-year-old Meg Ruopp isn’t one of them.
Meg drops her mother’s hand when she catches sight of Brannock in a crowded hallway as parents and children tour the school on Cheverly Road north of Towson. The child motions for Brannock to pick her up, and without hesitating, starts to crawl into Brannock’s lap.
Meg’s mother, Maureen van Stone, says the child, whom Brannock taught last year at a Towson preschool, has seen Brannock a few times since the bombing. The bandaged leg and wheelchair don’t faze the little girl.
“She’s been more concerned about [Brannock’s] haircut, who polished her fingernails and toenails, her new bracelets,” van Stone says. Meg is “totally connected to her and so she sees completely past the injuries.”
From the Boston hospital, Brannock sent a photo of her hair in Princess Leia-style buns to Meg — recalling the way Brannock would style the girl’s golden brown ringlets. The message was typical of Brannock, who often sends quick updates to the parents of her preschool students, such as a photo during nap time.
“She’s a force of spirit for all of us, and hope. We have a very close relationship with Ms. Brannock,” van Stone says, echoing a sentiment expressed by parents throughout the day.
Many of the families at the orientation knew Brannock when she taught at Trinity Episcopal Children’s Center in Towson. She and several other teachers from Trinity moved to Davenport, which shares a single-story brick building with ChurchONE, a nondenominational Christian church pastored by Ed DeYoung.
Just as the church and school brought life to a building that sat empty for years, DeYoung says, he can see God working through Brannock.
“I think God redeems all things,” DeYoung says. “God is redeeming his creation and humanity. That’s the macro story.
“The micro story is the story of Erika and how God uses a really difficult and challenging and evil thing like that and brings redemption and restoration, and that enlivens the community and culture.”
Brannock expects to teach full time at the preschool when she completes her Towson University graduate degree in early childhood education, which was delayed by her recovery. She expects to finish in May after a semester of student teaching at a local public school.
But first, Brannock, Downing and Nicole and Michael Gross plan to participate in Saturday’s running festival in Charlotte, N.C., where the Grosses live. Downing is scheduled to run the half-marathon and Michael Gross is expected to push Brannock in her wheelchair as he runs a 5K. Nicole Gross, whose injuries still prevent her from running, will meet them at the end of the race.
The four will cross the finish line, together.
Brannock tells Mark Hopkins, the CEO of a Linthicum prostethics supplier, that the kids at school want to know whether she’ll be able to sit on the carpet with them, “criss-cross applesauce” style. It’s early October, and she’s at Dankmeyer Inc. for the final fitting before she gets to take her new prosthetic leg home
The leg, manufactured by a German company, Ottobock, will allow her to jog, ride a bike or sit cross-legged on the floor with preschoolers.
Brannock is standing on a ramp about to take her first steps. She’s wearing black athletic shorts, a purple Ravens T-shirt, and the New Balance athletic shoes, her first pair of shoes since the bombing.
She’s uncharacteristically quiet and looks down at her feet.
Her mother is texting Nicole Gross. Her father, visiting from Florida, isn’t saying a word. Her aunt and uncle, Debbie and Ronnie Atkinson of Laurel, point their cellphone cameras toward her.
A computer synchronized to the prosthetic leg is measuring the horizontal force and the pressure from Brannock’s weight on the knee and foot.
The room is silent. Brannock slowly takes a step. Then another. She’s leaning heavily on the poles to her left and right.
She walks to the end of the ramp and turns around. She walks back to her wheelchair and sits down. She’s crying.
She’s come a long way in six months — through grueling medical treatments, nightmares and anxiety. Little by little, she is putting the pieces of her life back together, moving from victim to survivor.
She looks over at her mother and smiles. And exhales.
“Does this call for another glass of wine?” her uncle asks her.
“Yes, two,” Brannock says.
She smiles and laughs again.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun