Rod Brandner should not be here.
By all rights, by all assumptions, by the collective wisdom of his doctors, Brandner should be dead. Instead, he is lying in a bed at Union Memorial Hospital, speaking softly and slowly to relatives who were convinced they would never hear his voice again.
Brandner, who made a career of seeing death up close, has improbably slipped its grasp, waking from a weeklong coma 90 minutes before life support was to be turned off.
Brandner's harrowing journey began April 25 when he underwent surgery to receive a new heart valve. Cardiac surgery is a potentially hazardous proposition under any circumstances, but Brandner, 68, was no stranger to hazards.
He was born in Depression-era Baltimore, fought in Korea as a Marine, and joined his native city's police department in 1959. He worked patrol in the Central District and eventually rose to the rank of detective sergeant in the homicide unit.
Officers who worked with Brandner said he excelled at instructing his younger colleagues. Retired homicide detective Donald Worden, whom Brandner brought into the unit in 1985, said, "He was very well organized and knew his job very well. ... He was a great teacher and a great guy to learn from."
Worden said Brandner was especially adept at solving years-old homicide cases, so adept that his colleagues nicknamed him "Old Blue" after the blue ink used to record such cases on the homicide unit's tally board. One of the killers Brandner helped catch was Dennis Wise, one of the city's most feared gangsters in the 1970s.
Brandner retired from the force in 1986, then worked for eight years as an investigator for Maryland National Bank. His eyesight was deteriorating badly, though, forcing him to retire for good in 1994.
In January he went to the hospital for heart-bypass surgery. Later, doctors determined that he needed a valve replacement. Because Brandner had hardened arteries, heart surgery was especially risky for him. In the course of the surgery, tissue can flake off of hard arteries like paint from a wall. Those stray shards could form dangerous clots.
Doctors are not certain, but they say that might have been what happened to Brandner.
Following his operation, a clot moved to his brain, causing a massive stroke. Brandner fell into a coma. As he lay unconscious, he was racked by seizures, one of the few signs that he was still alive.
His eyes were closed, his hands cold, his skin turning ghostly white. He responded to no external stimuli and needed a respirator to breathe.
His children and his wife, Rose, would take his hand and talk to him, but they received no answer, no sign of recovery.
Death was taking his body over; another clot had formed and made its way down his left leg. The suffocated limb was wasting away and would have to be amputated.
The condition in his leg forced the issue of whether Rod Brandner should continue to be kept alive by artificial means.
On the morning of May 2, Brandner's family and his doctors met in the family room of Union Memorial's intensive care unit. The leg had to come off, doctors said, but there was no way a man in Brandner's condition would survive such a major procedure. There was no hope of survival; it appeared that the only thing to do was to place Brandner on "comfort care," a euphemism for turning off life support.
After talking for ten minutes among themselves, the family made a decision. There was no way that a man as active as Brandner would want to be kept in an inert, near-death state. They would have to let him go."We had been there a whole week, day after day," said Rose Brandner. "Our feelings were 'He'll make it, he'll make it,' but we finally reached the point where we were about ready to give up."
Rose made one request. She asked that the life support system not be turned off until six that evening. Their 42-year-old daughter, Barbara, was flying in from Michigan and was due to come in at 4:30 p.m. Rose wanted her to see her father alive one last time. The doctors complied.
During the day, family members came in and out of the room. A priest performed last rites."I was devastated," said Brandner's son Chuck, a 44-year-old postal clerk from Marydel, Md. "He looked like he was ready to go. It was a horrible feeling to see him lying there, especially knowing that in a couple of hours we would have to take him off life support and say goodbye to him."
At about 4:30 p.m., when Barbara's plane was due to arrive, Tom Brandner found himself alone in the room with his father.
As he had done so often over the previous days, the 40-year-old claims adjuster from Kinston, N.C., took the old man's hand and said, "Dad, if you can hear me, just squeeze my hand." To Tom Brandner's astonishment, he felt his father's hand slowly tighten around his. He said, "Dad, I felt that. If you can hear me, squeeze it again." Rod Brandner squeezed again, and his pale blue eyes cracked open.
In the stunned minutes that followed, the man given up for dead was put through an endless round of impromptu tests: Squeeze Rose's hand. Squeeze the nurse's hand. Blink three times if you can understand what I'm saying. Do you know who you are? Nod for yes or shake your head for no. To this last question, Brandner nodded yes.
That Brandner is still alive is enough to justify his new nickname at Union Memorial - "Miracle Man." One of his doctors, Salim Rizk, said he had given him "less than a 1 percent chance of recovery."
What is even more amazing is that his mental and emotional functions seem unimpaired, in spite of the hurricane stroke that had torn through his brain days before. He speaks softly of his last memory before losing consciousness - sitting in his Carney back yard with Tom."I feel pretty good now," he says.
He did not make it through his ordeal unscathed. His left leg was amputated below the knee on May 5, and his sadness over this loss is readily apparent and keenly felt. In order to regain full physical functioning, he must undergo weeks of rehabilitation.
Alive and grateful
Yet he is alive, and he is grateful. When another of his doctors, Raja Ayash, points to Rose and tells him, "This is your angel," Rod responds, "She pulled me through the hole."
And that's about as good an explanation as for why Rod Brandner is at a hospital talking about fishing.
The doctors happily acknowledge they are at a loss for explanations. The firmest theory Ayash will advance runs as follows: "The good recovery is based on good family care, medical care, and some help from higher sources."