BOSTON — It was supposed to be a long weekend in Boston for Erika Brannock. She had scheduled a flight back to Baltimore a few hours after her mom was supposed to cross the Boston Marathon finish line for the first time. Now, Brannock is finally getting on that plane.
She left Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center on Monday afternoon — the last of 275 patients treated at an acute care hospital after the marathon bombings.
The Incident And An Angel
Seven weeks ago, Brannock remembers pushing close to the metal barricades that separated spectators from runners on Boylston Street. Her mom should have come into view soon.
The first bomb blast blew Brannock into the middle of Bolyston, onto her back, smacking her head to the pavement. She blacked out briefly, came to, opened her eyes to blood, smoke, sirens and screams, then closed her eyes again.
“I remember having a conversation with God and saying, ‘I’m not going to die, you’re not taking me, I’m not ready to go,’ ” Brannock said.
A woman Brannock now calls her angel appeared “as soon as I opened my eyes,” she said. “Right after I had said that, she was there, grabbed my hand and said, ‘I’m Joan from California and I’m not going to let you go.’ ”
Joan, the 40-something woman in a yellow jacket with shoulder-length brown hair, could see what Brannock couldn’t see yet — that the 29-year-old preschool teacher was in serious trouble.
Joan “started screaming for people to come help me,” Brannock said. “I put my hand down where my leg was, or had been, and couldn’t feel anything and pulled my hand back up and saw my hand was covered in blood and knew that something was really, really wrong with my leg.”
Blood poured from Brannock’s leg as an EMT yelled for belts. Brannock started to panic, looking around for her sister and brother-in-law. They’d all been waiting to celebrate with Brannock’s mother after she finished the marathon. Joan pulled her belt off and wrapped it tight around Brannock’s leg while repeating, “Focus on me, focus on me.” Then the EMT’s whisked Brannock away and Joan was gone.
Now, as Brannock leaves Beth Israel Deaconess, she’s on a mission to find Joan.
“I would just hug her and thank her so much for saving my life,” Brannock said. “If she hadn’t gotten to me as quick as she did, I honestly don’t think I’d be here. When I was in the hospital, one of the trauma doctors told me that of all the patients who came into BI that day, I was the closest to death. She’s definitely my earth angel.”
Mixed Feelings Upon Leaving
Doctors took the lower part of Brannock’s left leg that first day and later her knee, too. Her right leg is still a mess. She’s missing two inches from one calf bone; a rod holds the other calf bone in place. Attempts to replace muscle around her ankle have failed, so far. But Brannock expects to keep her remaining leg.
“That’s their goal,” she said. “My doctors have told me they are ‘Committed to getting you to the point where you can walk again.’ I know that I will walk one day, it will just take a lot of hard work.”
Brannock’s hard work to date is documented in a purple-covered scrapbook of pictures and messages from her team at Beth Israel Deaconess — people she now calls family. But Brannock had many dark moments during her seven weeks, including the days when bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was hospitalized one floor below her.
“Every time I went to surgery, I would be wheeled right past all the SWAT and police and Marines and everyone and I would start to feel really high anxiety and I started to have nightmares that he would get out of his bed, he would come find me, he would blow up the hospital,” she said.
An FBI agent reassured Brannock that Tsarnaev could not hurt her again, but Brannock was relieved to see him go.
Now, as Brannock and her mother head back to the Baltimore area, they have mixed feelings about leaving.
“I love this city,” Carol Downing said. “People have been very kind to us. I feel very safe here and I’m going to miss it.”
Downing was a half mile from the finish line when the first bomb went off, severing Brannock’s leg. Her sister, Nicole Gross, was hospitalized for 39 days, recovering from broken bones and a nearly severed Achilles tendon. Her husband, Michael Gross, had cuts, burns and bruises. Downing pushed through one of her own demons a few weeks ago — she finished the marathon.
“One morning I was out running, along the Charles River, and I just, ‘Today’s the day,’ ” she said. “I turned around and went back to the exact spot where I’d been stopped and I just ran it like it was a race.” Down Boylston, ignoring traffic and the sounds of the city.
“I just remember the closer I got to the finish line, just imaging what my kids had gone through and I hadn’t been there.”
But Downing says she won’t let herself get stuck in guilt or regret.
“We all have a story of, ‘If only I hadn’t done, it wouldn’t have happened,’ but it happened and it happened for a reason. I think one of the things we’ve learned is just to step up when people need help because that’s what people have done for us.”
Brannock hopes to visit her classroom of 2-year-olds soon and at least read the kids a story. She’s sent them two videos. One to let them know that she’s OK and the other to show them her amputation and explain the injury. The cards and pictures that covered the wall of her hospital room are going with her to a rehabilitation hospital near Baltimore.
“I just really want to say thank you to the city of Boston for giving me so much love and support,” Brannock said Monday.
But now, she says she wants to go home to whatever her new normal life will be. She hopes to finish student teaching for a masters in early education this fall. She has many months of rehab ahead and an uncertain financial future. But Brannock plans to return to Boston next April to watch her mom finish the marathon.