LAUREL, Md. — Erika Brannock, a 30-year-old preschool teacher from Baltimore, holds a record she never sought in the history of the Boston Marathon: Brannock spent 50 days at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and was the last patient to leave an acute care hospital after last year's bombing.
Brannock had come to Boston with her sister and brother-in-law to watch her mother, Carol Downing, cross the marathon finish line.
The first bomb blast ripped off most of Brannock's left leg. Shrapnel tore through bone, muscle and tissue in Brannock’s lower right leg, leaving what she calls a big divot. Doctors have been rebuilding the leg and Brannock had started walking on it and her prosthetic left leg when an infection set in.
Recovery And Retraining
In February, Brannock had her 18th surgery since leaving Boston. Speaking last month from her aunt and uncle's home here, she said she's confident now that she will keep her right leg.
"It’s looking good," Brannock said, patting the leg propped on a velvet pillow in front of her. "My surgeon’s really happy with how it’s healed and I can start getting back up and walking again."
Brannock says she constantly feels like she's taking one step forward then two steps back. A professor offered to meet with her one on one so she could resume work toward a master’s in early childhood education. She’s been in and out of the preschool where she’s getting experience.
She’ll continue to be in and out of the hospital, too. Brannock needs surgery to repair her right eardrum. There will be another operation to smooth a landscape of shrapnel scars on her right leg, and the bone at the end of her amputation is growing.
"I know that there have been a couple of amputees who’ve had to have their limb shaved off so that it’s not poking through and they’ve had issues with it," Brannock said. "So far, mine’s been," she paused, "good."
Phantom pain many amputees say they feel coming from a missing limb is fading for Brannock. Mirror therapy has helped.
"You have a mirror next to your leg and you are looking and seeing it’s not really moving, it’s not actually there," Brannock said, describing the therapy. "You have to retrain your brain."
To retrain her heart, therapists urged Brannock to touch her shortened limb a lot.
"You know," she said with a laugh, "get comfortable with it and welcome it to the world. You’re definitely making your head and your heart think and feel the same thing."
Brannock has dark days, but her family and friends say they’ve never heard her complain. Her mom says she’s become a symbol of resilience.
"When we first got home, it was kind of crazy," Downing said. "We couldn’t go out in public without people stopping her and telling people what [an] inspiration she was and hugging and kissing."
Brannock says she wants to set a good example for these strangers, for her friends and for the little boys and girls she hopes to get back to teaching daily.
"If I’m going through this and I don’t ever come to work and I’m not smiling and whatnot," Brannock said, "then they’re going to look at it as that’s how they’re supposed to react to it," meaning her new leg and other life changes.
But Brannock acknowledged she does require a lot of attention.
"I didn’t get the nickname of 'Princess' for nothing," she said.
The Building Marathon Tension
The person who is at her bidding every day, all day, is her mom. Brannock moved in with her mom and step-dad after the bombing.
"She’s been a really great support," Brannock said, her voice choking. "Even before all of this, she was one of my best friends and she still is."
A family member calls Downing a silent hero for putting her life on hold to take care of her daughter. Downing is registered to run the marathon again. She was stopped just a half-mile from the finish line last year. Her training isn't going so well this year. Downing says taking care of Brannock is her priority.
"I’ve kind of lost my motivation a little bit and I don’t know if it’s because my training’s a little off right now or, I mean, there’s definitely some fear of going back," Downing said. "I know that for the whole time of the 26.2 miles I’m going to be wondering if my family is safe."
Assuming Downing runs, Brannock will be watching, along with her sister Nicole Gross, who spent 34 days in the hospital with severe leg injuries. Brannock, Downing and their extended family go on and on about the wonderful friends they made in Boston, the miracles performed by doctors, the generosity of strangers and the work the Boston Athletic Association is doing to make their return special.
But none of this erases Downing’s fear.
"I mean, how do you keep a whole city safe?" she asked.
This is the marathon tension building for many survivors and their families. It’s a powerful clash of fear, hope and love.
Erika Brannock is trying to focus on the excitement of reuniting with other survivors, paying tribute to people who saved her life, and getting to know Boston. It’s a city she and her family call their home away from home, where the love of many overpowered the hatred of a few.