Carol Downing parks her silver Honda on Allegheny Avenue in the heart of Towson, but at this particular spot, a tree leaves little space for the passenger to open the door and get out. “I guess this wasn’t the best spot,” she says, turning to her daughter, Erika Brannock. “I’ll deal with it,” says Brannock, as she gets out of the car and, with the help of a walker, heads for the sidewalk with a slow but steady stride. “Dealing with it” has become a mantra of sorts for Brannock as she works to get back on her feet—no easy task given that one of them is a prosthetic. Last year, on April 15, two pressure-cooker bombs filled with metal, nails, and ball bearings exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people died and an estimated 264 people were wounded, 16 of whom lost their legs. Brannock was there with her sister, Nicole Gross (who also sustained severe leg injuries), and her brother-in-law, Michael (who suffered burns and lacerations), to cheer their mother across the finish line.
“Given how close I was to it, I’ve always felt lucky,” says Brannock over a Caesar salad and grilled calamari at Cafe Troia. “Jeff Bauman [who lost both legs] was eight inches from my head, and Krystle Campbell, who died, was right in front of me.”
Even so, recovery has been far from easy. To date, Brannock has endured 18 surgeries, including the amputation of her left leg above the knee and multiple surgeries to repair extensive bone and soft-tissue injuries to her right leg, which she also almost lost. In the wake of the tragedy, the 30-year-old with the arresting blue-green eyes has emerged as a symbol of strength and survival. “I had such a quiet life before,” says Brannock, her mother sitting by her side. “I was just a preschool teacher getting her master’s, enjoying the single life, and hanging out with my mom and my sister and friends. I was always the kind of person who liked doing things for other people and being in the background.”
Since Boston, however, Brannock has come to the foreground as a face of the race, serving as a starter at the Baltimore Running Festival as well as appearing on The View, where, when she introduced herself to Barbara Walters backstage, the veteran journalist told her she needed no introduction. Recalls Brannock, “She said, ‘I know who you are.’”
Despite all the attention, the spotlight has left Brannock unfazed. “I feel like I’m the same person as before,” she says. “When people come up to me, I just feel like me. Pardon my frankness, but it’s weird to be known for getting blown up. I didn’t die—I accomplished that.”
Downing looks lovingly at Brannock and interjects, “But people are in awe of your attitude.”
Though she has tried to get back to the life she once knew—juggling school and work—Brannock has not shied away from sharing her story. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, the outpouring overwhelmed her as the local community—from Graul’s Market and Trinity Episcopal Church (both former employers) to her current employer Davenport Preschool—rushed to support her, establishing the Erika Brannock Fund, which has raised money to help defray staggering lifelong medical expenses. (Her state-of-the-art prosthetic alone—which will need replacing in five to seven years—costs at least $50,000.) Strangers rose to the challenge as well, sending handmade quilts and shawls, cards, and flowers from Baltimore to her Boston hospital room.
“We had so much support when we were up in Boston,” says Brannock, the last of the wounded to be discharged from the hospital. “It was important to come home and thank people. I don’t think we would have felt right about coming home and hiding.”
With her can-do attitude and sharp sense of humor (she’s been known to make half-price pedicure jokes), Brannock, a graduate student pursuing a master’s of art in early childhood education at Towson University and part-time administrative assistant at Davenport Preschool, has been a pillar of strength, something she says she learned from watching her mom go through tough times.
“My parents got divorced when I was a freshman in high school,” she says. “Through the divorce, I saw how strong she was. She was like, ‘This happened. It’s crappy, but I have to get up. I have two kids to take care of. I have to keep going.’”
Even on this mid-January evening, the night before yet another surgery—the first of two to repair her perforated eardrums blown out by the blast—Brannock is willing to talk about the worst day of her life. “It was hard talking about it at first,” she says, “but now it’s helpful, though there may come a time when I don’t want to tell it anymore.”
On race day, Brannock and her sister and brother-in-law went to mile marker 26—a symbolic spot honoring the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting—to participate in a moment of silence. Brannock wanted to stand there to cheer on their mom, while her sister wanted to stand at the finish line. “Michael and my sister went ahead to find a spot, and then she texted me, ‘We found a good spot.’ We got there, and there were all these people, and I was like, ‘That’s not a good spot,’ and she patted me on the back and gave me a little nudge forward, and then I heard this big ‘whomp,’ and it was like everything went silent. I could feel myself falling backward, but I don’t remember hitting the ground,” says Brannock in a continuous stream of sentences. When she came to, she says she wondered, “‘Why am I on my back?’ I could feel that someone was laying on my legs, and I felt like my left knee was twisted,” she recounts. “I thought, ‘Damn, I broke my leg. I’m going to be out of work.’”
But when Brannock tried to stand, she fell back on Boylston Street. “My legs felt like Jell-O. I felt flesh, and warm, and sting, and I just put my hand back up, and it was covered in blood,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is really bad, and I started to feel this weird pull—when people have a near-death experience, they see this flash before their eyes and the bright light and the pull, and I felt all that stuff.” On the ground, she fought to stay alive. “I was like, ‘No, this is not happening,’ and I closed my eyes. I had a conversation with God, and I said, ‘You are not taking me yet. I’m not done. I’m not leaving.’”
For her part, Downing, who was tending to Gross in another area hospital several blocks away, had no idea her other daughter had been gravely injured. “I thought, ‘We’ll find her—no big deal. She’s lost and wandering around.’” When authorities finally contacted Downing and took her to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the doctors told her she would need to identify Brannock before they could disclose her injuries. “She was all puffy from the fluid they had given her,” Downing says. “She had a breathing tube in and her hair was all singed, and I just kept looking at her, and I’m like, ‘Hmm, I don’t know whether that’s her or not.’ I didn’t want it to be her. Finally, I said, ‘It’s her,’ and I just stayed with her in my running clothes for two days.”
Since returning home from the hospital last June, Brannock’s challenges are far from over. On any given week, she requires a phalanx of medical personnel, including orthopedists, plastic surgeons, acupuncturists, ear-nose-throat doctors, physical therapists, physiatrists, prosethetists, and a counselor (to help her cope with the traumatic experience).
Along the way, there’ve been good days and bad ones. On the bad days, Brannock, who had to move back to Monkton with her mother and step-father, gives herself permission to grieve for her old life and even has a “Dammit Doll” she can bang against the wall to vent frustration. “For the longest time, I’d say, ‘I’m okay,’ but once everything started to die down, and people were going back to their lives, I was like, ‘Now it’s just me with my thoughts,’” she says. “There were no more distractions, and going out in public and smiling, and people telling me I’m such an inspiration.”
Downing is equally honest. “There are some days when she’s really crying or I’m sitting upstairs with my husband crying. And then the next day is okay.” For Downing, the finality of Brannock’s injury can hit hard in unexpected ways as well. “Erika loves shoes,” she says. “I remember one day when she was still in Boston, I was taking a walk and going past shoe stores, and I thought, ‘She’d love these shoes.’ It’s very painful for me to go to shoe stores. I realize how much I can’t really do my own healing because I’m so involved in theirs.’”
And for every day of progress, there have been serious setbacks. In late January, Brannock’s right ankle became infected, necessitating nearly back-to back surgeries at R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Medical Center at the University of Maryland. But the optimist maintained her trademark sense of humor. Just minutes before she was wheeled into surgery, Brannock was asked if she had any final words. “Live long and prosper,” she cracked, a reference to Spock’s famous saying from Star Trek.
While Brannock has not yet gone back to teaching, some of her best medicine comes from working as a part-time administrative assistant and classroom assistant at Davenport Preschool. “You can’t help but smile when you’re around two-, three-, and four-year-olds,” says Davenport director Liz Harlan. “Even if you’re missing one leg.”
Brannock has even turned her injuries into a lesson. “My kids kept asking me what’s going to happen to you? And I kept saying, ‘I’m going to get a new leg,’ so they honestly thought that my leg was going to grow back,” says Brannock. “I hadn’t gotten my prosthetic yet, but the prosthetist came in and told them what she does. They got to touch different legs, and they totally got it—they had so much fun with it.”
Her “kids,” as she calls them, have also factored into her decision to go back to Boston this month to watch her mother complete the race she came within a mile of finishing before the blast. “If I don’t ever go back to a race, what’s that teaching them?” asks Brannock, who plans to walk the 5K with her sister and brother-in-law. “This is the last step to be able to fully move forward and put the past behind me.”
As she looks to the future, the tragedy has given her a new perspective.
“Ultimately, I want to find a way to help others cope with a variety of situations in their lives,” she says. “Helping the kids I teach to be accepting of people with disabilities will be a larger part of my teaching than before. I’m still unsure of what my ultimate goal will be through all of this, but I don’t think my ‘race’ will ever be finished—there will just be checkpoints along the way.”