`Miracle Man' beats all odds to stay alive

Fighter: Doctors gave him less than 1 percent chance of survival, but Rod Brandner woke from a coma 90 minutes before his life support was to be turned off.

May 13, 2000|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

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.

Deadly clot

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.

Little hope

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.

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