On a Friday afternoon in April, Erika Brannock told her preschool class that she was going to Boston to watch her mom run a race that weekend. She’d be back in class soon, she said.
On Monday, she finally came home, the last of the hundreds of Boston marathon bombing victims to leave the hospital.
Brannock, a sunny 29-year-old trash-talking Baltimore Ravens fan from Towson, Md., returned in a wheelchair, her left leg amputated above the knee and her right leg severely injured. She spent 50 days in the hospital after the attack, enduring numerous surgeries — her mom thinks it was 11, although she’s losing track. And there are more to come.
As she wheeled into a private hangar at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport with her mom Monday afternoon, a small crowd of close relatives and friends in bright green “Team Brannock” T-shirts cheered, waved welcome-home signs, tooted noisemakers and choked back sobs.
Brannock, too, was crying but soon was surrounded in a scrum of hugs. A friend’s 2-year-old daughter reached to get into her lap, as usual, with her mother nervously saying: “Be gentle, Mali. Be gentle.”
Brannock and her sister and brother-in-law Nicole and Michael Gross had been cheering for their mom, Carol Downing, when the blast hit.
“It all kind of went silent,” Brannock said Monday at a press conference at the airport. She saw flashes of yellow and orange. Then she heard sirens and people crying and screaming.
She told God, “I’m not ready to go yet,” and just then, a stranger grabbed her hand and said, “I’m not going to let you go.”
The woman, whose name was Joan and whom Brannock hopes to find so that she can thank her, took off her belt to use as a tourniquet.
It wasn’t until 9 that night that Downing was reunited with her daughter in the hospital. She told reporters that Brannock first asked about what had happened to her sister and brother-in-law. (Her sister’s left leg was broken in two places, her ankle was fractured and she had a severed Achilles tendon. Michael Gross was also injured.)
Next Brannock asked: What did they tell my kids?
Then she asked about her leg.
Downing called someone at the preschool while Brannock was in intensive care to ask, “Please send photos of her kids.”
While Brannock went through surgeries, people back in Maryland began raising money to help with her medical expenses, which will be staggering and ongoing. Friends from Mount Hebron High School in Howard County and Towson University, where she was enrolled in a graduate program on early childhood education, relatives and co-workers at Trinity Episcopal Children’s Center — as well as strangers horrified by the attack — pitched in.
“Basically, the world has stopped,” said Liz Harlan, former director at Trinity and the founder of Davenport Preschool, where Brannock will work in the fall. Harlan created the Erika Brannock Fund.
There have been road races, bar crawls, auctions, donations linked to car sales, parties, jars put out on counters, bake sales. On Sunday alone there were two events.
Early on, Brannock made a video for the 2-year-olds in her class, telling them that she loved and missed them. Last week, the school gathered to watch another. She wanted them to see her in her wheelchair — but made sure they wouldn’t be able to see the blood. She showed them the cards they had made, which were taped up around her room on the sixth floor of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and purple Ravens gear. The Web connection was slow, said her friend Kelly Pucillo, so when the image froze, the children would say, “Awwwwww,” and then cheer every time they saw Brannock again.
Lindsay Golden, another co-worker, thought the kids would be shocked by the wheelchair, “but they all said things like, ‘She’s so pretty!’ and ‘I like her shirt!’”
Brannock has had her share of medical setbacks, including a muscle graft that failed recently, and “some dark days . . . really dark moments, when I sat with my mom and told her I don’t know how I can keep going . . . I don’t want to keep going,” she said.
But Monday, Brannock was laughing again. Many of the kids at the preschool were wearing their green B Strong Brannock T-shirts and parents had signed giant posters with notes such as, “Miss Bagitt — when does Henry get a ride on your new wheels?,” referring to a little boy who has trouble pronouncing her name.
She was going to learn to walk again, she was going to be with her friends and her family, she was home.
An ambulance waited outside to take her to a rehabilitation center, where she expects to be for at least the next couple of weeks. Then she’ll move into her mother’s house in Monkton, Md.
“We need to find out what the new normal is,” Downing said.
But first, Brannock has something to celebrate: Friday is the graduation ceremony at her preschool.