Elaine and Richard Brockley no longer take much time out of their lives to visit their son's hospital room. Although 3 1/2-year-old Brian is technically alive, he has lain hopelessly comatose for two years, his jaw hanging slack, his limbs stiff and his eyes blank.
The young Guardsman and his wife speak of their son in the flat, matter-of-fact tones of people who have grown accustomed to the unbearable. Anger surfaces only when they talk about Brian's stay at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
When Brian entered the hospital on Oct. 15, 1977, he was a normal energetic child suffering from a serious respiratory problem. When he left three months later, he had suffered permanent brain damage.
Brian had been rushed to the prestigious Army hospital after he had wheezed and gasped for breath throughout the night at the family's Glen Burnie home. He was placed in the adult intensive care unit where, two days later, a crucial mistake was made.
With the child heavily sedated and breathing with the aid of a respirator, a doctor working on his case prescribed a drug designed to relax the muscles in breathing passages and blood vessels, opening these passages up.
An error was made in the dose," the hospital report states simply. Ten times more of the drug than intended poured into Brian's veins through an intravenous tube.
Then, on Oct. 11, the respirator tube slipped out of the passage leading to Brian's lungs, and for some minutes -- no one knows exactly how long -- oxygen was being pumped uselessly into his stomach. He suffered cardiac arrest and was resuscitated by doctors.
Two weeks later, when the child was taken off sedation and off the respirator, "he opened his eyes and there was nothing there behind them," his mother recalls. "There was nothing there; just a vacant, fixed stare." Later tests showed the child had suffered permanent, irreversible brain damage.
But it was several weeks more before the Brockleys found out about the overdose -- and they found out only because Elaine Brockley overheard an intern telling another doctor about it.
"All the doctors kept saying, 'do you have any questions? Do you have any questions?' the whole time Brian was there. The intern asked me again that day, and I said, 'what sort of questions do you think I should ask? Should I ask if my son had a drug overdose?"
"The intern's jaw dropped and he said, I'll get Dr. San Antonio.'"
Dr. Pamela San Antonio, then a second-year resident, was the doctor who prescribed the drug aminophyllin for Brian in a verbal order to a nurse. Hospital records indicate Brian received 500 milligrams of the drug when 50 milligrams would have been appropriate.
"Dr. San Antonio and I sat and talked, and she said that they knew it [the overdose] had happened and decided not to tell us because we had enough on our mind already," Elaine Brockley said this week, adding that San Antonio told that the doctors did not believe the drug had done Brian any harm.
On the orders of Army legal counsel, San Antionio refused to discuss the case this week.
"It's our policy that people are informed within hours of events like this [the overdose]," Walter Reed spokesman Peter Esker said, adding that he did not know why hospital policy was not followed in this instance.
In addition, Esker pointed out, Brian Brockley had serious trouble breathing when he was admitted to the hospital. Within 24 hours the child had suffered a collapsed lung.
"We couldn't rule out (the overdose)as a factor in the boy's brain damage," he said, but added that other causes, such as Brian's breathing difficulties, could have had the same effect.
"You'll get differing opinions," Esker said.
But two medical experts wrote reports for the Brockleys' attorney saying that the overdose was the direct cause of the brain damage, which has left Brian a stiff and unresponsive little figure permanently tied to hospital care. His legs are perpetually curved inward; doctors believe he is blind.
On Jan. 8, 1978, Brian was moved out of Walter Reed and into the D.C. Hospital for Sick Children, where he remains. His medical expenses are about $4000 a month, a sum originally paid for out of Richard Brockley's military health insurance and now out of the proceeds of a settlement made between the Army and the Brockleys.
Under the terms of that settlement, the Army gave the Brockleys $115,000 and established an $810,000 trust fund, the income of which pays Brian's hospital bills. When the child dies, the principal will revert to the government.
Brian could live for another two to five years, doctors estimate. For the Brockleys, that is a bitter prognosis.
"It's like he was dead but he really wasn't dead," said Elaine Brockley.
"You can get busy and do something else, but it's always right there, the situation doesn't go away," she added.
"If Brian could die we might be able to go on and do something else but he's alive and it's always right there," she said, pointing to the back of her head.
"You feel guilty thinking that (you want him dead)," explained Richard Brockley, as he held their 14-month-old daughter on his knee and pointed out her strong resemblance to her brother. "But at the same time you know it's the right thing."
Hospital officals sympathize with the Brockleys' anger, but they disagree with their conclusions about the events that turned a well-loved son into an unwanted burden.
"The fact that we don't know till this day what caused the brain damage in the child has not been accepted by the Brockleys," said Joseph Rouse, an Army counsel who handled the Brockleys' claim.
In any case, he agrees, the order for the prescription should have been given in writing and the parents should have been informed of the overdose sooner.
"I think this was (Dr. San Antonio's first big case" Rouse said. "She wasn't familiar with what you tell patients."
The Brockleys, have tried to continue their lives. Richard with his work at the Curtiss Bay Coast Guard Yard and Elaine with her art classes at Anne Arundel Community College. Her acrylic paintings, postcard landscapes of green and blue, are the main decorations on the walls of their small apartment in a Baltimore suburb.
But the anger is still there, "the anger started the day we found out about the overdose. It's just gotten worse," Richard said.
"(The Brockleys) still see Brian," explained their attorney, William Little, who negotiated the settlement from the Army that was finally agreed to this September.
"When they see him, it tears them up. They feel bad for days," he added. "Then the guilt of not seeing him works on them and they go back."