Joe Branda had everything going for him that February monring in 1972: He was three months away from Georgetown University Medical School graduation, a prime candidate for residency in cardiovascular surgery, and on his way to a weekend of skiing in Pennsylvania.
He was asleep in the back seat, recovering from 24 hours' duty in the emergency room, when the car in which he was riding hit a patch of ice, and then a parked car, in Bradford, Pa.
"When I woke up, I knew what I had done. I watched my hands hanging from my wrists and I knew I had broken my neck . . . The next thing I remember is the ambulance coming and I remember telling them how to carry me out of the car. I watched them carry my body out," said Dr. Joseph Branda, during an interview yesterday in his northwest Washington apartment.
"I had never met a quad(riplegic) before my accident," he continued. "I was the first quad I'd ever seen. I had no idea what a quad was. When they told me I was a basket case I had no idea what that was. That's probably why I went so far . . . I might have wound up in a nursing home if I'd known what one was."
The accident almost six years ago left Branda paralyzed, confined to a wheel chair for life with only partial use of his hands and arms. It did not, however, end his medical career. It only limited his options.
"When I woke up in the ambulance I thought there's always something I can do in medicine, I didn't know how or what."
During 15 months in the hospital - three of them spent as "a head," completely immobilized Branda had time to explore his alternatives.
"I spent five weeks reading (electrocardiograms), I spent two months in psychiatry," working with patients and time in physical therapy.
A specialty in physical therapy, where he would have worked with persons like himself, "would have been good, nice for people. But I live with it every day and I just couldn't do it," said Branda, who said other patients referred to him as "Super Quad."
After graduating from medical school from his hospital bed. Branda was accepted for an internship in the department of Georgetown. "They were willing to let me stay on unsalaried for a year, which was a great blow to my ego," he said, "after being a prime candidate for a surgical internship where there's a good salary.
"Nobody at our institution had any experience with anybody with my (level of injury) doing anything" in medicine, he said. "It was a total unknown, which was OK because I always like a challenge.
"I set up my internship so the first two months would be in radiology, because physically it would be easy for me. I really got to like it. It was very intellectual for me. Sherlock Holmes is my idol, and in radiology, with very little information you can put together a story."
So after successfully completing his internship, Branda moved on to a three-year residency in radiology at Georgetown.
There were problems, like not being able to maneuver his wheelchair into the room where the residents slept and having to sleep on a bench instead of a bed. But only little problems.
By last year Joseph Branda, the "basket case," was the chief resident in radiology and president of the house staff liaison committee at Georgetown.
While Branda, who used to entertain himself by typing surgical knots with one hand while he studied, still would like to have been a surgeon, he believes his accident has taught him things about the medical system and about himself.
"I learned that in some ways people are impersonal. Especially," he said, "when you're going for test, or into surgery. You lose your glasses and you lose your pajamas that make you look different from everyone else. You get a hospital gown so you become just another nody that's going some place. Somebody comes along and asks you a bunch of check list questions. That's the thing that bugged me most.
"I learned that I'm braver than I thought I was. I thought I was a coward. But I found I'm not afraid of anything, whether it's a challenge, or death, or whatever.
"If you let depression get you, you're finished. You can go out of (the hospital) with the attitude that you'll live, or the attitude that you aren't going to take care of yourself. And that's the equivalent of saying you're going to die. It's going to be a slow process, but you're to start getting skin ulcers and urinary tract infections . . . Those are rally your only two choices. Usually in life you get a lot more choices than that."
The reaction of Branda's friends to his plight also taught him something about the way persons deal with situations they find frightening, or threatening.
"I saw people come in (to the hospital room), look at me like I was dead and walk out with tears in their eyes. They couldn't deal with it all. My roommates from medical school had some trouble dealing with it," they came to handle the situation. "They'd come to see me, no matter how hard it was for them.
"I think . . . when you see someone who was your colleague or friend, who rally was one of the more healthy, active people you knew, just become a head, that thought is so paralyzing that it messes up your mind: It can happen to you."
A week from today Branda, 30, plans to open for business as a radiologist in a medical building in Laurel, and other diagnostic proceducres any radiologist in private practice performs. Each morning he will haul his wheelchair into his Oldsmobile and drive himself to work, returning home in the evening to his plants, his paintings, and the dinner parties he "throws together for 30 people."
He says he has no problems relating to patients, and vice-versa. "I think they think I'm smarter than I really am," he said.
Actually, there is one minor problem. "Patients think I'm rally short" because they always see him sitting in his wheel chair.
Branda said he rolled himself into one elderly woman's room at Georgetown and she "thought I was Chinese. I asked her why," he said, "and she said, 'because you're so short.'"