Skip to comments.Buffalo Fireman Regains Long-Lost Memories
Posted on 05/03/2005 3:53:54 AM PDT by MississippiMasterpiece
A Buffalo firefighter who apparently suffered brain damage in a 1995 burning roof collapse and has since been virtually silent and nearly blind had a sudden unexplained recovery on Saturday, animatedly speaking to family and friends and trying to recover a lost decade.
"How long have I been gone?" the puzzled firefighter, Donald Herbert, 44, asked in a 14-hour marathon of hugs, kisses, reunions and conversations with his wife, four sons, other relatives and old firefighter comrades.
"We told him almost 10 years, and he said 'Holy cow!' " Simon A. Manka, his uncle, recalled yesterday. "He thought it had been three months."
In a news conference at Father Baker Manor, a skilled nursing home in the Buffalo suburb of Orchard Park, where Mr. Herbert has been a patient for seven years, Mr. Manka said his nephew - who has passed most days in a wheelchair in front of a television set - abruptly returned to life and "began to speak after nine and a half years of silence."
Pending medical tests, Mr. Manka said, the extent and the probable duration of Mr. Herbert's recovery are unknown. "However, we can tell you he did recognize several family members and friends and did call them by name."
It happened out of the blue Saturday morning, a nursing home employee said.
"I want to talk to my wife," Mr. Herbert was quoted as saying. A staff member called his wife, Linda, but it was his youngest son, Nicholas, 13, who picked up the phone and began speaking.
"That can't be," Mr. Herbert said. "He's just a baby. He can't talk."
Nicholas was indeed a toddler when Mr. Herbert, then a 34-year-old member of a fire rescue squad, rushed into a burning two-and-a-half story apartment building in Buffalo on the morning of Dec. 29, 1995. He wore a breathing mask against heavy smoke and was searching the attic for victims when the roof collapsed.
Buried under flaming debris, Mr. Herbert was knocked unconscious and, according to reports at the time, went six minutes without oxygen before other firefighters pulled him free. They carried him out a window and down a ladder, and he was taken to Erie County Medical Center in critical condition.
Mr. Herbert, who had rescued two adults and two small children in a 1990 fire and had many citations for bravery, had severe head trauma as well as prolonged oxygen deprivation and remained in a coma for two and a half months.
An avalanche of cards and letters, meanwhile, was delivered to his wife and sons, Donny, 14; Tom, 13; Patrick, 11; and the baby Nicholas. News articles at the time described Mr. Herbert as a dedicated family man, coaching his children's soccer and baseball teams, taking them hunting and fishing.
Fellow firefighters rallied around the family, helping with the boys, with shopping, with financial help. The outpouring of support included a benefit party, organized by firefighters and other well-wishers, at the Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo. Thousands attended, and tens of thousands of dollars were raised.
While Mr. Herbert regained consciousness in 1996, his speech was slurred, he was unable to eat without assistance, he was confined to a bed or a wheelchair and his vision was reduced to a series of blurs. Doctors said that they had found no damage to the optic nerves, but that the part of the brain that controls vision appeared to have been damaged.
Moreover, Mr. Herbert's memory seemed all but nonexistent. He could not say how old he was or what his job had been. He seemed unable to recognize family members and friends, and firefighting comrades had become virtual strangers.
In 1999, a year after he was moved to the nursing home, Linda Herbert prevailed in a brief legal fight with Mr. Herbert's parents, Geraldine and Donald P. Herbert, over who should have control over decisions in a medical emergency, like pneumonia or a serious infection. All agreed that extraordinary resuscitative measures should not be taken in the event of a stroke or a heart attack.
But Mr. Herbert's condition remained stable over the years. "He would sit in a wheelchair in front of a TV with no awareness," Linda Herbert's mother, Mary Blake, said yesterday. "He could say yes or no, but he could not put words together or talk back if people asked him a question. Most days, he just sat silently."
On Saturday, as word of Mr. Herbert's progress spread, a stream of visitors arrived at Father Baker Manor for joyous reunions with a man who had seemed lost to them.
For a stretch of 14 hours, Mr. Manka said, Mr. Herbert spoke with people and asked questions, especially about his sons: Donny, now 24, and Thomas, 23, both in graduate school; Patrick, 21, a college student, and Nicholas, 13, a schoolboy but hardly the infant his father remembered.
"He wouldn't go to sleep," said Ms. Blake. "He stayed up all night talking to his sons."
Mr. Manka, a lawyer, said in a telephone interview that his nephew's apparent recovery struck everyone as amazing. "He was completely different," he said. "He was asking questions, and he'd recognize a voice. When somebody came in the room, he'd say the name before anyone told him who it was. He was the same for nine years, and then all of a sudden he started talking."
Patrick J. Coghlan, who was the lieutenant in charge of Mr. Herbert's rescue squad on the night of the roof collapse and who retired in 1999, remembered years of all-but-fruitless visits by colleagues to the nursing home, with Mr. Herbert sitting quietly, seemingly unable to respond. On Sunday, he said, Mr. Herbert recognized the voices of his comrades and, while he could not see them, identified members of his old crew.
No one had an explanation. "We don't know what to make of it," Mr. Manka said. "The doctors haven't finished their evaluation. The doctors are cautiously optimistic, and so are we."
"We have no idea how it happened," Ms. Blake said. "There are more people praying for this young man, so it's all in God's hands. Even if we had him for just one day, we'd be eternally grateful."
Wow just like Lazarus.
Wait til he hears what happened to me!
This is why you don't kill people in a coma, PVS, or other similar states. Recoveries happen every day.
There's more between heaven and earth than meets the eye, eh?
Praise God - rejoicing with his family and friends!
But I am sure if he had his wish he would have preferred to dies slowly of thirst in euphoria over 12 days...
Oh, this guy didn't have a feeding tube they could yank, did they?
Mazel Tov to the family and may their years ahead be greatly blessed!
And may this guy be an example to the euthanasia crowd...
Amen to that - God continues to show us miracles, but so many just ignore them so they can consider themselves the final authority.
(conversation that never happened)-
Family- " Hi Terri, you're back!"
Terri- "What happened? Last thing I remember was my husband strangling me!..."
A good news story from New York for a change, here's another version, "After 10 years, brain-damaged Buffalo-area fireman makes astounding recovery (Schiavo Parallel?)".
After head trauma and oxygen deprivation, aka anoxic encephalopathy, with spontaneous, if not complete, recovery after almost ten years ought to give some docs a fresh dose of humility. Here's a different AP version of the story.
11 years of kids, sounds like a good Irish family. Good to see good things happen to good people.
This has been on the radio all day. Rush even spoke about it.
Heart wrenching story..
Silent since 1995, firefighter talks
Thanks for the local link.