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The Struggles Continue for Jim Brady Family : He Fights for Recovery While Wife Campaigns for Restrictions on Handguns

September 07, 1986|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. — The White House van that has been made available to accommodate his wheelchair had just brought Jim Brady home from a morning of physical therapy and horseback riding.

Helped by his young attendant, he walked into his den with the aid of a cane, his left arm limp at his side, his left leg dragging along in a brace.

"I've been put through my paces this morning. I had two terrorists on me," he said, his speech slow, his manner breezy.

Still Progressing

Terrorist is Brady's word for therapist. It is not entirely a joke. During the more than five years since John W. Hinckley Jr. pumped a .22-caliber bullet into Brady's brain during an attempt to assassinate President Reagan, much has been made of his "miraculous" recovery, which is still progressing. But the recovery has brought pain each and every day. Therapy sessions are especially difficult.

"Oh, God, is it painful," said Brady, describing the tugging and hammering of limbs that had just transpired. "That lacks charm," he pointed out.

For Sarah Brady, his wife, there have been enormous adjustments, sacrifices and terrors: waiting out three long operations that threatened his life; losing privacy to around-the-clock nurses; reversing, for a long time, the marital roles that had him as the stronger partner; not having any more children.

The Worst Ordeal

But for Sarah, the worst thing of all has been seeing her husband continually in pain.

"I think the ongoing thing, the only thing I find difficult now at all, is when I see Jim hurting," she said. "He goes through a lot of pain, and that bothers me. Everything else has seemed, over time, to get better."

Jim, whose brain injury still causes him to be "too candid," as Sarah put it, admitted that, for him, there is anger.

"Yes, I'm angry," he said. "The longer I go, the angrier I get.

"That little twit over there . . . " he said, beginning to talk about Hinckley, who lives several miles away in St. Elizabeths Hospital for the mentally ill.

Jim Brady was asked if he agreed with the court's opinion that Hinckley was insane and didn't know what he was doing.

"I feel he's insane," he said. "But I feel he knew what he was doing."

Sarah interjected, gently, to try to discourage her husband from this line of talk.

"I can't get too high-profile in my anger," Jim explained to a reporter. "You can't spend a lot of time being angry. Those are negative vibes. And I have a hell of a lot of work ahead of me."

As a measure of how fed up Jim Brady can get with his "terrorists," he told the story of how he once accidentally dropped a 20-pound weight on the foot of one of them, "a direct hit," he beamed. He still is in complete possession of the irreverent sense of humor that had endeared him to White House reporters. Occasionally, he is unable to control the tone of his speech, chuckling at times when he doesn't mean to.

The injuries and pain have left the 45-year-old Brady with "the stamina of a daffodil," as he put it, a situation that has cast uncertainty on the question of what he will do for a living after Reagan leaves the White House. He is still the White House press secretary, although he goes to the office just two days a week and attends to matters other than handling the press, such as answering the thousands of letters he has received each year since the shooting. He would be interested, he said, in "selling myself to the highest bidder," perhaps opening a Washington office for some corporation.

As for Sarah, in the last five years friends have marveled at her strength, at the uncomplaining way in which she coped. She said she has had "no time to be depressed" and focuses on what she says was their tremendous luck: that Jim was moved swiftly to a top hospital, that they received a groundswell of support from friends and thousands of strangers and that the staggering medical bills are taken care of by the government and worker's compensation.

"We were in the news and people rallied around us," said Sarah, finding strength in what others might have considered a distraction. "That's a lot more than most people who have a tragedy occur have. We had it all. You have to focus on that, rather than the anger."

This is vintage positive-outlook Sarah, the woman described by her friends as a rock. Solid. Stable.

Sandra Butcher, a social worker who was with Sarah at George Washington Hospital the day of the shooting, remembered that friends and even members of Congress came streaming into the hospital, "crying and extremely agitated, and Sarah comforted them. She was the comforter." Some have even said that it was Sarah who pulled Jim back through death's door.

Through it all, Sarah never let on to the press or the public if she were angry or bitter, although she did "let off a lot of steam" to Butcher, the social worker recalled, particularly at her darkest moment: when Jim was first brought home from the hospital, a time when Butcher found her to be "overwhelmed at the reality of the total situation."

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