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Brief awakening provides an enduring gift

Firefighter spent almost 10 years in a coma. Then, a wondrous 16 hours of lucidity allowed him to bond anew with his family.

December 16, 2007|Carolyn Thompson | Associated Press

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Firefighters waited in hospital hallways, the campfire smell of their last call heavy on their gear. Word had spread quickly among the Buffalo department's ranks. Donny Herbert wasn't doing well.

It was February 2006, but as Linda Herbert watched her husband slip away, it was as if the sun was finally setting on a day that had dawned more than a decade earlier.

Four days after Christmas in 1995, Herbert had nearly died in a roof collapse that robbed his brain of oxygen for more than six minutes. He was trapped in the attic of a burning house; colleagues pulled him from the rubble.

For most of the next 9 1/2 years, he was minimally conscious, unaware of his surroundings and unable to communicate.

Until one day.

That single day -- April 30, 2005 -- means everything to Linda Herbert and her family, and it's the subject of a new book.

That was the day her husband suddenly awoke.

"Where's Linda?" he asked.

It appeared that an experimental combination of brain-stimulating drugs begun two years earlier had sparked something.

For 16 wondrous hours, Donald Herbert spoke nearly nonstop, catching up with the four sons who had become men while he slept, and with the wife and fire department friends who had prayed so long for this very chance.

In the next weeks and months, there were hopeful and happy moments -- Herbert, though virtually blind, threw footballs with his sons from his wheelchair -- but none came close to that initial burst of lucidity.

All too soon, he was back to the "minimally conscious state" that had defined him before. And in less than a year, he had pneumonia and a 105.6-degree fever. He was buried Feb. 26, 2006.

In a way it seems cruel for a family to be robbed of so much for nearly 10 years, only to be teased with a single day of what ifs.

But Linda Herbert doesn't see it that way.

For her, that April day was a gift that continues to reveal itself. In her sons, who were brought closer together. In the ever-present reminder not to waste precious time. In the ability to laugh off things that would have bothered her before.

But mostly, in the peace of mind that day delivered to all the family: To Donald Herbert, who came back long enough to see that his wife and sons were OK. To the family, who learned that he wasn't suffering and didn't remember the accident -- but had not forgotten them. In the unspoken permission the father gave his family to move on with their lives.

Donald Jr., Patrick, Thomas and Nicholas were 14, 13, 11 and 3 when their father was hurt. They are 26, 25, 23 and 15 now.

It had been tough on the boys, their mother said, the years of "How are you, Dad?" met by silence.

"Once he did start talking, it just brought a lot of joy to the kids," Linda Herbert said.

After the fire, she said, "They didn't smile. We functioned as a family, we went on . . . but we never really had that joy again. That was taken from the boys."

When he woke up, the older boys introduced their girlfriends and shared hunting stories. Nicholas had his first real conversation with his dad.

"His kids had that beautiful time . . . to say, 'This is what we did all those years, Dad. We never gave Mom trouble, we went to school, we went to college, we're all doing fine. We're healthy, we're together' . . .," Linda Herbert said. "They told him so much."

Richard Blake, Linda's cousin, chronicled the family's experience in a book, "The Day Donny Herbert Woke Up" (Harmony Books, 246 pages, $23).

"In time, they did not view this as a bad thing. They were grateful that they were able to reconnect and I think, in a way, Don was able to let go," Blake said by phone from New York City.

The book offers a look inside Herbert's room at the nursing facility as the overwhelmed firefighter, able to recognize people by their voices, learned he had been "gone" for 10 years:

"We've been here for you the whole time," Linda said.

"How old am I?"

"Forty-three," Linda said.

"Oh, my God," Donny said. He was smiling through his tears now.

Linda Herbert has been reluctant to talk publicly about that remarkable time, but in her south Buffalo home on a recent morning, after finishing crossing-guard duties at an elementary school, she expressed awe at the worldwide interest her family's story had generated. Calls from around the globe poured into her home.

A large portrait of her husband, smiling from his wheelchair and surrounded by his sons, hangs on a kitchen wall. It was taken on her husband's last birthday, May 7, 2005, a week after he'd begun to talk. It had been years since her four sons had been so closely bonded.

Their mother would observe that bond again months later in the hospital room, where they surrounded their father as he lay dying.

"They were all there. They were all able to talk to him, hold him, even though he was unresponsive," she said. "They were the ones that said, 'Dad, it's enough. We're going to be OK, don't worry about it.' "

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