This story is a bit longer than a typical post on this site. Brandon reached out to me after Sher Kung died and said he wanted people to know what life is like for all those people who are critically injured but not killed in traffic collisions. You might see their counts tallied in a news story or a city report, but what is it like through their eyes? How have their lives changed? Brandon’s story is just one of hundreds that happen every year in Seattle.
Brandon Blake bent down on one knee and reached his careful hands to the floor, his fingers curled under the the injured body of a small bird his cat Lois carried in through the kitchen window then plopped in her food bowl. His eyes softened and he shushed comforting words into his palms as he rose to his feet and carried the bird out to the second-floor back porch of his apartment, where he said some parting words and lightly let it go.
“There you go!” The bird flapped its wings and took flight without hitting the ground. He turned back towards me sitting inside, but his beaming face shifted as concern took over. “He probably won’t last too long out there.” Indeed the little bird seemed destined to join the hundreds of millions of birds killed by cats every year.
He sat back down on the bright orange sofa facing me and let out a shrug. “That’s life with indoor-outdoor cats.” But that shrug wasn’t as easy for Brandon as it might be for others, and just a few months ago he might have broken down into tears.
“I get so emotional about these little birds, these little consciousnesses,” he said gazing at his now-empty palms. But since “carmageddon” on Dexter Ave July 25, 2013, Brandon has been slowly discovering a renewed, yet somewhat different, consciousness inside himself.
“Carmageddon” is one name Brandon has given to the moment when a woman driving a car south on Dexter Ave made a fast left turn at Harrison Street to try to squeeze through a break in traffic. Despite his yells and the 20-foot orange skid mark his tire painted on the pavement as he slammed on his brakes, she didn’t see him riding in the bike lane.
Or so he was told. He doesn’t remember it. But he vividly remembers taking his pre-school class on a field trip to the Museum of Flight earlier that day.
“And it was an epic field trip, Tom,” he told me. He lightly closed his eyes and smiled as though he were reliving the trip all over again. “These kids are pigs in shit, they’re so excited. We got to go in the space shuttle trainer, and they’re just so happy. I remember getting on my bike, and I was two blocks from work at Uwajimaya. I’m on my orange Rodriguez, and I had this thought of: What a great day. That’s why I do what I do.
“Next thing I remember, I was waking up from the coma.”
He was rescued from the brink of death. His face and his helmet took the brunt of the vicious impact, and the medics who arrived on the scene were shocked he was still conscious. His face was mangled and smashed beyond recognition. Fearing he would drown on his own blood, he was put into a medically-induced coma and intubated.
A day later, he woke up from the coma. He spent another two days in the ICU, and doctors were worried about swelling and bleeding around his brain. They discussed brain surgery, but luckily the bleeding went away on its own. Doctors reconstructed his face through hours and hours of surgery. Today, his usually-smiling mug is held together by seven titanium plates. His gums and teeth were reconstructed by some miserable-but-effective dental work (he described the dental arch bars “like braces sewn into my gums”).
But as his scars heal and the swelling recedes, his short term memory ability has not returned to the way it used to be. Bright lights or too much background noise can hurt his head. If there is too much stimulation around him, mental fatigue descends on him. And sometimes a somewhat small sadness like a small bird dropped unceremoniously in a cat food dish can take hold on his heart and come out as tears.
“As crazy as all the face injuries were, it pales in comparison to the head trauma,” he said.
For the first couple months of recovering from the physical trauma of the crash, doped up on lots of pain meds, he and his wife Sabrina Bonaparte noticed “a difference in my mood and demeanor.” But that was probably just due to all the meds, right?
“When I came out the other end, all the personality differences I had experienced weren’t going away,” he said. “That’s when my wife and I realized,” he paused a beat, “I have a brain injury.”
As he worked to recover, Sabrina stepped up to the challenge and went out to find resources for him, such as a support group for people with brain injuries so he could talk to people who knew first hand what he was going through.
“Her life has changed, too,” Brandon said. “Living with a person with a brain injury is not always fun.”
Sabrina did not find out about the collision from the police or the hospital. Instead, Brandon’s band mates in MoreOfAnything called her asking why he didn’t show up to practice. Then her friend saw a tweet posted by Seattle Bike Blog saying someone got hit on Dexter and they started to piece together that it was Brandon.
Before that day in 2013, the couple did not own a car for eight and a half years, and both of them chose to get around everywhere on their bikes.
“It was hard for her to ride through Dexter every day. She would kiss her wedding ring every time she went past Harrison.”
Now they own a car, which has been vital for getting him to the more than 175 doctor appointments he has had in just 13 months.
“My recovery has become my full time job.”
He no longer needs to spend his days in quiet with the window curtains drawn to block out the painful daylight, but when we got together to chat at Lighthouse Coffee in Fremont (his favorite spot), he had to sit facing away from the windows so I wouldn’t be backlit by the sunlight. When the folks hanging out on the other side of the shop started to chat and joke louder, Brandon and I had to move outside because it is hard work for him to separate background conversation from our conversation.
But he was not dejected, he loves sitting on the cute little rocky spot next to the shop. And that’s one clear part of his personality that has absolutely not changed.
“I was a ridiculously optimistic and upbeat person before carmageddon,” he said. “Having a near-death experience has amplified that part of me. That’s one of the gains I feel like I’ve had.”
He knows it could have been worse.
“The alternative is Sher Kung,” he said, referring to the young mother and attorney who was killed while biking on 2nd Ave in August.
He considers himself “fortunate and privileged” to still be alive after a collision that could so easily have killed him.
“I could have been Mike Wang … It was just one block away, two years later.” Wang was struck and killed at Dexter and Thomas in a very similar collision to Brandon’s.
“There’s a hole in his world because of a motorist’s selfish decision who not only didn’t care about him in that moment, but then fled.” The person responsible for killing Wang, Erlin Garcia-Reyes, was arrested a year later, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.
“It was miraculous the recovery that I made and that I continue to make every day,” he said. “There’s a principle that guides my life now, it’s called ‘bonus time.’ I should have died that day, but I didn’t. From that point in time, I’m living in bonus time.”
Bonus time means Brandon tries to “do everything I can to harness positive energy.” It also means he wants to help make a difference on the streets of Seattle.
“I want to go from being a statistic to being a face.”
That’s why Brandon was out on 2nd Ave just weeks after Kung died volunteering with Cascade Bicycle Club to help explain to people biking and driving how to properly and safely use the new protected bike lanes.
That’s also why he stopped by an on-street open house about changes the city has planned for the stretch of Dexter Ave where he and Wang were struck. There posted on a display board, the city had gathered data about collision history on the street that they were using to guide their street redesign. From 2011 to 2014, there were 80 collisions, ten of which involved a person biking and three involved a person walking.
“Those statistics they have on a board, those are people,” he said.
“I want to be there not just for cyclists, but for everyone,” he said, noting that all people need to work together to prevent more people from being injured or killed. “We’re all in this together.”
“My heart goes out to the driver of that box truck [who hit Kung], that person did not want to kill someone that morning,” he said. And he does not hold ill will against the 69-year-old woman who made a driving mistake and struck him.
“All it took was a split second of inattention … the more we all know about being aware of each other, the more people take that extra look over their shoulders,” the more tragedies will be avoided, he said. He hopes his story can help convince others to take extra care.
“Every moment of my struggle has been worth it if it helps others.”
But it’s not just his story. The woman who was behind the wheel also has a role to play, if she chooses to. While Brandon was recovering at home, all the curtains drawn to keep out the light, he planned what he would say to her the day she inevitably called him up and asked him if there was anything she could do.
“Why, yes, there is. You and I are going to partner up to spread bicycle and driving safety,” he said, imaging how the call would go. Their story would be extra powerful because of the “unique position we have together” as both ends of a terrible collision.
But he is still waiting for her call.
“I haven’t heard from her the entire time, and that’s been disappointing.”
Also disappointing is that, despite his efforts and the extent of his injuries, she was not charged with negligent driving under the state’s Vulnerable User Law.
“The only things she got charged with after nearly killing someone was for improper left turn and inattentiveness,” he said. The total for those tickets? $325.
“I tried so hard to have the Vulnerable User Law applied to my case. Not because I wanted her to suffer in any way, but because that’s what’s right, that’s what’s just.”
“If we have [the VUL] to make people safe, we have to use it,” he said. “I don’t want to put you in jail, but yes, you should have your license suspended for a couple months and have to pay up to $5,000,” some of the potential penalties outlined in the law, which could also include community service or taking a traffic safety course. After all, that’s not much compared to what Brandon is going through.
Police and prosecutors failing to use the Vulnerable User Law has been a problem around the region and state, such as in the case of Caleb Shoop’s death in Kenmore.
Brandon is getting back into the things he enjoyed before his life took an unexpected turn that July day. He has replaced his destroyed Rodriguez bike with a new sweet ride complete with his signature bright orange paint job and his skilled calligrapher’s scrawl on the downtube.
He and his wife drove out to the Green River Trail to go for a ride on a mostly open and calm trail recently, the first time he has been back on his bike since the collision.
“It was like I was never off the bike,” he said. “It was as though there hadn’t been an intense year between our first ride and our last ride together.” But he won’t be biking on busy Seattle streets for a while.
“To go from being cyclists that were so happy to be getting around on our bikes to not being able to bike around town, it was a huge change for us. But especially considering how many changes the city has been making to the streets, I can envision a time not long from now when there are enough protected bike lanes for me to be able to bike from here all the way to the ID and feel safe.”
Though he is not ready to go back to the work he loved, he will soon return to his ID preschool as a classroom volunteer.
“It allows me to get back in the classroom, see the kids and see what works,” he said, his smile stretching even wider than usual when he thought about getting back in the classroom. But he needs to find out how long he can be in the room before fatigue sets in and he begins to fade. He’s hoping he’ll get to a place soon where he can return to work, at least part time.
Getting back into his art has been a process. At first, he couldn’t do the intricate and small “calligraffiti” work he used to make because it was too much on his head.
“I had to alter my style,” he said. “Instead of tiny details, I got big canvasses, and my art got big again.”
Over time, he has been able to work in smaller and smaller scales and even had the honor of creating ketubot for two couples since his collision, a craft he has developed and practiced for years. And again, he feels lucky.
“Somehow I was lucky enough that how I hit my head was in such a way that that ability was not affected. I can still do my art.”
He and his band MoreOfAnything have also been playing again and had a comeback show and album release party at the Triple Door in July. They donated the $1,000 in proceeds to the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington. You can catch them in action October 24 at the Feedback Lounge in West Seattle for a show and “pre-surgery party.” Brandon needs to head back to the operating table to get his punctured ear drum patched up.
So, yes, it’s another day of surgery, and the doctor’s visits aren’t stopping any time soon. But that’s the path for Brandon’s life, and at least he is around to share his story and keep making the world one Brandon-amount better.
“There were a lot of people who read about this accident last year. News reports said I was expected to make a full recovery. Well, here we are a year later, here’s what that recovery looks like,” he said.
If you were just meeting Brandon for the first time today, you’d never know the unimaginably painful and difficult year he just completed. Speaking with him, he looks right in your eyes and holds a smile that tells you there’s nothing in the world he would rather be doing than being right here chatting. Sitting in his living room, flanked by bass guitars with colorful strings and an ironically terrible Sears-style family portrait of him, Sabrina and their cats (sadly, Ray Finkel is no longer with us, but we met Lois Einhorn earlier in the story), I felt like the two of us had been friends for years even though we had only met that day. It’s just the energy Brandon gives off, and it’s contagious.
Why is it so easy to see traffic injury statistics and fail to fully process that each and every tally is a person? How can we watch the collision count on the same streets where our co-workers, friends, parents and kids live continue to tick away and simply dismiss the numbers as the cost of doing business in our city?
“I’m a statistic, but I’m still here,” said Brandon. “What can I do to help others not become a statistic?” He paused, reached his hand out and ran his gentle fingers through the fur on Lois’s back, “like that poor little bird.”