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Paralysis won’t keep ‘resolute’ woman down

FRIDAY, JULY 22, 2011

Joseph Braun and two of his Karelian bear dogs, Suvi and Paavo, await the return to Spokane of Braun's wife, Robin. She is recovering after breaking her neck in a fall at the family home in April. (Dan Pelle)
Joseph Braun and two of his Karelian bear dogs, Suvi and Paavo, await the return to Spokane of Braun's wife, Robin. She is recovering after breaking her neck in a fall at the family home in April. (Dan Pelle)

In the early morning hours of April 5, Robin Braun woke up and tried to get out of bed.

A diabetic, Braun was having an insulin reaction and needed to eat something to raise her blood sugar quickly. But the reaction also stole her coordination – she fell to the floor and found herself unable to move.

“I didn’t realize what had happened,” said her husband, Joseph Braun. “I just knew there was something going on here that wasn’t right.”

He got her some juice, thinking she needed to get her blood sugar up. When that didn’t work, he called an ambulance, which took her to Sacred Heart’s emergency room. Eventually, baffled doctors ordered an X-ray: In the fall, Braun had broken her neck.

“It was quite a shock,” Joseph said. “Everybody was shocked.”

Now Robin is paralyzed from the chest down, with some control of her arms, but with virtually none in her hands. A 59-year-old librarian employed at a local laboratory by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she’s undergoing intensive rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in suburban Denver and preparing to return home. Health insurance is covering most of the medical care, but the Brauns are facing a brutal financial burden: the need to remodel their house and purchase a van, a special lift and power wheelchair, and various other expenses.

And those costs – which are likely to soar above $250,000 just to begin – are only part of the picture. Joseph Braun, an optometrist, had retired a month before the accident, and the couple’s adult daughter, who is blind and has a history of brain surgeries to deal with recurring cancer, may need additional surgery soon, Robin said.

“It’s sort of a perfect storm of medical and financial semi-catastrophe,” she said in a phone interview this week.

That “semi” tells you something about Robin Braun. It’s not hard to imagine the personality who might view this as full catastrophe.

Joseph calls their outlook “resolute.” When I spoke to Robin on the phone and asked how she was doing, she replied, “I’m actually doing quite well,” before she described her situation: in rehabilitation, sitting upright in a wheelchair, arms strapped down, learning to use voice-recognition software and hoping to return to work.

“I can’t feed myself, can’t brush my teeth or comb my hair or, pardon the expression, take care of any of my bodily functions,” she said.

Robin’s outlook is not the sunny positivity of inspirational tales – but it is inspirational. It is a practical decision to accept the facts.

“Everyone would rather say, ‘Please, God, pick someone else,’ ” she said. “Sure, I feel that way. But I also feel that the way you handle a situation determines how successful you are, and I don’t want to fail at anything, ever.

“I’m still alive,” she said. “I’ve got my voice, my mind, my memory, my sight. I’ve got a lot of things. I’m going to focus on those and take advantage of those.”

The accident has wrenched the Brauns’ lives into an entirely new direction. Joseph, 67, retired in March and planned to do a little part-time work while the couple “eased toward retirement.” They love the outdoors and had looked forward to taking backcountry hiking trips with their pack goats.

“We’re not going to be able to do the things we dreamed of doing,” Joseph said.

He says that his wife is strong and optimistic by nature – a “good counter to me,” he said with a small smile. She’s been a longtime volunteer for a variety of organizations, including the school district and her longtime church, Moran United Methodist Church.

If there’s any justice in the world, some help will flow her way now.

The Brauns have already had their share of trying times. Their daughter, Lark, was diagnosed with brain cancer at age 5. At the time, Robin was a volunteer with the Children’s Miracle Network, which raises money for children’s hospitals.

“Imagine my shock when my own daughter got cancer,” she said.

Their daughter lost her sight. She underwent numerous surgeries to save her life throughout her youth. She’s now 23 and lives with her parents, who are her guardians.

“At some point early on, somebody said to Robin, ‘Well, this must be the worst thing that ever happened in your life,’ ” Joseph said. “She said, ‘No, it is not.’ ”

Robin agreed and told me the story of her Fourth of July. She was taken to the hospital rooftop in Denver, where she watched fireworks. It reminded her of going to the South Hill when her daughter was very young to watch fireworks – and the time when Lark could no longer see those colorful lights in the sky.

It was the only time during our conversations that Robin seemed to become choked up with emotion.

“I loved (the fireworks),” she said, “but she can’t see them.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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