Sustained by His Wife's Optimism, His Friends' Cheer and His Country's Hope, Jim Brady Slowly Recovers

updated 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/08/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

It might have been any suburban dinner party. Minutes before the guests were due, the hostess was worrying over the white sauce while her husband called encouragement from the living room. "Relax, Sarah," he said. "Everything is going to be fine. Don't get uptight." The doorbell rang, and two old friends walked in with vintage white Burgundy. "It was an evening of good cheer and lots of irreverent laughter," recalls one of the guests at the nouvelle cuisine dinner of cold cucumber soup, sole and parfait. "Wonderful meal, Sarah," the host toasted his wife when the table was cleared. Then he turned to his guests with a promise: "The next time you come, I'll do the cooking."

It might have been any suburban dinner party, but it wasn't. The host was James Brady, President Reagan's press secretary, who lost about 20 percent of his frontal brain tissue in surgery after he was shot in John Hinckley's attempt to kill the President. Following the shooting the networks reported Brady dead; their reports were not greatly exaggerated.

This month it will be a year since that rainy Monday in Washington, a year in which Brady, 41, has battled chronic fevers, pneumonia, an epileptic seizure, two operations to stanch leaks of spinal fluid from his cranial cavity and another for pulmonary emboli. Miraculously, by Thanksgiving Brady was well enough to go home. Now the three round-the-clock nurses who once attended him have been replaced by a single nurse's aide. Every day at 9:30 a.m. a White House van comes to Brady's Arlington, Va. home to take him to George Washington University Hospital for four and a half hours of physical, occupational and speech therapy. (Workmen's compensation and insurance have covered the estimated $170,000 in medical bills.) He still cannot walk without assistance, and his left arm is disabled, but therapists are teaching Brady to compensate. "They're showing him how to take care of himself without the use of one arm," says his wife, Sarah. Cooking, a longtime hobby which appeals to his gourmet palate while developing mental organization and motor control, is important to Jim's therapy. "Last week he made pinto beans," says Sarah, "and for St. Patrick's Day he plans to make the family his Irish stew."

Dr. Arthur Kobrine, Brady's chief neurosurgeon, predicts that his patient will walk with a cane, drive and—eventually—work again. "I admire the hell out of Jim," says Kobrine. "He has never, in the whole period I've known him, felt sorry for himself or gotten a 'Why me?' complex. He has taken everything we've thrown at him. At times in physical therapy there is a lot of pain in that left arm, and he has never been a baby about it. One reason Jim has come as far as he has is the kind of person he is."

Another reason is Sarah, Jim's second wife, to whom he has been married for nine years. She has coordinated visitors and activities designed to keep her husband physically and intellectually stimulated. "Even at the depths of the whole damned thing, Sarah displayed a hope that was phenomenal," says Bob Dahlgren, a family friend. "There's no question about it—Jim Brady's recovery is due in no small part to Sarah and her strength." Aside from putting on 20 pounds—thanks, she says, to all the dinner invitations from friends—Sarah insists that the toll on her has been minimal.

Her strength took hold the day of the shooting, when after six hours in the hospital waiting room she saw Dr. Kobrine emerge from the OR. "I took one look at his face and read optimism," she says. "Then I went to the recovery room and the nurse was just as optimistic. She was literally bouncing around, saying, 'Way to go, Jim! Hot dog!' After being afraid for five or six hours, I knew things were going to be good."

The next day Brady spoke for the first time. "He called my name and then said, 'Feet, feet!' " Sarah remembers. "For years he would sit around watching TV and saying, 'Feet, feet, feet, scratch my feet.' It drove me nuts. I'd do it for two minutes and say, 'Scratch your own feet.' So when he said, 'Feet, feet,' it was wonderful."

During the long uphill struggle, Jim has kept his hopes high. "I've seen signs of bitterness, but not often," says therapist Cathy Wynne. "He has a normal resentment of what happened to him." One of his few moments of ill humor came last April, when doctors were hoping a tear in the lining of his brain would heal without further surgery. They elevated Brady's head and, to make sure he would not choke and make the tear worse, restricted him to a diet of a high-calorie, high-nutrition pudding. The press secretary despised the stuff and dropped 60 pounds in two months. "They would bring in six or eight of those things on a silver tray every day," Sarah recalls, "butterscotch, vanilla and chocolate. It was awful and he hated it. But that was about the only time he did complain."

More typical was Brady's reaction last fall on an outing to a restaurant when a TV reporter asked him: "What are your thoughts on Mr. Hinckley?" Brady retorted: "I'm glad he wasn't a better shot." Jim's secretary, Sally McElroy, who brings notes to well-wishers to sign twice a week, reports happily, "He still dumps on me, just like he always did. I'll bring letters for him to sign and he'll notice a typo and tease me and say, 'I see you're up to your old tricks.' " Brady calls his physical therapy PT, short for "pain and torture." When a friend complimented him on walking up steps with the aid of a therapist, he joked, "Yeah, especially when you consider that I have to drag her around with me." Son Scott, who has just turned 3, is constantly crawling over his father. When that happens, Sarah reports, "Jim says he's had a 'Scott attack.' "

The most frightening aspect of the injury was the effect it might have had on Brady's mental processes. Yet according to Sarah he has retained his near-photographic memory; he can still quote two favorite racy pages of Dan Jenkins' Semi-Tough, she says. He did for a time have trouble remembering recent events. "He was forgetful about who came to visit him or the date, but that has improved and is almost back to normal," she reports. The drugs he takes to prevent seizures—Tegretol and phenobarbital—have been effective, but they also can make him groggy. Jim sometimes finds it difficult to control his emotions and his voice. "He will end his sentences on a higher pitch, generally when he's laughing," Sarah explains. "Maybe he doesn't control his laughing quite as well as before the accident. He'll learn to suppress it." McElroy says that Brady is more comfortable with friends. "The voice seems to change only when people come in that he hasn't seen for a while," she says.

He still suffers regularly from painful spasms in his left arm and leg, and when he becomes frustrated he sometimes shows therapists why co-workers referred to him as "Bear." He cuffs them on the head or shoulders with what he calls his "salmon paw." Recently Jim fell after he tried to dispense with the help of his nurse's aide in the bathroom. When Sarah celebrated her 40th birthday last month, Jim wanted to shop for her gift personally, but his physical therapists vetoed the idea. "He wants to get up and leave the house and go off in the car when he wants to go, and he's not quite ready for that," Sarah says. "The time will come, but he needs to heal a lot more."

Still, his life is steadily more active. An elevator is being installed in the Brady house to increase his mobility. A Brooks Brothers tailor came by not long ago to fit him for a new three-piece suit, and his favorite Lucchese boots have been equipped with zippers to make it easier for him to put them on himself. Sarah hopes that by fall he will be able to drive a car and walk by himself with an arm brace and crutch. "I think that's a wonderful thing to look forward to," she says.

Brady has retained his title and $61,600 salary as press secretary, and is "gearing toward trying to get back to that," says Sarah. "Whether he thinks about it a lot I honestly don't know. We all do suppress things that make us nervous." While Dr. Kobrine refuses to speculate on when, or if, that could happen, he says: "It is getting close to the time when he will be able to go back into intellectual work in an office-type setting." In the meantime Jim has another assignment: As an Illinois native, he's been invited to throw out the opening-day ball for the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. "He's been practicing how he's going to throw that ball," Sarah reports. "He promises, 'I'm going to put some smoke in it.' "

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