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'Miracle' firefighter dies of pneumonia

Donald J. Herbert, the badly injured Buffalo firefighter who shocked Western New York and the medical world by emerging from an almost decade-long semiconscious state last spring, died early this morning in Mercy Hospital, family members confirmed.

Herbert, 44, was taken to the hospital with pneumonia Saturday from the Ridge View Manor Nursing Home in South Buffalo. Doctors treated Herbert with antibiotics, but late Monday afternoon, family members were told he wasn't responding to the treatment. Herbert died at about 1:45 a.m.

"It's a shock," his uncle, Simon F. Manka, said this morning. "Nobody expected it. They were treating him aggressively right until Monday afternoon."

Herbert suffered a severe brain injury after being badly injured when a roof collapsed on him while he was fighting a December 1995 fire. Buried under debris and without air for six minutes, he lapsed into a coma for the next 2 1/2 months.

For nearly 10 years, Herbert was unable to recognize loved ones' voices or carry on any meaningful conversation.

That changed suddenly on a Saturday afternoon last April. Herbert, sitting in a wheelchair in the hallway of his Orchard Park nursing home, looked out the window and asked where his wife, Linda, was. He kept asking where and how his wife and four sons were. He recognized the voices of loved ones.

Staff members couldn't have been more shocked. For about 16 hours, the 43-year-old Herbert remained awake. He visited with his wife and sons, some fellow firefighters and other close friends who rushed to his room in Father Baker Manor.

"Donny, you feel OK?" one relative asked him.

"I feel great," he replied.

At another point, Herbert asked how long he had been "under" and was told it had been almost 10 years.

"I thought it was three months," he replied.

At the time, brain-injury experts cautioned that no one knew exactly how much progress Herbert could make. He was moved from the Erie County Medical Center to a rehabilitation center in Chicago late last spring, but was brought back home to Buffalo late last summer after he didn't make enough progress.

"He never attained the level of speech that he had before, but he was doing all right," Manka said. "He'd have good days and bad days."

Sometimes, Herbert would give a thumbs-up or say "Hi" when he recognized a loved one or close friend. "If he had a good day, you'd get a little more out of him," Manka said.

Even after his death today, family members seemed grateful about the turnaround in his condition last spring that allowed him to communicate with them.

"That was great," Manka said. "It was a miracle. That was a blessing for everyone."

Buffalo Fire Commissioner Michael Lombardo said Herbert fought a tremendous fight for more than 10 years.

"His inspiration will be missed," Lombardo stated. "Please remember his wife Linda, sons Pat, Don, Tom and Nick, as well as his entire family, in your prayers. Rest in peace, Don."

Last spring, doctors attributed Herbert's newfound awareness to the work of Dr. Jamil Ahmed, an ECMC rehabilitation doctor.

More than two years earlier, Herbert's wife, Linda, had approached Ahmed, pleading for some help for her husband.

"You are the last hope. Nothing is going on," Ahmed recalled her saying. For two years, Ahmed experimented with various combinations of drugs and therapies to stimulate the firefighter.

Herbert's condition actually regressed a bit the next couple years, until Ahmed put him on a new combination of drugs.

In late April, Herbert made a quantum leap in his ability to communicate, recognizing family and friends, following commands -- and even counting to 200 out loud. Doctors don't know of any brain-injured patients who have made such a dramatic improvement so many years later.

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