Buffalo Firefighter Donald Herbert was fighting a house fire Dec. 29, 1995, when the roof collapsed, burying him under debris which left him brain-damaged and mostly mute.
updated 2/21/2006 4:04:32 PM ET 2006-02-21T21:04:32

A brain-injured firefighter who suddenly spoke after nearly a decade in a stupor, giving hope to families of countless other patients, died Tuesday. He was 44.

Donald Herbert was injured in December 1995, when the roof of a burning home collapsed on him. Deprived of oxygen for several minutes, he ended up blind, was largely mute and showed little awareness of his surroundings for years.

But on April 30, 2005, he shocked his family with a 14-hour talking jag. Since then, he spoke only sporadically.

Herbert was hospitalized again on Sunday with an infection.

“Don fought very long and hard ... right to the end. Last night he was breathing very hard, trying to keep going,” Fire Commissioner Michael Lombardo said.

Herbert is survived by his wife, Linda, and four sons.

His breakthrough came three months after his doctor began giving him drugs normally used to treat Parkinson’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression. Dr. Jamil Ahmed said at the time that the medications had shown promise with more recently brain-damaged patients.

There have been a few other widely publicized examples of brain-damaged patients showing sudden improvement after a number of years, at least temporarily, but experts say they are rare.

Ahmed has said that since Herbert’s story became public, families from around the world with loved ones in comas have called to inquire about the drug combination. Ahmed did not immediately return a call for comment Tuesday.

Until the weekend before his death, Herbert continued to interact and speak, but never to the extent of the initial burst, said Lombardo, a longtime friend of Herbert’s. As recently as last week, he had been playing catch with his sons in the nursing home where he lived, the commissioner said.

“He was never as good as he was right after he woke up ... but he was pretty good right up to the end,” Lombardo said.

Herbert’s uncle, Simon Manka, said Herbert developed pneumonia over the weekend and did not improve with antibiotics. His wife and sons were with him when he died.

After reawakening last year, Herbert had been surprised to find he had been unresponsive for so long. His sons were 14, 13, 11 and 3 at the time of the accident.

“It was very very disturbing. He felt like he wasn’t there for his children and he certainly was,” Lombardo said.

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