Coming Lines

Co-op Lineman Gets Back to Work After Near-Death Experience

Jeff Fetzer
Penn LinesContributor

 

Sitting at his desk in United Electric Cooperative’s “war room,” a dispatch center used to coordinate outage response during major storms, Branden Bauer is locked in a different  sort of battle on a sunny February afternoon. This one involves picking up a paper clip from the top of his desk with the chunky prosthetic hooks that have replaced his hands.

After several failed attempts to grip the clip, Branden changes his approach. He slides the fastener beyond the edge of the desk, opens the body-controlled hook attached below the elbow of his right arm, grabs the clip and attaches it to a work order.

The line superintendent tackles trivial tasks, like picking up a paper clip or eating potato chips — chugging them from a cup works best, he says — much like he has handled the more daunting challenges he has faced since losing both hands in an electrical-contact incident: with persistence, an ability to adapt, and a stubborn will to succeed.

That Branden returned to work at all following the 2021 electrocution that claimed his lower arms and nearly killed him may seem nothing short of miraculous to those who don’t know the 33-year-old. But it came as no surprise to those in his orbit, including Shane Farrell, United Electric’s operations manager and Branden’s supervisor.

“Branden is very determined, and his personality, along with an awesome family support system, helped him through this,” Farrell says. “With his great attitude, nothing gets him down. He is an awesome story of perseverance and determination.”

'When all hell broke loose'

That story began Jan. 8, 2021, when Branden, then a 30-year-old journeyman lineman, came into contact with a high-voltage electric line during a system-improvement project in Jefferson County. While working from a bucket 40 feet above the ground and attempting to attach a guy wire to a new pole, Branden’s arm brushed against an energized 7,200-volt electric line.

“That’s when all hell broke loose,” he recalls. “As soon as I contacted one of my forearms with the phase, instantly I was locked up.”
 

Since recovering from life-altering injuries sustained in a high-voltage electric accident in 2021, Branden Bauer has returned to work at DuBois-based United Electric Cooperative.
“RE-UNITED”: Since recovering from life-altering injuries sustained in a high-voltage electric accident in 2021, Branden Bauer has returned to work at DuBois-based United Electric Cooperative. Bauer began his career at United at age 20 as an apprentice lineman and now serves as the co-op’s line superintendent.
 

Branden remembers hearing crew members on the ground screaming, “Get away from it,” while he tried —unsuccessfully — to buckle his knees and collapse into the bucket to avoid the electric current coursing through his limbs.

“Then my eyes went shut, and everything went dark,” he says. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I was coherently thinking for maybe 5 to 10 seconds, and I knew in my head that this might be the end.”

Those who witnessed the electrocution told Branden he remained locked onto the high-voltage line for 30 to 45 seconds before he slumped over the front of the bucket.

“I either passed out or died, I’m not quite sure,” he says. “I think I passed out.”

After Branden’s crew chief lowered the bucket to the ground, frantic crew members pulled the lineman from the bucket — his leather gloves smoldering, his body almost too hot to touch, his eyes wide open but lifeless — and placed him on the ground.

Some of the crew, Branden says, thought he was already dead as they pulled off his shirt and prepared to administer CPR.

And then Branden regained consciousness.

“One of the journeymen was praying over me, asking God to save my life,” Branden says. “That’s my first memory after I came to.”

The crew members, who Branden says did “everything right,” tried to calm their co-worker and prevent him from seeing the devastation to his hands and arms as they awaited medical personnel.

“But me being in shock and kind of stubborn, I wanted to see what was going on,” he says. “I looked down at my left hand, and my pinkie and ring finger were gone and looked like cigar butts, kind of burned black and sooty. I looked at my right forearm, and it was just complete carnage.”

Once emergency personnel arrived, they stanched the bleeding and told Branden they would need to place him on a stretcher to carry him to an awaiting ambulance. From there, he would be transported to a helicopter landing site and life-flighted to a burn treatment center.
 

Since recovering from life-altering injuries sustained in a high-voltage electric accident in 2021, Branden Bauer has returned to work at DuBois-based United Electric Cooperative.
BRANDEN BAUER
 

“I said, ‘No. I’m not getting on a stretcher,’ ” he says. “So, with help from my crew chief and an EMT, I got to my feet and walked about 100 yards to the ambulance.”

Before departing from the accident site, Branden also shared news with his crew that under ordinary circumstances would have been cause for celebration: He and his wife, Katelyn, were expecting their first child.

“I just kept saying, ‘I can’t die. I can’t die. I’m going to be a father,’ ” Branden says, choking up as he recalled the memory. “That whole flight to Pittsburgh, all I could think about was my daughter: Am I going to get to see her birth? Will I be able to hold her? Am I going to get to pick her up from school one day? Will I get to walk her down the aisle?”

‘I never thought I was going to die’

After evaluation and emergency surgery at the burn unit at UPMC-Mercy, Branden received some positive news: His internal organs appeared to have escaped injury during the electrocution.

“So the path of electricity went into my arms, out my hands and out the wire,” he says. “It never crossed my body, thankfully, because I’d be dead if it did.”

That didn’t mean Branden was in the clear, however. He had two blood clots in his lungs. And when he tried to stand, his blood pressure would drop and he would nearly pass out. Also, his heartbeat raced at about 120 to 140 beats per minute for much of his five-week stay in the burn unit. His weight plummeted from 195 pounds to 165. At one point, the loss of blood from numerous surgeries required a blood transfusion.

“That five weeks was a living hell for me,” he says. “My body wouldn’t calm down from the accident. They said I was in fight-or-flight mode.

“Just because I was alive, didn’t mean things couldn’t go downhill quickly,” he adds. “But, in my head, I never thought I was going to die. I just wanted to shake it off and get back to work.”

Katelyn was also resolute, standing by his side through every twist and turn of his recovery.

“She was my rock,” Branden says. “She told me later that she cried herself to sleep every night, but when she came in to see me, she was solid every time, smiling and being there for me.”

The couple had been married less than two years when the accident forever altered their lives. Three months pregnant at the time, Katelyn took leave from her job as a speech therapist at DuBois Middle School and stayed in Branden’s brother and sister-in-law’s home in Pittsburgh so she could be closer to her husband.
 

Branden and Katelyn Bauer read to their daughters, Addie, left, and Harper.
FAMILY TIME: Branden and Katelyn Bauer read to their daughters, Addie, left, and Harper. Katelyn was pregnant with Harper, who will turn 3 in July, when an electrical-contact incident resulted in the amputation of both of Branden’s arms below the elbows.
 

“The visiting hours were from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” she says, “and I was the first one in line to get in there each morning, and the last one to leave. Every night, I was so afraid to leave him. I was just panicked, worrying he was going to take a wrong turn. It was an emotional roller coaster.”

Because Branden was hospitalized at the height of COVID-19, he was only permitted one visitor the entire time he was a patient in the burn unit.

“His parents weren’t even able to see him,” Katelyn says. “It was just me. I was just trying to be strong for him because, you know, I had to be.”

‘I never thought I was going to die’

During his hospitalization, Branden estimates he had about 10 surgeries. His left arm was amputated below the elbow shortly after he arrived at the burn unit, but the medical team held out hope that his right hand could be saved. Ultimately, the damage proved too severe, and his right arm was amputated, also below the elbow, about a week and a half after the accident.

“Even though amputation was obviously something you didn’t want to hear, if he was going to live through this, I knew we would do anything to make it work,” Katelyn says. “I was just thanking God that he was going to survive.”

She also knew her husband’s mental toughness and optimism would be key to his recovery.
“Honestly, if anyone could handle something like this, it would be Branden,” Katelyn says. “He is just very strong, mentally.”

“I had psychologists come, and they’d say, ‘Let’s talk,’ ” Branden recalls. “I’d tell them, ‘I’m fine — get out.’ I’m just wired that way. It is what it is. Let’s just get it done and let me get out of here. No need for sympathy — just do it. Do I have hard days? I do. But life goes on, and you gotta keep moving.”

And that’s just what he has done.

The couple agrees their faith and continuous support from family helped to ease the burden — a burden that grew, albeit joyously, when their daughter, Harper, arrived in July 2021, six months after Branden’s accident.
Branden was a week removed from one of his numerous surgeries when his daughter was born.
 

Branden Bauer displays a buck he harvested while hunting with a crossbow
UNSTOPPABLE: Loss of limbs hasn’t stopped Branden Bauer from enjoying his favorite activities. Above, he displays a buck he harvested while hunting with a crossbow.
 

“That was definitely an emotional time,” Katelyn says. “You have a new baby and you’re a new dad, and he could barely even hold her because he was so wrapped up following his surgery. We’re in the hospital, and Branden’s brothers were coming in and [changing his dressings], and I’m having a nurse come in to help me. It was a lot. It really was.”

Back to work

Another set of helping hands would be on the way a few months later, when Branden’s arms were fitted with prosthetic limbs. The ability to grip again was transformative, and Branden set his sights on mastering the body-controlled hooks. He was eager to regain his independence, drive a vehicle again and, he hoped, return to work at United Electric, where he began his career at age 20 as an apprentice lineman.

“Branden’s plan was always to get back here to United,” President & CEO Brenda Swartzlander says. “He’s always had a great attitude, good work ethic, and he loved line work. So, when he was ready to come back, we happened to need some help in engineering and operations and were happy to use his knowledge, skills, and experience in those departments.”

In October 2022, Branden returned to duty at United, initially working five hours a week. Swartzlander says there was an overwhelming feeling of joy and relief among the staff.

“He was such a big part of the family here,” she says. “The cooperative program is just one big family — the way everybody pulls together and wants to help. Everybody was just really happy to see him back here because he’s such a positive presence. He’s just amazing.”

As Branden continued to progress physically, he was cleared for more hours of work, and last fall, he was promoted to line superintendent.

He logs about 25 hours a week in his new role, with a goal of returning to full-time status. The position offers Branden the chance to get out in the field to plan jobs, meet with the line crews and talk to members.

“I miss working with my hands,” he admits, “but I still get to be around the guys and use my knowledge to help organize the chaos of line work and improve the co-op.”

When he’s not at work, Branden is at home taking care of his two daughters. The couple welcomed their second child, Addie, last April.

Branden has also been able to resume his favorite fall outdoor activity, hunting, and says he was able to kill a buck with his crossbow just three days after receiving his first pair of prosthetic limbs. He’s also done a little golfing, plays cornhole and even let his brothers talk him into competing in a Tough Mudder endurance competition in Pittsburgh last year.
 

Branden Bauer has returned to riding bicycles, golfing, and he even participating in a “Tough Mudder” endurance competition since recovering from his injuries.
NO LIMITS: Branden Bauer has returned to riding bicycles, golfing, and he even participating in a “Tough Mudder” endurance competition since recovering from his injuries.
 

The Clarion County native has also taken on a challenge he claims intimidates him more than participating in a 10-mile obstacle course sans hands: speaking before groups about the electrical-contact accident that claimed his lower arms.

“I remember having a public speaking class in college, and I hated it,” he tells a group of utility line and safety professionals who gathered this winter for a training program, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association, the voice for the state’s 13 rural electric cooperatives. “I never wanted to do it again. But I knew I had to get out there, face my fears, and tell my story.”

A new challenge

During his “Life without Lim(b)its” presentation, which he has given nearly 20 times since recovering from the accident, Branden recounts the accident, detailing mistakes that were made, safety precautions that weren’t taken, and the impact the accident had on those around him. He also talks about all of the things that went right that day, stressing how the immediate, trained response of his fellow crew members helped save his life.

Many of Branden’s talks have been in front of groups of electric cooperative lineworkers. He says he volunteered to offer his presentation to the co-ops in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, specifically, because they had offered him so much support through their donations, prayers and well wishes following the accident.

“I hope this keeps an accident from happening,” Branden says, “because I don’t want anyone to have to go through what I went through these past few years.

“Are there still challenging days?” he asks. “Yeah. But there are challenging days for everybody. You just find a solution and you work through it. I was always very stubborn … I don’t know how to give up.”

 

 

 

 

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