Faith and parish support helped Plymouth teen on road to recovery after brain aneurysm

CAMBRIDGE -- "It's a coin toss he sees dawn."

"Time to get a priest?"

"That would be prudent."

Bill Brennan could not believe that his own son had such a grim prognosis. It was Oct. 15, 2019. John Brennan, days shy of celebrating his 14th birthday, had suffered a brain aneurysm. If the MedFlight taking him from Plymouth to Boston Children's Hospital had been 10 minutes late, Dr. Ed Smith explained, John would've been dead on arrival.

Following Dr. Smith's advice, Bill Brennan called for a priest. The priest delivered last rites to the boy who, hours prior, had been doing his homework in his bedroom. When not attending Boston College High School, the 13-year-old enjoyed playing football and going to the beach. He never thought deeply about his future.

John had been an altar server at St. Mary Parish in Plymouth, one who liked to "torpedo" then-pastor Father Joe MacCarthy with tough questions about God. John and Father MacCarthy would often discuss the challenges of faith, their dedication to the parish, and their love of celebrating Mass. When he found out what happened to John, Father MacCarthy, who had since become pastor at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Cambridge, rallied his flock.

Parishioners in Plymouth and Cambridge prayed for John, flooded the Brennans with sympathy cards, visited John in the hospital, and contributed to $172,000 in donations for his medical expenses.

John celebrated his 18th birthday on Oct. 24. He, his father Bill, his mother Caroline, and Father MacCarthy met at St. John the Evangelist on Nov. 11 to share their story with The Pilot.

John said that "luck and faith" saved his life, and that "just believing in God and knowing that he has a plan" helped him through the most difficult parts of his recovery.

In 2022, during the 25th anniversary of Father MacCarthy's ordination, he brought John up to the sanctuary of St. John the Evangelist. Everyone cheered.

"They really responded in a way which says that God was in the middle of that, too," Father MacCarthy said. "Medical people? Absolutely, rely on them first. God works through them, but also the faith of people -- ordinary, everyday people committing to Jesus and committing to others."

"He kept saying what all of the people were saying," John said about Father MacCarthy. "'Keep going. Keep going.' This is just my opinion, but I'd say that's worked out pretty good."

Looking back on how he was before the aneurysm, John said that he was "13 going on 30."

"I thought I had it all figured out," he recalled. "Like, this is it. But then I get hit with a brain bleed, and that really brought me back down to earth."

When the aneurysm struck, John felt no pain. He simply fell unconscious and woke up at Boston Children's Hospital a month later.

"It doesn't feel like I have had half a million dollars put into my head," he said.

Upon waking up, he could not move or speak, only blink. He looked at his father, who told him what had happened.

"I was like, 'Oh, cool I guess,'" John said. "And then I started my own lifelong process of recovery. The best way I could possibly put it is that my life was shattered into a million, billion little pieces, and I'm now trying to put them all back together."

The aneurysm was caused by moyamoya, a disease which causes the arteries in the brain to thin and weaken. Miraculously, Dr. Smith, one of the world's leading moyamoya surgeons, was on duty the night of John's aneurysm.

"Bill and I were very, very less than hopeful about the situation," said Father MacCarthy, who came to John's side at the hospital as soon as he could, "and you have to remember that the medical team was amazing."

As John woke up, Bill Brennan prayed and made the sign of the cross. John's eyeballs moved to follow his father's movements, proving that he was lucid.

"It was beautiful," Bill Brennan said.

John was later taken to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown for intense daily physical therapy. He had to use "every fiber of energy" to move, speak, and eat again. For over five months, he could not swallow solid food.

"That is something I would like to add to the Massachusetts State Constitution," John said. "The right to swallow."

He was able to speak individual words after three months. After five months, he could talk in complete sentences. He would come up with mental exercises to keep his brain occupied during those months of silence as he regained his speech.

"It gets lonely when you're trapped in your own head for like four months," he said.

Bill Brennan recalled that when John could speak again, he was "dying to tell" his parents that he met God. While John was never declared legally dead during his ordeal, he believes that his soul briefly left his body.

"At first, it was just a big, booming voice from above," John recalled.

The voice asked John his religion.

"I think I'm Christian," he replied.

"I was like 'Am I . . . Am I dead?'" John remembered. "And He was like, 'Oh, yeah. You're six feet in the ground.' And I was like, 'Oh, cool. So what do I do now?'"

"You have more work to do," he said God replied.

As John recovered, parishioners visited him and offered spiritual support to his family.

"The people were so welcoming and listened to the challenges we had," Bill Brennan said, "and were so supportive."

"We're just very thankful that the people both in Plymouth and here in this parish have responded to his needs and to the family's desires," Father MacCarthy said. "Faith was at the center of this family's life, and carrying that over no matter where you go, people of faith are willing to continue to commit to people in need."

The Daughters of St. Paul in Boston encouraged their missions across the world to pray for John. The sister of a friend of a friend of Bill Brennan's was an astronaut on the International Space Station. She prayed for John while in orbit.

"Word got up there," Bill Brennan said. "Maybe a little clearer signal."

John returned to Plymouth in February 2020, with a wheelchair from the hospital.

"He would have nothing to do with the wheelchair," Bill Brennan said. "He never sat in it once. He was determined to get up to his own bedroom in his own power."

John returned to school at BC High in 2021, but struggled due to having missed so many classes. This year, he began attending public school in Plymouth. He is not sure when he will graduate from high school and thinks he will likely get a GED.

"I really had no aspirations" before the aneurysm, he said. "But I do now."

He wants to attend college in Florida and study music therapy, combining his twin loves of music and psychology.

"Basically, I got my childhood stolen," he said, "and I have come to a conclusion with the universe that this is to make up for my childhood."

He also wants to write a book about his life and have it made into a documentary.

John was confirmed in July, and recently completed the first phase of his Eagle Scout project -- repairing and restoring the rosary trail at St. Bonaventure in Plymouth, where he used to meditate. He wants to put up new signage to advertise the trail, "dig up" the markers that indicate each mystery of the rosary and clean up the statue of Mary.

In June, he, his mother, and his sister went on a "pilgrimage of thanksgiving" to Medjugorje.

"I had a lot of loose ends, and I was not in a good place," he said. "But (on) the Medjugorje trip (I) really first made landfall with love and happiness."

"I'd never have made it through without my faith," Caroline Brennan said. "I think prayer helped ground me a lot, especially when we didn't know whether he'd live or die. The only way you could actually get through it was to surrender it into God's hands."