The Ballad of Lars Branje

ScreenHunter_437 May. 06 11.58I had seen Lars for well over a year, at the exercise gym I visit twice per week. Lars is notable—tall, lean, white-haired and looking determined in his use of the equipment. Did I say he was an old guy? Yes, he is and, being one myself, I felt a kinship to this fellow survivor.

After more than a year of being around each other at least once a week, we finally acknowledged each other’s existence (such things develop slowly in Sweden) by nodding our heads to each other as we passed in the exercise area of Friskis & Svettis (which I like to call Frisky & Sweaty).

Finally, we uttered words to each other. I quickly let him know I am incompetent in Swedish. He effortlessly switched to English which my poor hearing was able to process adequately.

Lars at the Gym

One thing led to another. I imagined he might wish to write or dictate something I could put in my “Being Old” blog. Immediately upon my suggesting this, he started his story, which eventually led me to his nearby apartment where I viewed a DVD film of the first corneal transplant in Europe, 1957, at a hospital in Jönköping, Sweden. Lars was the recipient of that transplant.

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Lars Branje (right), training as an Army jet pilot in Ljungbyhed, Sweden (1955)

While training to be a Swedish Army jet pilot, Lars found that his eyesight was slowly fading. He was unable to continue training.

He became a sports journalist for Norrlands-Posten newspaper, then the Allehanda news organization (now MittMedia AB), which gave him the opportunity to travel abroad.When he was in Milan covering a match between the Milan club and Juventus of Turin, his sight failed completely.

He went to a Milan hospital where he was diagnosed with Keratoconus. From the staff at this hospital he learned there was a world-famous eye surgeon in Sweden. Lars was referred to Dr. Henrik Sjögren  in Jönköping. This was the first of many “lucky” event in Lars’s life—lucky, in this instance, that the Milan medical staff knew of this surgeon in Lars’s home country.

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Henrik Samuel Conrad Sjögren, eye surgeon (1957)

Doctor Sjögren was known internationally for identifying what is now called “Sjögren’s Syndrome,” after having published the English translation of his doctoral thesis. As head of the newly established eye clinic in Jönköping, under the aegis of the University of Gothenberg, Dr. Sjögren conducted research into surgical replacement of the cornea. He developed an instrument and a technique that was used in other countries for many years.

Lars and Dr. Sjögren established rapport and, because of Lars’s youth and good health, he was chosen to undergo the first corneal transplants (both eyes), using corneas from cadavers. The operations were successful and became widely celebrated in Sweden.

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Bengt Bedrup and Lars Branje during a televised interview, 1957

After surgery, Lars needed to lie quietly  for three months. During one interview session after surgery with TV journalist Bengt Bedrup , Lars asked him for a lighted smoke . The photograph on the side table is of Lars’s  children, Lena and Tomas.

[Click here to see the interview]

Lying quietly in bed or anywhere for an extended period is a “katastrof” for Lars. His nature is to be physically active. Later in life he ran the Stockholm Marathon, skied the Vasaloppet, became certificated in the  “Swedish classic circuit” (cross country skiing, cycling, swimming, and cross country running), and ran the Lidingöloppet (30 km.)

Nord07Lars says he has had a wonderful life. After working for the Allehanda news organization, he signed on with Radio Nord, popularly known as “Pirate Radio,” although it operated within the existing laws . As a member of the broadcast crew, he was stationed on the vessel Bon Jour in the Baltic Sea off the eastern coast of Sweden, two weeks on/one week off. It offered live news and recorded music not then available on the official radio stations of Sweden, and was preferred by many Swedes.

The most memorable event of his work with Radio Nord was to be the first person to announce to Sweden that Dag Hammarskjöld, The UN’s Secretary General and former Prime Minister of Sweden,  had died in an airplane crash in Rhodesia (now Zambia), 18 September 1961. Lars was in radio contact with pilots he knew from his Army days, and they gave him information not available through regular news outlets.

Radio Nord started on 8 March 1961 but had to shut down only fifteen months later, in June 1962, following passage of a new Swedish law aimed at silencing its broadcasts.

But, the official “Swedish Radio” had learned from the popularity of Radio Nord, so despite an official prohibition from hiring former Radio Nord employees, Lars then went to work for Sveriges Radio AB as a live announcer. Up until this time, all the programs were pre-recorded for broadcast at a later time.

Lars remembers the 1960s and 1970s as the years to be “out in the world.” He mentions the Congo and Vietnam. As a journalist he has interviewed Neil Armstrong in Houston, and Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles at Gröna Lund, the major amusement park in Stockholm.

After around four years with Swedish radio, Lars became a free-lance journalist for radio and TV companies, and for the Swedish Air Force.

The highlight of his career was a private half-hour interview with Nelson Mandela, upon his release from twenty-seven years of incarceration in South African prisons, 1990.

Both of Lars’s new corneas lasted until he was covering a soccer match in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs were playing the Philadelphia Flyers. His right eye stopped working. He returned to Sweden and saw Dr. Per Fagerholm, then at St. Erik Eye Hospital in Stockholm. His right eye was inoperable because internal pressure had separated the optic nerve from the brain. He retained the use of his left eye, until 2012 when he effectively went blind.

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Branka Samolov, Surgeon, St. Erik Eye Hospital, Stockholm

Returning to St. Erik Eye Hospital, he encountered the surgeon Dr. Branka Samolov with whom he established good rapport, as he did with Dr. Sjögren in 1957. And also, again, because of his good health and positive attitude they together decided to go ahead with another corneal transplant, recognizing the increased risk due to his now older eye, especially in that it had undergone previous surgeries.

It was a success. The headline of a TV news article quotes Lars speaking to his surgeon, “I can see your face! You are my saving angel”

[See the Expressen TV News broadcast here]

Forty-five years had elapsed since his first eye surgery. The hospital staff made note that Lars Branje represents the entire history of corneal transplantation in Sweden. The advances in medical knowledge and surgical techniques now allowed Lars to completely avoid lying in bed after his surgery, being immediately ambulatory.

Here is where Lars said that his “luck” was again emphasized: by being able to have the best surgeon available for his problem.

Now that his sight is returned to him, he has resumed his activities as a pensionär, meeting former colleagues–pilots and journalists–and enjoying his children and grandchildren; “doing whatever I want to do.”