Woman injured in marathon blast faces challenges
ALLEN G. BREED
Apr 23, 2013 at 7:08 AM
BOSTON — As this shocked city observed a moment of silence, Heather Abbott was following through on a difficult decision — allowing doctors to amputate her left foot, which was mangled in the bombings that shattered the Boston Marathon.
From her bed at Brigham and Women's Hospital on Monday, the 38-year-old Rhode Island woman reflected on the terror of April 15 — and on the waves of agony and grace that followed in the week since.
"I'm trying to be positive about things," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview before her surgery. "And hope that my life doesn't have to change much."
The day of the bombings, Abbott and a half-dozen friends took in the traditional Patriots' Day Red Sox game at Fenway Park. They left early and headed to Forum, where a friend tends bar and where former New England Patriots were gathered to raise money for offensive guard Joe Andruzzi's cancer foundation.
The restaurant is at 755 Boylston Street, not far from the marathon's finish line.
Abbott was at the back of the long line, waiting as bouncers checked ID's, when the first blast went off. Unlike many, she knew exactly what it was.
"I felt like I was watching the footage on 9/11," said Abbott, who works in human resources for Raytheon Company in Portsmouth, R.I.
Abbott was scrambling to get off the sidewalk when the force of a second blast blew her through the restaurant doorway.
After she'd regained her senses, she tried to stand, but her left foot felt "as if it were on fire." Unable to find her friends in the smoke and confusion, she called out to the panicked crowd.
"Somebody, please help me," Abbott shouted as people scrambled for the rear exits, not knowing whether there were more explosions to come. She'd begun to give up hope when a woman walked up and began dragging her toward the door, quietly reciting a Catholic prayer as she tugged.
"Hail Mary, full of grace...," the woman intoned.
The woman had pulled Abbott a few feet when a burly man stepped in, picked her up and carried her out the back door into an alley. She would later learn it was former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham.
Jason Geremia spotted them and shouted, "Please give her to me. She's my friend."
The linebacker lay Abbott on the ground and rushed off to help others. Friend Alfred Colonese of Newport, R.I., took off his belt and used it as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
Someone found a piece of wood in the alley. The friends were preparing to carry her out on it when a medic appeared and told them not to move her. Soon, rescuers appeared with a gurney and wheeled Abbott back through the Forum and out the front door, Colonese said.
Abbott didn't have the heart to look at her foot, but as she was being carried away, she glanced back and saw a trail of her blood.
She was loaded into a packed ambulance: Beside her was a man on a gurney, an oxygen mask covering his mouth and nose. As a worker inserted an IV into her arm, Abbott could hear the driver shouting to the crowd outside, "Make a hole! Make a hole!"
Rescuers asked her repeatedly for her first and last names. A woman asked if there was someone she wanted them to call. In a world of cell phones and speed dial, the only number she knows by heart was her parents' back in Lincoln, R.I.
Abbott could tell that her mother, Rosemary, was frantically asking questions. The man simply told her that her daughter had been injured, and that she and her husband, Dale, should come to Brigham.
During the ambulance ride, Abbott struggled to keep her eyes open.
"I felt like if I closed them," she said, "maybe I wouldn't be able to open them again."
When the ambulance arrived, workers rushed Abbott to surgery, where doctors stabilized her and cleaned her wound. She had a second surgery on Thursday to clean the wound and allow specialists to better assess the situation. The blast had broken her ankle and shattered several small bones in her foot.
That same day, first lady Michelle Obama visited Abbott's room. She told Abbott how brave she was, and gave her a presidential "challenge coin" — a token traditionally presented to wounded service members and their families. One side bears the presidential seal, the other an engraving of the White House.
Abbott's courage was about to be tested.
Specialists explained that if she kept the foot, it might never fully heal. She would be in chronic pain, and her left leg might be shorter than the other. But the decision was ultimately hers.
The hospital brought in people who had suffered similar injuries, and had chosen amputation and prosthetics. One was a runner; another played football; a third still goes snowboarding.
Abbott, who earned an accounting degree at Stonehill College and studied nights at Providence College for her master's in business administration, didn't really do sports in school. But she runs and does aerobics, and enjoys paddle-boarding off Newport in the summertime.
Encouraged by her visitors that she could lead a normal life, she agreed to the amputation. "It sounded to me like the best case scenario," she said.
Abbott never could muster the courage to look at her injured foot. She hates the sight of blood, and that was a memory she didn't want to have to live with.
In a three-hour operation Monday afternoon — midway through which Abbott's family and the entire hospital joined in the citywide moment of silence — doctors removed her leg several inches below the knee. Her father said everything went well.
"She's my hero," Dale Abbott said, his voice cracking with emotion. "She's stronger than I am. I'm constantly having meltdowns, and she knows what has to be done, and she's right there with it."
Doctors told his daughter it would be about four weeks before she could be fitted with a temporary prosthetic.
Floating on a cloud of pain medication and family/friend support in the days before the surgery, Abbott hadn't watched any television until Monday morning. To brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged bombers, she has given hardly a thought.
"People have let me know that the second one (Dzhokhar) was caught," she said. "And I don't think I've really begun to process how that makes me feel yet."
Tamerlan, the older brother, was killed in a gunfight with police. Asked whether Dzhokhar should face the death penalty for the three killed and nearly 200 wounded in the blasts, she demurred.
"I just haven't really even gone to that place yet in my head," she said. "I don't feel the anger that I'm sure I will at some point."
Instead, she is focusing on healing — and on the people who risked their lives to help her.
"They were sort of free and clear and could have left," she said. "That thought is just overwhelming to me."
Allen G. Breed is a national writer, based in Raleigh, N.C. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/(hash)!/AllenGBreed