Step by step, marathon amputee reinvents her life
Boston • In late May, Mery Daniel went back to Boylston Street.
Six weeks before, on April 15, she had joined the throng of spectators at the Boston Marathon. She'd treated herself to hot chocolate and a pancake at a cafe before heading alone to the finish line to cheer runners at the end of America's most famous race.
"This is where I was," she said, her wheelchair gliding to a stop outside the Marathon Sports store.
It was on this spot that everything changed where twin pressure cooker bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring more than 260 others, including at least 16 people who lost a limb or limbs. It was on this spot where the world came to regard Daniel, a 31-year-old medical school graduate and Haitian immigrant, as a victim.
"God bless you," a young guitarist told Daniel outside Marathon Sports, before quickly taking his song somewhere else on the street.
Before the bombing, she had loved to roam and explore Boston, the city where she had become an American citizen five years earlier.
"Please save my legs," she had begged the doctors before blacking out in the operating room.
But they amputated her left leg above her knee before she woke up. It was the price she paid for her life. Her heart had stopped twice after she lost consciousness.
Daniel's wheelchair stood out when she returned to Boylston Street. Strangers saw her on the street, and a question flickered in some of their eyes: Was she one of the marathon bombing amputees?
She no longer could blend easily into a crowd, or go where she wanted when she wanted. But Daniel was determined to go forward without fear, and to see herself as a survivor, not a victim. To do that, she knew she would have to walk again.
Daniel heard the boom seconds after staking out a spot across from Boston Public Library's central branch.
Suddenly, she was on the ground, her lower left leg dangling by skin, its bone split open and arteries and nerves blown to bits. A pancreatic laceration left Daniel bleeding on the inside. Projectiles ravaged the rear of her right calf, and doctors had to cut away ruined muscles and tendons and graft skin from elsewhere on her body to repair what they could.
Daniel did not cry when she awoke from surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. And she did not cry on all the days after, even when she went back to Boylston Street.
The kind of determination she would show in the aftermath of the bombing was not new. She had emigrated from Haiti just before turning 17, graduating from Brockton High School before attending University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She headed to Europe for medical school after college, doing some traveling when she wasn't studying.
Before the marathon, the international medical graduate had been studying for the last part of her medical boards so she could qualify to work as a doctor in the United States. She'd been thinking about pursuing psychiatry as her specialty.
But now, she turned all that energy to her recovery.
After leaving Massachusetts General, Daniel spent about three weeks at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where she exercised for three hours a day.
But when the time came to leave, she couldn't go home. Before the marathon, Daniel had lived in a second-story apartment with her husband, Richardson, their 5-year-old daughter, and her husband's parents in Boston's Mattapan section. But the location wouldn't work with a wheelchair, forcing Daniel and her husband to move to a hotel near Spaulding for a while.
Without a permanent home, Daniel worked to transition from using a wheelchair to crutches, refusing to use a walker to smooth the way from one to the other. Going down stairs was especially tricky.
Sometimes she forgot her leg was gone and tried to get up. She also suffered constant phantom pains, sensations experts say start in the nervous system and cause discomfort that feels like it's coming from a missing limb. Sometimes she felt itchy on toes she didn't have anymore.
Daniel craved mobility and she wanted her family back together, and neither could come soon enough.
In late May, prosthetists made a plaster mold of her left leg above where her knee had been to help fashion her first artificial limb. A team from United Prosthetics worked on the casting at Spaulding on a day when some other marathon bombing amputees had the same procedure.
"I'm hoping you'll be back for prosthetic training in three to four weeks," said Spaulding physiatrist David Crandell, who'd treated 15 marathon amputees.
"Two to three weeks," Daniel told the doctor.
She was in a hurry, but the changes she wanted would not come fast or easily.
"Talk to me and breathe. I need you to breathe, OK?"
Prosthetist Paul Martino was trying to keep Daniel comfortable. It was early June and the time had come for her to stand on her own again.
Inside United Prosthetics in the city's Dorchester section, Martino helped her slide into the kind of socket that would encase the top of her left leg and connect to a replacement knee and foot to form her first artificial limb.
The fit was awkward at first and Daniel cringed with pain. She hadn't put any weight on her injured limb until then.
"Could I walk funny? I feel funny," she said.
Prosthetist Julianne Mason helped tweak the fit so Daniel could try some practice steps in a narrow hallway with support bars on both walls. When Martino closed a door, Daniel saw her new reflection in a mirror.
"That's you, standing up," he said.
"Hmmm," she said softly. "The bionic woman."
The prosthetists had her try two different knees, and Martino guided Daniel as she learned to shift her weight back and forth and begin to walk.
"Oh, I took a tiny step," Daniel said as she started down the hallway.
Still, even the most advanced technology was clumsy compared with the leg Daniel lost.
"I had one that worked perfectly," she'd told Martino.
"Yeah," he said. "You did."
But Daniel was getting messages of support from near and far. She'd met war veterans who'd had amputations and pro athletes who honored her before their games. President Barack Obama had come to her bedside at Massachusetts General, telling her not to lose hope.
The day after Daniel's first steps, children who rode the Weymouth school bus her father drove took part in a walkathon on her behalf that raised $8,275.
Daniel's custom-made prosthetic leg wasn't ready yet and she hadn't brought her crutches to the event. But she borrowed a pair and rose from her wheelchair that morning to lead hundreds of students for the first quarter-mile of their walk.
"Mery strong!" they shouted, pumping their small fists in the air.
As summer started, Daniel moved into an apartment in the city's South End. The first-floor unit was just steps from Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where the president rallied Bostonians three days after the marathon bombings and spoke about the recovery that survivors like Daniel would face.
"We will all be with you as you learn to stand, and walk, and yes, run again ...," Obama had said. "Your resolve is the greatest rebuke to whoever committed this heinous act."
As she exercised to build strength, Daniel tried to put distance between her journey and any thoughts about the bombing suspects, immigrants like herself. For her, the American way of life was about freedom. The evil she'd seen on Boylston Street was nothing she could understand. She'd leave it to the justice system to deal with innocence or guilt and to mete out punishment.
Sometimes, when Daniel and her husband went out, strangers recognized her from news reports and thanked her for serving as an inspiration. As she grew used to the new shape of her body, Richardson saw another change, too.
"She's more humble and accepts life the way it is and tries to move on," he said. "I like that."
Richardson had worked as a dermatologist in Haiti, and had a job helping autistic children in the Boston area. With his wife coping with physical challenges, more household and parenting duties fell to him. She still couldn't maneuver well enough to give their 5-year-old a bath, and Richardson's parents pitched in to help raise their grandchild.
Daniel's focus was two-fold: growing comfortable with her new, custom-made prosthetic and finding a job in the medical field that could help her land a residency after she passed her medical boards.
She went to Spaulding for two weeks of inpatient training on the man-made limb. It had a computerized knee, and Daniel's stride was robotic as she learned how to rebalance her body. The bulk also added 10 pounds to her frame.
But the device was what prosthetist Paul Martino had called a starter model, and Daniel tried to keep her expectations low. What mattered was she was walking again.
By the time autumn arrived, Daniel was leaving her crutches behind when she left her apartment.
She was venturing into Boston by herself in taxis and even considering riding mass transit again as the six-month anniversary of the bombings grew near. She also had participated in road races, riding a handcycle powered with her arms.
"A lot of the things that I used to do, I can no longer do them," Daniel said. "I don't say permanently, but for now. I'm still learning how to do little things, step by step."
Once in a while, she cracked open her books and did some studying for her medical boards. She'd had a job interview at a city hospital, and was hunting for a house for her family. Three siblings who also had lived in Haiti had come to live with Daniel and her husband, including a 14-year-old sister she'd enrolled in a Boston public high school.
The timing wasn't perfect, but Daniel took on the responsibility. They needed her, she said.
Others had been there for Daniel. Some of that support came by way of donations including more than $1 million from The One Fund to help her cope her injuries.
Daniel still went to physical therapy at Spaulding, working out both alone and with other marathon bombing amputees with whom she'd found fellowship and friendship.
And she returned to United Prosthetics, determined to swap the bulky socket of her prosthetic for a sleeker model that might let her wear skinny jeans again.
The prosthetists made another plaster cast of what remained of her left leg to make a second custom socket. Then they adjusted the microprocessor in her artificial knee to loosen her stride. Daniel even picked out a cosmetic cover for the metallic parts of her prosthetic that was designed to match her complexion.
"That's very important to me," she said.
Later, Daniel decided to stop for something to eat before she headed home. Her ride dropped her off near her apartment, and she walked a block to a South End cafe she'd come to like.
Then Daniel snagged a table out on the sidewalk, where she dined by herself as she took in the view, just another Bostonian enjoying a fine September afternoon.
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