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Amputee reinvents her life after bombing

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP)
Paul Martino, of United Prosthetics, helps Mery Daniel as she takes her first step during a fitting for her prosthetic leg June 4 at the company in Boston. Daniel lost most of her left leg in the Boston Marathon bombings in April.
Caption
(AP)
Mery Daniel, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor, stands as Paul Martino, of United Prosthetics, adjusts a cover on top of the computerized knee of her prosthetic left leg, at the company in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Daniel’s right leg also suffered significant damage in the blast.
Caption
(AP)
Mery Daniel smiles in the cafeteria at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. Daniel has made strides in regaining mobility and independence since losing most of her left leg in the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15.
Caption
(AP)
Mery Daniel, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor, pauses while she talks with her physical therapist, Jessica Guilbert, while she takes a break from exercising with her prosthetic leg July 3 at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.

BOSTON (AP) – 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.

Before the bombing, she had loved to roam and explore Boston, the city where she had become an American citizen 5 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 3 weeks at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where she exercised for 3 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.

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.

“I’m hoping you’ll be back for prosthetic training in 3 to 4 weeks,” said Spaulding physiatrist David Crandell, who’d treated 15 marathon amputees.

“Two to 3 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. 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.”

As she exercised to build strength, Daniel tried to put distance between her journey and any thoughts about the bombing suspects, immigrants like herself. She’d leave it to the justice system to deal with innocence or guilt and to mete out punishment.

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 2 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.

But the device was what 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.

Daniel still went to physical therapy at Spaulding, 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.

Later, she 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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