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 café 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 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. 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.
No time for tears
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘I feel funny’
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 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.
Oh, I took a tiny step, Daniel said as she started down the hallway.
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.
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.
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.
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. She also had participated in road races, riding a handcycle powered with her arms.
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. A feat they accomplished.
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 café 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.