After 5 years, Boston Marathon survivors mold terrorism into healing

Five years have taught some survivors how to heal themselves -- and others, in a club no one wants to belong to.

By Daniel Uria
A makeshift memorial is seen in Boston after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, April 17, 2013. The event has spawned a number of new relationships and support systems for survivors in the years since. File Photo by Matthew Healey/UPI
1 of 3 | A makeshift memorial is seen in Boston after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, April 17, 2013. The event has spawned a number of new relationships and support systems for survivors in the years since. File Photo by Matthew Healey/UPI | License Photo

April 13 (UPI) -- Five years after the Boston Marathon bombings, many victims of the terrorist attack have used it as a catalyst to heal themselves -- and those shaken by other major traumas.

Three people were killed and hundreds injured in the April 15, 2013, double bombings near the finish line in downtown Boston -- including 17 who had limbs severed or amputated. Many others experienced hearing loss and severe injuries from flying shrapnel.


Some of the survivors have since found ways to heal themselves -- and others, in a club no one wants to belong to.

One World Strong Foundation

Last month, survivors Dave Fortier, Celeste Corcoran and Michelle L'Hereux launched the non-profit One World Strong, a global platform to connect survivors of terrorism, hate crimes and other traumatic events to people in similar predicaments. The idea is to mold therapeutic new relationships among survivors of different events who share the same experiences.


"It's really connecting survivors with various forms of trauma, and you're trying to match them up and give them somebody to talk to that might have a similar injury or a similar form of trauma," Fortier said of the foundation's work. "It gives that person somebody they can reach out to when they're having a bad day."

The foundation's CEO, Fortier said he was first inspired after U.S. Marines from the Semper Fi Fund paid him a visit, as he was being treated for severe wounds and hearing loss.

"It's one thing for a doctor or a nurse or a clinician, a therapist, family member to tell you you're going to be OK, it's quite another when somebody walks into your hospital room and says you're going to be OK -- and you realize that that person has also lost their legs in a very similar way," Fortier said. "All barriers are dropped and it's like you've known somebody for 20 years."

The seeds of One World Strong were planted when Fortier and other survivors traveled the United States to thank those who offered support. Its name was derived from a slogan that took hold in the days after the twin bombings -- Boston Strong.


One stop in Newtown, Conn., intended initially to be a brief visit with survivors of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary attack, turned into an all-day event.

"We saw those same bonds form in Newtown that we saw with the Marines, and then we continued to see those bonds at veterans hospitals and with people we would meet along the way that had experienced any form of trauma," Fortier said.

Fortier, Corcoran and L'Hereux joined other survivors on a subsequent trip to Orlando, Fla., to meet survivors of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting -- an attack that killed 50 people and injured many more.

"It was that trip where I witnessed the power of these connections," Fortier said.

One World Strong now works with municipal officials, police departments, the embassy community and the U.S. State Department to connect with survivors, families and first responders from other traumatic events throughout the world.

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Rescue & Jessica

Jessica Kensky and husband Patrick Downes, who both lost legs in the Boston bombing, found therapy by writing a children's book -- aimed at outlining Kensky's recovery and her new relationship with her service dog.


The book, Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship, follows a fictional teenage girl who, like Kensky, is an amputee with a strong bond with her dog, Rescue.

Kensky and Downes told The Washington Post they came up with the idea after being approached by several children who were curious about their prosthetic limbs.

"Kids come up to us all the time, especially in warmer weather when we're both wearing shorts," Kensky said. "Kids have genuine curiosity, they are trying to make sense of their world. They genuinely want to know if we hurt."

Downes, who lost his left leg in Boston as he studied for a doctorate in clinical psychology, said his prosthetic is a talking point that's also a constant reminder that he has a gift to share with children.

"It's a totally new experience for them," he said. "We would invite them to explore our prosthetics, and it demystifies it for them. The instant they'd touch it, they would smile because it isn't scary anymore because you've allowed them to understand it. While adults might discriminate based on disability, kids welcome it. They think it's cool."

While the book was created to help educate children, its writing also helped Kensky cope with the loss of both legs.


"Jess was in this incredibly dark place, and I didn't know anything I could say that would make her feel comforted or happy," Downes said. "But every time we started working with our [book] agent, she'd always be up for that. It reminded us we still had thoughtful, analytical brains. It felt good and right."

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Runners Therapy

Constant surgeries have become a regular part of life for survivors still recovering after five years. Some, though, have found therapy by becoming more engaged in physical activity.

Fortier said while many survivors weren't avid runners before the bombing, they took it up a year later after participating in the 2014 Boston Marathon.

"What happened was people started to say, 'Wow, what a great way to take back the finish line,' and running became a form of therapy," he said. "It's moving and working toward a common goal."

Withstanding the physical demands of just running the marathon, though, was first a challenge some of the amputees had to overcome.

Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics, based in Manchester N.H., has worked with six Boston Marathon bombing survivors to craft custom prosthetics, and return to them what they lost in 2013.


"For us to be able to see somebody that's benefited from our services, whether it's their running or playing golf or working in the garden, it really is the best kind of appreciation we can get," company President Matthew Albuquerque told WMUR.

A year after the bombings, Hugh Herr, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab Biomechatronics group, described how he worked with other MIT scientists to craft a bionic limb for Adrianne Haslet, a professional ballroom dancer who lost her left leg in the attack.

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"We brought in dancers with biological limbs, and we studied how they move, what forces they apply on the dance floor, and we took those data -- and we put forth fundamental principles of dance, reflexive dance capability, and we embedded that intelligence into the bionic limb," Herr, himself a double amputee, said. "Bionics is not only about making people stronger and faster. Our expression, our humanity can be embedded into electromechanics."

Haslet completed the 2016 Boston Marathon and will run again in the 2018 edition on Monday -- while raising funds for the Limbs for Life Foundation.


Fortier said meeting each year at the Boston Marathon now helps survivors strengthen their bond.

"What could be just a tragic day for everybody remembering has become almost like a family reunion for some of us now," he said. "It's a way to get together and we all look forward to seeing each other.

"The memories are still there of what happened, but you've got this new family now of these folks that love, care and support you, and it's made a tragic event much more bearable."

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