Roseann Sdoia slowly climbs a small flight of stairs, using a pair of crutches to guide her as she approaches a group of new friends waiting to meet her outside a large hotel ballroom.
A few yards to Sdoia’s right, Celeste Corcoran inches up a carpeted Z-shaped ramp, using a walker for support. Corcoran can’t use the stairs, but as she reaches the ramp’s apex, she smiles, sighs and proudly utters to no one in particular, “That’s the first ramp I’ve done since I got these.”
“These” would be Corcoran’s new prosthetic legs, flesh-colored under her black shorts and sporting trendy Tory Burch flats. Sdoia has spent the last two weeks adjusting to one prosthetic leg, a high-tech gray and metal apparatus with a white “Boston Strong” sticker on the thigh covering and a Nike sneaker on her new right foot.
And though each certainly wishes they could have been somewhere else that fateful Patriots Day, the life-changing experience of the last 11 weeks has sent both women on a journey of learning and self-discovery that brought them here, to the Amputee Coalition’s 2013 National Conference.
Roseann Sdoia remembers April 15. Vividly.
She started it off in the morning, at the Red Sox game, just as she has for several years, and at about 1:20 p.m., the 45-year-old development company vice president left Fenway Park to meet up with some friends near the finish line of the marathon.
Sdoia and her friends were standing along a barricade outside of Forum restaurant on Boylston Street, and were using their phones to check on the status of a couple other friends who were running. Their friends were supposed be making their final strides down Boylston soon, but unfortunately, they would never cross the finish line.
“When the first bomb went off, we saw the plume of smoke down the street, and in my head, I processed kind of quickly that it was unusual that there would be any sort of celebratory noises, gunshots, or cannons for the runners who were going by now,” Sdoia recalled. “The elite runners had crossed hours ago, so it wasn’t normal.
“There was a guy to the right of me who started yelling, ‘Everybody, get in the streets, get in the streets.’ But the barricade they had between the street and the runners was too high, and I was not going to be able to get over it. So I turned to my right to run away, and I basically ran into the bag that had the second bomb in it. And I just recall the pop-pop at my feet and then it going black and thinking to myself, ‘This is not a good situation. This is bad.’”
When Sdoia came to, she couldn’t see her leg and assumed she had lost it in the blast. A Northeastern University student named Shores Salter then rushed over and picked Sdoia up off the ground — it was at this point, Sdoia said, that she could feel her foot dangling from her leg, so she knew it was still there — and carried her into the street. Salter began to prepare a tourniquet, and soon after, Sdoia was treated by first responders, including police officer Shana Cottone and firefighter Mike Materia.
“I knew that if I lost consciousness, I would die,” Sdoia said. “I knew I had lost a lot of blood, so I just chose to really keep myself awake. But I kept my eyes closed, and I kept taking deep breaths. They’d ask me, ‘Are you still here?’ and to open my eyes, and so I’d open my eyes and say, ‘I’m here,’ and then close my eyes. I could hear the ambulances coming and going, thinking that the next one that pulled up would be for me, and they just came and went again.”
Eventually, Sdoia was loaded with another victim into the back of a police prisoner transport van, along with Materia. The van then took them to Massachusetts General Hospital, where Sdoia’s right leg was eventually amputated above the knee, and her long road to recovery began.
Sdoia hasn’t been fighting her battle alone, and in the months since the marathon bombing changed her life forever, Sdoia has grown close with many of the people who helped save her, including Salter, Cottone and Materia.
Sdoia says the group communicates often with each other — she joked that the 20-year-old Salter even texted her to ask what her Memorial Day plans were — and has attended Red Sox games, Bruins games and other events together. (Sdoia even rode the Zamboni between periods at one Bruins game, during the first round against Toronto.)
Among her new lifelong friends, Sdoia has grown especially close with Materia, whom she calls “her firefighter.” Materia was there when Sdoia left Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital for the first time, giving her a big bear hug as she came through the front door, as well as a fire truck escort home. He also accompanied Sdoia to the Amputee Coalition conference.
“Mike is a little bit different,” Sdoia said of their bond. “We’ve really spent more time with each other. As a group, we’re together, but with him, it’s a little bit more of a support system. He’s a really great person in my life, and I’ll always have him there.”
Sdoia would certainly not want to have to endure the pain the last two months of her life have brought, but her experience and the friendships she has gained through it have taught her something about the kindness of strangers.
“People are willing to go the extra mile for the human kind,” Sdoia said, “and I think there’s much more niceness out there than we realize.”
Celeste Corcoran thought her family had already endured the most horrific situation it would face on June 23, 2010, when her daughter Sydney was struck by a car crossing the street during a family reunion in Salisbury Beach, Mass.
Sydney, then 15, suffered several injuries, including brain trauma stemming from a fractured skull, in the accident, which left her face-down and motionless in the road, to the point where her older brother, Tyler, thought she was dead. Sydney would be airlifted to Boston Children’s Hospital, where she spent five days in ICU, and the recovery lasted much longer, with pain and headaches enduring for more than 18 months after she was released.
Then again, Corcoran, a 47-year-old hairdresser from nearby Lowell, Mass., could have never expected that she would end up a few feet from the first of two bombs that detonated near the finish line at the Boston Marathon in April. And she would have never guessed that she would lose both of her legs in the blast, and that Sydney would have her femoral artery torn by shrapnel from the explosion.
Corcoran had never attended the race before, but went for the first time to root on her sister, Carmen Acabbo, who was running. The explosion came “in the blink of an eye,” Corcoran said, and immediately took out her legs.
“I don’t think I felt the initial pain, but I went down, obviously, and I just remember trying to breathe and everything blowing in my face,” Corcoran said. “My eardrums also got blown out, so I couldn’t hear right, but I can remember all the chaos and screaming.”
Celeste’s husband, Kevin, had been standing nearby, and quickly came over and removed his belt to apply a tourniquet to one of Corcoran’s legs. Kevin then got a second belt from another man and wrapped that around Celeste’s other leg, while another stranger, Matt Smith, applied what would later be described as a life-saving tourniquet to Sydney’s right leg a few feet away.
Celeste would end up being one of the first victims removed from the scene, with Sydney to follow later in a different ambulance. And by a stroke of luck — if you can call it such a thing — the mother and daughter ended up being intubated and prepared for surgery in the same room at Boston Medical Center, though the hospital staff, amid the chaos, did not realize it at the time.
“We found out days later when (the doctor) came to see us in the room,” Celeste said. “He was in tears because he has kids too, and he said he needed to let us know the story of what had happened.”
Doctors were unable to save Celeste’s legs and Sydney had to undergo surgery to repair a hole in her foot and rebuild her femoral artery. Both were assigned to the same recovery room at Boston Medical, and they also had adjoining rooms during their rehab stay at Spaulding. And though Celeste wishes she could rid her daughter of the pain she’s had to endure, she’s also appreciative of how meaningful it has been to have her best friend by her side as she adjusts to what she calls her “new normal.”
“If it could just be me, that would have been the best case scenario, but I am so, so, so grateful that my daughter was not standing to the right of me,” Celeste said. “She is 18 years old, and she has her legs, so that, to me, is a blessing. Even though she got hurt, and even though she quite possibly could be facing surgery again (to repair scar tissue around her new femoral artery), it’s doable.
“We’re all alive, and we do offer each other support, and this has certainly strengthened our family. Would I want to do it again? Hell no. But do I think that we’re going to get through it and come out stronger people? Absolutely."
Though she didn’t return to the classroom at Lowell High, Sydney was able to attend her prom in May — where she was named prom queen — and in June, she walked across the stage at her high school graduation. This fall, she’ll be starting classes at Merrimack College, where she plans to major in psychology.
As for Celeste, she’s still adjusting to life with her new legs — a challenge that should be made somewhat easier when her new house is built based on the designs of an architect who offered the family his services as a gift. But for a family banded closer by tragedy, the true milestone will come in April, at the 2014 Boston Marathon.
Celeste’s sister, Carmen, was on Commonwealth Avenue, about to turn onto Gloucester Street, about a half-mile from the finish line, at the time of the attacks. She’s undecided as to whether she wants to try to finish the race next year, but if she does, she wants Celeste and Sydney by her side as she makes her final strides.
“I kind of don’t want to be anywhere near that spot during the marathon,” Corcoran said. “But if she chooses to run again — I might have to be heavily medicated, but I need to be there for her to support her. My sister said, ‘I’m not crossing the finish line without you guys,’ so she said where she stopped, which is a relatively short distance, she wants her, myself and my daughter to hold hands and cross that finish line.”
And if that happens?
“I’ll be bawling my eyes out,” Corcoran said. “There’s evil and there are hateful people and sick, twisted people, and those people are never going to go away. But to do something like that, or even just to continue to live my life — it’s hard to not be afraid to go places because you have that fear that the other shoe’s going to drop or something — to overcome that fear is such a huge feeling of accomplishment. Yeah, if we do that, they won’t have won.”
Back at the hotel, in the shadow of Sea World, Roseann and Celeste are here, in part, to meet and learn from others who have adjusted to life as an amputee. The trip was arranged through the Scott Rigsby Foundation and Dr. David Crandell, who treated 33 marathon victims at Spaulding.
One of them is Mikey Stolzenberg, the 13-year-old quadruple amputee whose “Mikey’s Run” charity for Boston Marathon victims received a $100,000 donation from Oprah Winfrey last month and has raised more than $200,000 to date. Another is Rigsby, who has been an amputee for 27 years and, in 2007, became the first double-amputee to finish the 140-mile Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
The women also spoke with Col. Gregory D. Gadson, a former director of the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program who lost both legs in an IED explosion in Iraq. And there were countless others they met over the three-day event, each of whom left a mark on Corcoran and Sdoia — like the rest of the friends they’ve made along their journey.
“This is a horrific situation that we’ve been in, but out of that horrific situation, I think there’s been so many positive things that have come out of it,” Sdoia said.
“We’re not going through it alone. There’s a group of us that is going through it together, and have made bonds and friendships, and I don’t have a problem reaching out to anybody and asking, ‘Are you doing this? Are you doing that? How do you like this? How do you like that?’ And that bond is the ultimate.
“We’re all dealing with the prosthetics, and it’s tough, and we’re going to have our ups and our downs. But I look down and I have two feet again, and the day that I did that, I know for me, was just a breath of fresh air to know that I’m going to walk again.”
They’ve also been touched by the outpouring of support, both to their online fundraising efforts and in the form of kind words that flood their mailboxes every day.
The celebrity visits don’t hurt either, and Corcoran and Sdoia’s stories have reached some of the area’s — and, frankly, the world’s — biggest stars. The women were paid visits over the course of their rehab from several big names, including Robert Kraft, Rob Gronkowski and Leon Washington from the New England Patriots; Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Daniel Nava of the Boston Red Sox; actors Kevin Spacey and Bradley Cooper; and even President Barack Obama, who met with Roseann after he spoke at Cathedral of the Holy Cross’ interfaith service three days after the attacks.
“Not everybody was there, and not everybody could help, but it touched so many people and so many people reached out,” Corcoran said. “I have a stack of mail that I still haven’t been able to go through because I’ve been so busy with physical therapy and just so tired. But I will go through every single one.”
It’s not your typical place to find a new family and a new outlook on life, but for Corcoran and Sdoia, it works.
“It was like a bad movie, we were all starring in it, and we just didn’t know each other at the time,” Sdoia said. “And here we are, the survivors of the Boston Marathon, trying to fight through to survive.”