"Losing Part of My Leg Doesn't Change Who I Am"
Roseann Sdoia, 45, lost her leg in last year's Boston Marathon bombing. On March 13, 2014, she told her inspiring story to Cristina Goyanes for Shape.com. Here is her moving account of survival, recovery, and unrelenting strength.
"Next year, I'm going to run the Boston Marathon" is something I always thought or said out loud whenever I watched runners coming down the final stretch on Boylston Street. I'm from Boston, so it had long been a tradition to head to the finish line area on Marathon Monday, hang out at a nearby restaurant, and then walk over to see friends accomplish their goals. It was so inspiring, and I could really see myself doing it one day too.
Last year on April 15, I set out as usual to cheer on two friends who were running. Right after the Red Sox game in Fenway Park earlier that day, a friend and I made our way over to a restaurant called Forum about a tenth of a mile from the finish, where we met with three other girlfriends. After ordering a round of drinks, we got the heads up that one runner friend was approaching, so we left our cups at the hostess's station momentarily to step outside. We were out there for maybe 10 to 15 minutes when we heard a loud boom-what we later learned was the first bomb.
Looking up the block toward a Marathon Sports store, all I could see was a cloud of thick white smoke. It was weird because I wasn't sure if it had been a celebratory-type cannon. They had never set one off during the race before. "Why would they do this now, especially when people first started crossing the finish line hours ago?" I thought. Then a guy next to me started yelling, "Get in the street, get in the street!!" Immediately I calculated that I was too short to haul myself over the metal barrier separating runners from spectators on the sidewalk, so I turned to my right to run...and ran right into the backpack carrying the second explosive. I saw it puff up and heard it pop-pop at my feet. And that was it.
When I came to, I was lying on the ground and could see my left leg extended out in front of me. My right leg was tucked underneath me, so thankfully I never saw the extent of my injuries. I could see that I was bleeding very, very badly. I knew what had happened had been pretty severe, but because I was in shock, I couldn't feel anything. The scene played out like a bad movie: People were running past me screaming, running for their lives. I couldn't move, and I didn't think anyone was going to stop to help me. I thought I was going to die there. I tried yelling, but both of my eardrums had been damaged, so I couldn't hear myself scream. It was a real nightmare.
Suddenly out of nowhere, a 20-year-old Northeastern college student (who much later introduced himself as Shores Salter) rushed over, used his belt as a makeshift tourniquet on my leg, picked me up off the sidewalk, and carried me a few hundred feet to the middle of Bolyston to some first emergency responders. Since all of ambulances were full, they put me in the back of a police van with another survivor and two Boston firefighters. One of them held my hand the entire 10-minute ride to Massachusetts General Hospital and assured me that "it was probably just a flesh wound." Last thing I remember was the back doors of the van opening up and getting rolled into the ER. Once I knew I was at the hospital, which, was also where I go for my primary care, I let myself lose consciousness. I thought if I had allowed myself to close my eyes a minute sooner, I might die.
The next evening, I woke up in the hospital and realized that I no longer had part of my right leg. The surgeon was there when I opened my eyes, ready to explain why he had amputated below the knee. After listening to him, there was no question that he had made the right call-and saved my life. When my mom arrived later that night, she asked to see photos of what my leg had looked like before the first surgery. I couldn't bring myself to look, so she had to confirm for me that there was no way I could have kept it. She said it looked like shredded beef.
Together we decided with the doctor that it was best to complete the amputation above the knee. The first surgery was very in the moment to keep me alive; now he had to go back in and clean everything up.
For the next 30 days, I stayed in Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in the Charlestown Navy Yard, starting the up and down road to recovery.
I first spent a lot of time and energy investigating which prosthetic company to work with. I educated myself from scratch on something I never imagined I would ever need to know. It was very emotional. When you walk into a prosthetist's office and you have no idea what you need or what you want, and you see all of this product-legs, feet, covers, no covers, mechanical looking-I cried the first time going in.
I looked into four different companies before deciding on one that featured a microprocessor and gyroscope in the knee, which would allow my right leg to register what my left leg is doing. When I finally got my new 10-pound limb in June, I had to learn how to use it. My left leg, other than the wounds that I had sustained from shrapnel, was fine, so from the time I left the hospital, I've either been on crutches or the prosthetic.
I had to go through months of physical therapy. Your core and glutes muscles have to really be strong to work with a prosthetic and move in a different way than they're used to. This is part of the reason why I decided to return to my personal trainer, Justin Medeiros, who I had been working with on and off for more than six years at the West Newton Boston Sports Club. Justin was one of the first people to email me within a week or two of the bombings, offering "whenever you want to come back, let me know. I'm here to help you." It still chokes me up to think about it-I was so touched.
In June, two months after the bombings, I started supplementing my physical therapy one or two weekly sessions with Justin. Though he has never worked with an amputee before, he did some research to figure out what I needed: To help carry this dead weight on my right side, he has me strengthening my core, upper body, and balance with moves like planks, bridges, and resistance band and Bosu ball work). He pushes me and that's been so helpful. Now when he tells me "four more," instead of just going through the motions, I become more determined to make each rep count.
I used to run three to five miles a few times a week, and Justin knows my goal is to get back to running. A fellow amputee, Jothy Rosenberg, who lost his right leg to cancer as a teen 40 years ago, is currently filming a documentary about my comeback called "Who Says Roseann Can't Run?" (check out the trailer here). I'm also considering doing a triathlon one day. A tri would never have been on my to-do list before (the longest race I've ever done is a nine-mile run), but now I feel like I have to challenge myself more than ever to stay motivated.
They say it takes about a year for your amputation wounds to heal, and I feel that's true. I'm not in pain so much, but every move I make is very calculated. I used to be able to walk to the local convenience store, the dry cleaners, the post office, and other errands. That has all changed. Today I can walk okay, but I still trip and stumble every so often. And of course everyone looks up then when I catch myself against a wall, and then I have to reassure them, "I'm good!" The hardest part is walking long distances-going just a block wipes me out, so I'm working to build up my stamina. I'm trying my best to get back to where I was physically prior to April 15, 2013.
Going to the gym is about getting back to normal-back to who I was before. I love to eat food and have a cocktail without worrying that I'll gain weight, so for me, it's important to be active again. Losing part of my leg doesn't change who I am. I still have that drive and determination to enjoy life as much as I can. I'm hoping to participate in a commemorative one-mile walk this April 19. I'm not sure I could stomach going to the Boston Marathon on April 21, though.
In good news, remember the firefighter who held my hand on the way to the hospital? His name is Mike, and he ended up visiting me the next day in the hospital to see how I was recovering. My family and friends instantly took him in, and he kept visiting. A month later, when I was finally back home, a friend insisted that I practice getting up and down my fire escape. I agreed, so I called Mike to see if he could help me. When he came over, I was sitting on the couch in pain because I had fallen the night before on my left leg. I asked if we could just hang out instead, and we did. To date, we haven't practiced going down the fire escape, but we've been together ever since.