Boston Marathon bombing survivor shares most meaningful part of recovery

Heather Abbott had left leg amputated after bombing

Friday is the third anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three spectators and injured more than 260 people.

Among the injured on April 15, 2013, was Heather Abbott of Newport, Rhode Island.  She made the decision to have her left leg amputated below the knee because of her injuries.  

She now devotes her life to helping other amputees. She created the Heather Abbott Foundation to help provide custom prostheses to those who have lost limbs through trauma.

Abbott also travels the country as a motivational speaker, talking about what happened to her and the three strategies that she used to survive.  She recently shared her story in Windsor, Ontario, at the 11th annual Windsor Essex County Sports Persons of the Year  (WESPY) Awards.

Abbott tells her audiences that she and her friends had an annual tradition of watching runners cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon. They would make a day of it, catching a Red Sox game beforehand.  Three years ago,  Abbott and her friends were enjoying that tradition, waiting in line to get into a restaurant, when her life suddenly changed forever.

Abbott heard a loud explosion. The first bomb had gone off.

"Before I had a chance to even say something to the person next to me to ask what they thought it was, the second explosion occurred, and the next thing that I knew I was catapulted through the open front doors of the restaurant and onto the ground," Abbott said."I landed on the ground. I was in shock. I didn't know what happened.  There was blood everywhere, there was glass shattered around me and people were just running for the exits trying to get out. And I thought, 'I can't get up and run like everyone else is doing, I could die here.'"

Abbott called out for help, and a woman stopped to help her. She turned out to be Erin Chatham, the wife of former New England Patriots lineman Matt Chatham. The Chathams carried Abbott to safety.

Abbott said her heel was blown off in the explosion. After several surgeries, doctors recommended that she have her leg leg amputated below the knee. She said the doctors told her that she could keep her leg, but it would be painful: She would need assistance to walk, she would never run again, she would never wear high heels again.  Or, Abbott could adjust to a new normal living life as an amputee. 

It was a difficult decision for Abbott to make. 

"I was really feeling pretty sorry for myself and saying a lot of, 'What ifs' and 'Why mes?'"  Abbott told the audience at the WESPY awards.

When Abbott speaks to audiences, she tells people about the three strategies she used to survive and how people can apply them to their own lives.

The first: Recognize what she couldn't change moving forward. Abbott recalls that she had to accept that there were questions about what happened to her that she would never get answers.

Abbott's second strategy was relying on other people.  

"People go through difficult things, and it might happen to be becoming an amputee and not knowing anything about what it was like to be an amputee and having to rely on other people to show me and help me understand and provide hope for me," Abbott said.

Abbott credits visits from U.S. veterans who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan with helping her make the decision and helping her realize that she could live a full life as an amputee.

"I actually have six different prostheses, and they allow me to do everything that I did before I lost my leg.  It might be a little bit different but I still do it. and I can't tell you how important it was to me to have those and I wanted them right away," Abbott said.

With her different prostheses, Abbott can wear high heels, run and paddleboard.    Money from The One Fund, set up to help the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, helped pay for some of Abbott's prostheses.   However, Abbott said she discovered a huge problem during her recovery.

"Most insurance companies will cover the initial basic prothesis to walk with but anything else like running or wearing high heels or something that is water proof those are all specialized prothesis that are typically not covered by health insurance in the US," Abbott said.

Specialized prosthetics can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000.   That's where Abbott's third strategy for recovering comes in: seizing the opportunity to pay it forward.

"The part of my recovery that kind of lives on and has meant the most to me is the opportunity to pay it forward," Abbott said.

Abbott created The Heather Abbott Foundation to help cover the cost of custom prostheses for amputees who lost limbs through traumatic circumstances. 

Donations made to her foundation help amputees get custom prostheses to help them resume activities that they loved before losing a limb. Her foundation already has delivered two prostheses to amputees, and is working to help five other people.

"The first prosthesis we gave out was a young woman who is 26.  She had never been able to wear high heels in her life and that's all she wanted," Abbott said. "To be able to give her a realistic-looking high heel leg was incredible and she was so happy."

Abbott is also a certified peer counselor for the American Amputee Coalition.

This year's Boston Marathon is on Monday. Abbott has a team of10 people running the race with the goal of raising $100,000 for The Heather Abbott Foundation.

To learn more about the foundation or to donate, click here.