How One Bombing Survivor Overcame Injuries and Fear

In Guideposts' April 2017 cover story, this young mother shares how she survived the Boston Marathon bombing. Could she survive the aftermath?

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- Posted on Mar 24, 2017

Boston Marathon bombing survivor Rebekah Gregory and her son, Noah

The van was waiting right outside the hospital doors. Mom and Dad lifted me from the wheelchair, careful not to jostle my left leg, and hoisted me into the backseat. I’d been hospitalized for 56 days, first in Boston, then here in Houston. Finally, I was ready to go home.

Rebekah Gregory on the cover of the April 2017 edition of GuidepostsBut the moment we pulled into traffic, cars all around us, I started to panic. My heart pounded. My mind raced. I was leaving the hospital, the teams of doctors and nurses and physical therapists...for what? I’d be confined to my bed, still unable to walk on my shattered legs, the left one needing to be kept elevated 24/7. Mom and Dad would hover, doing their best to care for me.

I didn’t want to be an invalid. I was only 26!

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And my little man, Noah, my five-year-old son, needed a mom. A strong, active, fully functioning mom. I’d missed him so much. He too had been injured by the bombs that tore through the crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon that April.

We’d gone there to cheer on a friend running in the race. I’d been standing, with Noah sitting on the curb, leaning against me. My legs had shielded him from the worst of the blast. It was a miracle that his only physical injuries were a deep gash and some gastrointestinal bleeding. I worried about the emotional scars, though.

By the time we pulled into my parents’ driveway, I was a wreck. I looked to the house. Noah came bounding out, beaming with joy.

The van door opened. Mom and Dad prepared to lift me out. Noah wedged between them and wrapped his arms around me. “Don’t worry, Mom,” he whispered in my ear. “We’re never leaving this house again.”

I knew he meant to comfort me. But what I heard was his fear, an echo of my own. The fear that woke me at night in the hospital. The fear that life would never be normal again. The fear that it would have been better if I’d died. For me, so I wouldn’t have to endure this suffering any longer. And for Noah, who deserved a mom who could give him a full life.

Just two months earlier, I’d had a good job and my own place. I was a single mom proud to provide for my son. Now I was helpless, dependent on my parents for everything.

Mom and Dad carried me into the house, to the bedroom they’d set up for me. I got settled, elevating my left leg—still skeletal and visibly weakened—and pulled a blanket over it. I didn’t want Noah to be reminded that I was less than whole.

He came in and snuggled next to me. “I’m glad you’re home,” he said.

“Me too,” I said. He rested his head against my arm.

I remembered feeling that same warmth at the marathon, Noah sitting on the curb, his back pressed against my shins.

BOOM!

I was thrown forward like a rag doll. How did I end up sprawled on my back, unable to move?

“Noah!” I screamed. Where was he?

BOOM! A second blast, as close as the first.

All I could see was sky. God, if this is it for me, take me, but let me know my son is okay. Please.

I managed to lift my head, turn it slightly. There was Noah, a few yards behind me. I reached for him. That’s when I saw my left hand, skin shredded, bones sticking out.

A first responder picked Noah up. His leg was bleeding, but otherwise he seemed okay. Moments later I was loaded into an ambulance. “We’ve got an amputee,” I heard someone yell to the driver. Amputee? No! They couldn’t be talking about me!

At the hospital, I was rushed into surgery. When I woke, Mom was there. She’d come right away from Houston. My legs were a mess of torn and stapled flesh, but they were still there. Doctors said it would be months before they would know if my left leg could be saved.

Noah was at a different hospital. Dad brought him to see me after he was released, six days after the bombing. I hid my legs under a blanket. Noah fed me Jell-O from my tray. He signed his name, slowly tracing each letter, on the splint covering my hand. Too soon it was time for him to go home with my dad.

Mom stayed with me, through the surgeries and debriding, the slow painful removal of hundreds of shrapnel. My right leg grew stronger, my hand healed. But the bones in my left leg refused to knit.

Please fix my leg, I begged God over and over. Let me walk again. Let me be the mom Noah needs. There were times I wished they’d just cut it off. But my doctors urged me not to give up. Now, in my bed at my parents’ house, I held Noah tight. I wanted to reassure him that everything would be okay. That I’d always be there for him. But how could I say that when I couldn’t even take care of myself?

Every day after he got home from kindergarten, Noah would sit with me. We’d color, do puzzles, watch cartoons, play Go Fish. I savored every minute he and I were together. I could almost pretend that things were back to the way they were before the bombing.

Dad would have him help in the garage. Mom or my younger sister would bring him to the park. I was glad Noah had people to take him places. I didn’t want his life to be confined to one room like mine was.

After several months, I no longer had to keep my leg elevated. Instead it was fitted with a fixator, a steel frame with long screws that penetrated the flesh and continued into the bone. It looked like some kind of medieval torture device, but I had to wear it if there was going to be any chance of my leg healing.

Every month I went in for another surgery to try to help the bones and muscles in my leg reconnect and heal. I’d come home in agonizing pain. “Why do you have to go back to the hospital?” Noah would ask each time. “When are you going to be able to walk?”

Those questions cut me to my core. “The doctors are working on it” was all I was able to tell him.

That wasn’t the answer Noah was looking for. I’d show him pictures of amputees on my laptop, dancing, skateboarding, riding bicycles. I knew this might end up being my path too, if my leg didn’t heal. But Noah would look at the photos for no more than a few seconds before turning away.

Did he think that I would be less of a person, less of a mom if I lost my leg? I couldn’t bear that. So I held on to the hope my doctor had given me, the chance for a full recovery.

I wanted to be the one to take Noah to the park. To play catch with him. He was hurting too. He’d started asking more questions about the bombing. Whether I remembered the people standing next to us. The clothes they were wearing. What they were doing. It was his way of processing the event that had shattered our lives. What if my lack of progress was holding him back, keeping him from healing?

One day I got so frustrated at being stuck in bed that I couldn’t take it anymore. I was alone in the house. I was going to take a bath, I decided. I managed to get out of bed and slipped to the floor, scooting along on my posterior to the bathroom.

That’s when I realized there was no way for me to remove my pants over the fixator on my own. I sat there in the tub fully clothed for more than an hour waiting for my parents to come home. Sobbing. I’d never felt so humiliated. My only comfort was that Noah hadn’t been there to see me.

Finally, after more than a year, I was able to get around some on crutches. The fixator was removed. I rotated between crutches and a wheelchair to maneuver around the house. But basically I’d just traded my bed for the couch. I didn’t feel any more a part of Noah’s life.

Seventeen surgeries and my left leg barely had any function. No strength. Why did God let me try so hard to persevere, to push through the pain and frustration, for nothing? Why?

Noah was in first grade now. Afternoons I would help him with his homework. We’d read together, play cards. I’d watch him play cars on the floor. Occasionally I’d try to make him a snack. But just peeling and cutting up an apple was exhausting. I couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes.

There was one thing I looked forward to every day: driving Noah to school. It took everything I had to get into the car, but then I could drive with my right leg. Noah was usually in his own world, not saying much. But for those 20 minutes every day, I felt alive again. I felt like a functioning mom.

One morning we were in our car in the school’s drop-off line. I was thinking of the day awaiting me, hours of doing nothing, when Noah said, “Are you ever going to cut off your leg?”

I turned to look at him, not sure where he was going with this. Or even quite how to answer.

“I guess so,” I offered, then paused, wondering what his reaction would be.

He broke into a grin. “Cool,” he said. “I get to have a robot mom.”

I stared at him in disbelief. But all I saw in his eyes was acceptance. And love. He wouldn’t think any less of me without my leg. Would I?

I called my doctor when I got back to the house. “I want to take the leg off,” I said. I was ready to live life again, to be the mom Noah needed and the person God made me to be.

Things changed completely after that. Not that it was easy. It took months of physical therapy to recondition my muscles and learn how to balance and walk with a prosthesis. Running was even more challenging. But I did it and I keep moving forward. Nothing motivates me like hearing Noah say, “I’m proud of you, Mom.” With the love of my son and of God, I am whole again.

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