BOSTON — If you caught Tuesday’s Boston Marathon bombing tribute at the Hynes Convention Center, you may have heard Patrick Downes speaking eloquently on stage. He and his wife, Jessica Kensky, each lost their left leg at the finish line.
They were newlyweds, married just seven months when their legs were destroyed. Their injuries were so severe — they also had shrapnel wounds and perforated eardrums — that they were among the last victims to leave the hospital. But we want to tell you an encouraging part of their story.
It involves an 80-pound black labrador retriever named Rescue who’s specially trained as an assistance dog.
To understand why Rescue came into their lives, you have to know how badly Kensky in particular was hurt.
“My whole Achilles tendon was blown off, a good part of my heel pad was blown off,” Kensky recalled, referring to her remaining leg, the one that wasn’t amputated in the hospital. That leg was also so mutilated in the bombing that one doctor thought it, too, should have been surgically removed.
“But when I woke up my left leg was already gone and I couldn’t imagine losing my right,” Kensky explained. “And it’s such a permanent decision. So I thought: you can always amputate it down the road, but once it’s gone it’s gone.”
So surgeons reconstructed Kensky’s right leg as well as they could. But so far, her “good” leg really isn’t so good.
When we visited Kensky and Downes at the new handicap-accessible apartment they’ve had to move into, she took off her leg brace to show us her rebuilt right leg. Her foot and ankle are now misshapen. A chunk of her thigh was grafted onto the back of her lower leg, and her heel is no longer as round and padded. That means Kensky still relies sometimes on a wheelchair, because putting weight on her remaining leg is difficult.
“I don’t think I really appreciated what chronic pain means and how it just rules everything,” she said. “When you have that level of pain with every single step — every single step — you don’t want to take it.”
Each day, that has her asking herself an excruciating question: “I didn’t know what it was going to be like to try to walk on something and live with a leg like that,” Kensky said. “Now that I know, I’m always in the back of my mind wondering if I would be better off with an amputation.”
That gets us back to Rescue.
Kensky got him from a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts called NEADS that trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities. It’s offering a free service dog to any marathon bombing victim with a permanent physical disability, and Kensky — because of her continuing mobility problems a year after the bombing — was the first to accept that offer.
Rescue helps steady her when she walks on crutches or with her prosthetic, providing the balance she no longer has. But that’s not all he does. He can also use his paws, nose, mouth and teeth to open doors, retrieve phones, press elevator call buttons, pick up dropped items, and help with many other tasks Kensky and Downes now have a harder time doing.
Having a dog also keeps them physically active — not easy when you’re an amputee.
“Here’s this big animal who needs to be taken out, he needs exercise, he needs to go to the bathroom, he needs to be fed,” Kensky said. “And on the day you just don’t want to get off the couch, you don’t want to get in your wheelchair, you don’t want to put your prosthetic on, he looks at you with those eyes and you’ve got to take him out. So that was another unplanned benefit: when he’s getting his exercise, we are also.”
Like many of the other marathon amputees, Kensky and Downes have had a pretty dark year. She’s 33 and hasn’t been able to return to her job as an oncology nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital. He’s 30 and had to abandon his plan to do a pre-doctoral program in clinical psychology in San Francisco, where they had been planning to relocate. Since the bombing, they’ve had nearly 30 surgeries between them, and there are still more ahead, including one to try to improve Kensky’s damaged hearing.
“That week he came, for the first time I started sleeping through the night,” Kensky recalled. “We would be up at 3, 4 in the morning, sad, depressed, anxious. Not that I don’t experience those feelings any more, but it was incredible to sleep through the night. And, I mean, I have to attribute it to him. He was the change.”
“To have a dog like him around, you laugh 10, 20, 50 times more a day, and you can’t help but have that lift the mood,” Downes added. “And he’s a huge cuddler, so he jumps right up on the couch with us — when he’s invited — and plops himself down right on top of us. And he’s just constantly giving us hugs and kisses and entertaining us. He’s a wonderful gift in that way.”
Kensky showed us another command Rescue knows, one she admits she uses mostly for what she calls “cuteness.” It comes in handy when she’s relaxing around the house. When she says “Brrr! I’m cold,” Rescue heads for a blanket across the room. And as he drags it back to her, getting it comically tangled in his paws, you realize how a very smart, very lovable dog that brings laughter to a house that hasn’t heard much of it in the past year can be a transforming presence.
The Massachusetts nonprofit that gave Rescue to Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, NEADS, which stands for National Education for Assistance Dog Services, has made an open-ended offer to supply service dogs to Boston Marathon bombing victims, and it’s created a special fund called “Pawsitively Strong” to cover the costs of that program. Click here for more information and to make a donation. NEADS is on Twitter at @NEADSdogs.
And you can follow Rescue on Instagram at @RescueBoston.