Bittersweet Marathon Anniversary: Lost A Leg, Gained Cherished Friends

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Heather Abbott (left) and Roseann Sdoia (right) developed a friendship after the bombing. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Heather Abbott (left) and Roseann Sdoia (right) knew each other before the marathon and later found out that they'd each lost a limb in the bombings. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

On the evening before the one-year anniversary of the day that changed their lives, Roseann Sdoia and Heather Abbott met up for dinner. The two women had been acquainted before shrapnel shredded the lower part of Abbott's left leg and most of Sdoia's right leg.

Now they're fast friends who push and inspire each other and offer support and counseling. The close bonds among many of the bombing survivors, first responders and their families are a reminder that Tuesday's anniversary is mixed.

'It's Still Kind Of Surreal'

Abbott was waiting to get into the Forum on Boylston Street last April when the second bomb went off. Sdoia had just stepped out of the restaurant to look for a friend nearing the finish line.

Abbott and Sdoia had come to the Forum with separate groups of mutual friends. The two women didn’t realize they were both amputees until they saw each other at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. They still have a hard time accepting what happened.

"I’m getting a little bit closer, but it’s still kind of surreal to me," Sdoia said Monday evening.

"Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning, to get out of bed, and I’ll look down and realize I have to put my leg on," Abbott said. "And I think, this is never going away."

Abbott looked down at her left calf and foot. She was wearing a wedge sandal on her dress-up leg. Dress legs come in different heel sizes. There is an adjustable heel, but Abbott said it is not very stable.

"When I inventoried my closet," Abbott recalled, "four inches was the most popular one, so that’s what I went with."

Sdoia wore black sandals. The toenails on both feet were a deep purple. Sdoia’s testing a new way to keep the sandal on her carbon fiber foot.

Walking is "not very smooth," Sdoia said with a laugh. "At any moment, that sandal could come off. I mean it’s velcroed on right now, to the bottom of my foot."

Sdoia joked about being jealous that Abbott was back into her tight jeans first, wearing heels first and running, again, first. Sdoia, whose amputation is above the knee, has had a more difficult recovery. But each women feels like she's constantly being fitted for a new socket as her limb shrinks. Abbott has gone through five different-sized sockets and is due for another.

"I have four different legs and every time [my limb] shrinks I have to get four different sockets made," Abbott explained.

'We Have This Crazy Bond'

Abbott, Sdoia and many of the other amputees and survivors see each other and are on the phone with each other, a lot. Abbott coached Sdoia through a week of recovery from golf-ball-size socket blisters. They called around this winter, sharing tips about how to pull heavy boots onto mechanical feet and ankles. And, Sdoia says, the emotional connection is deep.

"I have this whole group of people that I’m with on a regular basis who lost something that day," Sdoia explained. "Whether it was a body part or a leg, we have this crazy bond with each other."

Which makes the anniversary bittersweet.

"It would be nice to have my leg back but I actually cherish the friendships that I have with these people at this point," Sdoia continued.

Both women have thought over the past few days about the last things they did with two legs. Abbott is more upset, though, about the three people who died at the scene of the bombings.

"Thinking about them," Abbott said, "especially the Richard family and the Campbell family who I’ve met, makes it more emotional than I would have expected. Maybe subconsciously I am not looking [inside] because maybe that would send me over the edge. I don’t know."

Abbott will be at the city's marathon tribute Tuesday with 22 of the close friends and family members who pushed her around in a wheelchair, ran errands for her and hosted fundraisers during the last 12 months. Sdoia will be there too with family members and the three first responders who may have saved her life.

Both women will be remembering the kindness of countless strangers. For Sdoia, a fundraiser at her former elementary school in Dracut stands out.

"The teacher asked [students] to do odd jobs at home," Sdoia said. "And so this one little girl, her parents paid her to pick weeds in the yard."

A penny a weed. The little girl tugged hard for some time and brought in 25 weeds.

"She just couldn’t pick any more and she was devastated," Sdoia said, that "all she could do was donate a quarter. To me, that was amazing."

Sdoia went to the elementary school to thank all the children who did odd jobs to help a stranger. It’s one of many reasons Sdoia has taken a leave of absence from her job as vice president of a residential property development firm. She's now looking for more formal ways to help others, likely amputees.

Abbott is back at her job in human resources at Raytheon, near her home in Newport, R.I. She counsels people who are trying to decide between living with a mangled limb or opting, as Abbott did, for amputation. On Marathon Monday, Abbott will be wearing her running leg.

"I am going to finish the marathon with the woman who found me on the ground last year at Forum," Abbott said. "She’s running it for the first time. The BAA’s going to let me jump in in the last half mile and finish it with her."

Sdoia plans to be in a special area reserved for survivors. She’ll be watching for her surgeon from Mass General, David King, and a group that is running on her behalf.

"I should be running with them," Sdoia said, her voice choking.

And maybe, one day, both she and Abbott will.

Earlier Coverage:

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Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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