On Monday, one week after the Boston Marathon bombing, surgeons removed Heather Abbott’s left leg below the knee.
The 38-year-old from Newport, R.I., became the 15th explosion victim to lose a limb. Unlike many patients, Abbott made the decision herself after hearing the pros and cons from doctors and other patients who faced a similar decision in the past.
Heather Abbott was in Boston for her annual Patriot’s Day pilgrimage. She and a group of friends took in the Red Sox game and then went to watch the Boston Marathon. They were waiting to get into Forum, a bar near the finish line, when the first blast hit.
“I was the last of the three of us in line,” Abbott said. “A loud noise went off. I remember turning around and seeing smoke and people screaming.”
Then, before Abbott could turn around again, a second explosion blew her into the bar.
“I felt like my foot was on fire,” Abbott recalled in a calm, measured voice that belies her experience. “I was just screaming, ‘Somebody please help me.’ And I was thinking, ‘Who’s going to help me?’ I mean everyone’s just running for their lives. To my surprise there were two women and two men who helped me get out of the bar and into an ambulance.”
One of the men, Abbott learned, was former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham. Abbott had surgery immediately at Brigham and Women’s Hospital to restore shattered veins and get blood flowing to her left foot. After follow-up operations, doctors told Abbott they could “salvage” her foot, but amputating her leg below the knee and fitting her with a prosthetic limb might be a better option.
Abbott said that her doctors told her “if I kept my foot, it was very badly mangled and it would most likely never fully heal.” In addition, “one of my legs would be shorter than the other and I wouldn’t be able to live the lifestyle that I did before the injury.”
Still, she wavered. To help Abbott make a decision her doctors arranged for her to speak to some amputees. And her orthopedic surgeon, Eric Bluman, an Iraq war veteran, described some amazing options.
“They range from prostheses you can put on for scuba, prostheses that have special clips that fit onto bike pedals, there are specific running prostheses.” Abbott doesn’t run marathons but exercise is important to her. Someone even joked about the model that will fit the high heels Abbott longs to wear again.
Some surgeons say it makes sense to remove a limb immediately after trauma and not make the patient decide. But Bluman disagrees. He says patients have different values that affect their decision.
“One patient might focus on ‘being a whole person,’ not losing any limbs may be of the utmost importance,” Bluman said. “While for someone else, like Heather, function may be paramount. And so you have to balance those things.”
Abbott decided to amputate. Bluman says she’ll be fitted with her first artificial leg in about six weeks. She will learn to balance, walk and get back to other daily activities on this temporary model and will then move to a more permanent prosthesis in four to six months. Amid these life altering decisions, Abbott says she hasn’t had time to think about the suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
“I don’t even know how to pronounce their names,” Abbott said when asked about the status of the investigation. “I haven’t watched TV since the incident and I think that’s one of the things that’s helped me get though this, is to just focus on my recovery and how to proceed with my life.”
Abbott says she’s overwhelmed by the broad support for victims of the explosions. Her friends started an online fundraising campaign to help Abbott with medical expenses. She plans to focus on friends and family even more as she gets back to work, Zumba, and eventually paddle-boarding.
“If I didn’t have the support system in my family and friends that I do, I think I would be devastated. I don’t think I would have a positive outlook,” Abbott said. “But it’s so hard for me to focus on anything negative because they’re always around.”
Abbott isn’t sure that she or her friends will resume the annual pilgrimage to Boston for next year’s marathon. She says right now she can’t imagine returning to that scene or being in any large crowds.