Marathon Bombing Victim Makes The Decision To Amputate

Heather Abbott, of Newport, R.I., underwent a below the knee amputation on her left leg following injuries she sustained at the Boston Marathon bombings. (Steven Senne/AP)

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.

Abbott’s Story

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.

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  • clif

    “Some surgeons say it makes sense to remove a limb immediately after trauma and not make the patient decide”. Those surgeons are insane.

  • Kenneth Ray Rinderhagen Jr

    Condolences what a so very tuff situation her strength and courage
    s tremendous I prayer for better options each night Best Wishes

  • Mjkropf

    Generally, its the arteries that need to be corrected to get blood flow to a foot, not veins. Veins can be connected, but mostly to prevent excessive blood loss.
    It’s a tiny notation, but important.
    I wish the unfortunate victim a good recovery and hope that the cost of the appliance replacement(s) will not be a financial burden on her. I suspect that he has the emotional fortitude and tissue vitality to deal with the other non-Psychological aspects and wish her an uncomplicated rehabilitation.

    • wzrd1

      Both need to be reconnected, otherwise, there is no blood flow.
      Arteries supply the oxygenated blood to tissues, but lacking veins to return that blood, there is no circulation and at a minimum, massive edema would be present, at the worst case, tissue death and gangrene.

    • novas

      pretty sure veins don’t “shatter” either. they are definitely the flimsier half of the artery/vein combo.

  • Julian Penrod

    P { margin-bottom: 0.08in; }

    To whatever extent this story is
    true, it brings up an unpleasant point.

    That Americans seem to be losing
    the grit to persevere and make a less than ideal sitauton at least

    Instead, they opt for a draconian
    alternative, simply because they can.

    And, consider, to the extent that
    foreign populations do hold antipathy against the U.S. for constantly
    placing corrupt dictators and staging phony “uprisings”,
    “violence and “wars” to steal other nations’ resources, that
    can be said to mirror the type of mentality Ms. Abbott displayed.

    The relatively astronomically high
    life style so many Americans enjoy can be said to rest on the backs
    of innumerably many foreign populations, toiling under horrendous
    conditions imposed by their U.S. installed corporate friendly
    dictators, like the Bangladesh factory that collapsed recently.

    Americans can make the best of a
    situation in which other nations weren’t bullied in this way. Their
    lifestyle may not be so unnecessarily temporally high, but it can
    still be great.

    Instead, though, they opt for the
    military and CIA imposed subjugation of other nations, because the
    U.S. can do it.

    • MtnSteve

      I see where you are going but I don’t see how you can draw a parallel between this woman choosing lifestyle over having a whole body. Using her as a prop seems a bit contrived.

    • MayUBeWell

      Oh my gosh, Julian your post to this article is mind boggling.

      For my part, I believe Ms. Abbott has made a very difficult decision taking a pragmatic path based on her own values and priorities. Whatever she may have chosen, I applaud her and her doctors for the considered approach they took.

      That you attempt to make a compare and contrast analysis of Ms. Abbott to corrupt dictators, self serving politics and the theft of resources is misguided.and entirely illogical. Rational people are constrained by reality to make choices based the context they are working with.

      I hope that you will reconsider using this type of story as a platform for your disdain. Yes, Americans enjoy privilege. Yes corruption and ill conceived self-serving wars exist in abundance. Please don’t try to turn courage into vitriol.

    • AdamsQJohn

      “And, consider, to the extent that foreign populations do hold antipathy against the U.S. for constantly placing corrupt dictators and staging phony “uprisings”,
      “violence and “wars” to steal other nations’ resources, that can be said to mirror the type of mentality Ms. Abbott displayed.”

      Geezus, what part of OUTER LEFT FIELD is THIS statement coming from? What “type of mentality” are you accusing her of, other than what can easily be perceived as great courage and positive determination to move on from a personal disaster she had nothing to do with?

    • Julian Penrod

      The talk of courage.

      Courage can include taking an
      inconvenient to unpleasant situation, working with it and coming out
      the other side a winner. Not lopping off the inconvenience and
      having a specially designed alternative put in its place.

      And MayUBeWell talks imprecisely
      about Ms. Abbott “taking a pragmatic path based on her own values
      and priorities”. “Pragmatism” essentially means scrapping all
      values and priorities and taking the easy road. It’s just a fancy
      name for the “principle” of foregoing inconvenience for craven
      personal interests.

  • Sillama

    I’m grateful to be on the same planet with this brave woman. Thank you, Heather Abbott! Thanks, too, to the medical staff who brought their compassion and expert abilities to help Ms. Abbott.

  • sabjensen

    All the best to Heather and the rest of the folks who are working to put meaning back into their lives after this tragedy.

    To those who are focusing on the writing errors rather than the content of the story, while good editing is important, I think you missed the point and your comments seem small and cold in the face of this woman’s story. Maybe there was a better way to demonstrate your own superior grasp of grammar and writing technique than having a snippy comment as your only response to her story?

    • wzrd1

      I disagree. Poor writing detracts from the suffering and sacrifice this young woman experienced and disrespects her bravery in continuing forward.
      That said, one ponders if the problem with the writing is due to short deadlines or simply having a bad day.

      Either way, it’s still an uplifting story. Something highly welcome these days, as much of the news tends to cause distress.

  • Lucy J.

    Different situation but my 12 year old son was diagnosed with bone cancer above his knee in 2007. He was given a choice as to whether to lose the leg above the knee or to replace his thigh bone with an artificial or cadaver bone. The latter could allow him to save his leg but he’d have reduced function and the frequent possibility of infection, breakages, etc. He chose (with some help from us, but ultimately it was his decision) to go with the amputation. After two relapses of the cancer, he has had clear scans for a couple of years now, but my point is that yes, he wears a prosthesis, but has no problem at all with function in the leg. The prosthesis is an extension of him, and getting around has been the least of his worries. I’m so sorry about all the injuries (and deaths of course) suffered in Boston. But the doctors aren’t being glib when they say that amputation is not the end of the world! Best wishes, Heather!

  • CDS

    Can we focus just a little on the content of the story? I wish her all the best; what a great outlook on her life and her situation.

  • MattM

    Tough crowd….

  • swz

    What? Who wrote? “Her and her friends.. .”?

  • Bad writing.

    Please take grammar and writing lessons.

  • SarahR

    How about “up-most?” The word is utmost!

    • Abby Elizabeth Conway

      We regret this error and have updated the post.

      –Abby, WBUR

      • hjc24

        Also, “waivering”? Please, have someone read your material before it’s posted.

      • Samuel Green

        These guys are just jealous

    • Matt

      “upmost” (without a dash) is a variant of “uppermost” and, in this case, is actually fine. Check your dictionary SarahR, and NPR, before changing the word to utmost, which has essentially the same meaning.

  • Sarah David

    goes to show that Harvard standards are exaggerated. Come on – “Her and her friends …,”

    Simply amazing.

    Also, her doctor is an Iraqi War Veteran. I still don’t know what that war was about. So many years later, and the Shiites and Sunnis are still after each other.

    Here’s a news article. How many Americans lost their limbs fighting for Halliburton profit in Iraq? How many Americans have committed suicide who fought in that war? How many Americans including contractors died? How many have debilitating injuries?

    That was Cheney’s War. Sad truth.

    • Robert

      You are a sad human being, still on the whole “we went to war for oil” kick. This is a positive story and typical of you crazies you must insert the negative. Get a life…

      • durham kid

        That was unnecessarily hostile, Robert.

        Attacking Ms. David just because her post may not be appropriate for this article continues the very practice you claim to dislike.

        Put another way” by using the opportunity to refer to her as “a sad human being” and “crazy”, you have done the same thing that you accuse Ms David of doing – posting political views in this article.

        It sounds to me like, by your own logic, you are a “sad human being.”

  • D

    very poorly written article but uplifting nonetheless

  • eddie kay

    So her friends didn’t stop to help her?

    • 2Bad

      Maybe they were knocked out.

  • Literate

    “Her and her friends were waiting …” This author went to Harvard?

    • Abby Elizabeth Conway

      We regret this error and have updated the post.

      -Abby, WBUR