After 5 years, Boston Marathon survivors mold terrorism into healing

April 8 (UPI) — Five years after the Boston Marathon bombing, several survivors have found ways to help others who’ve also been through traumatic experiences.

On April 15, 2013, double bombings near the marathon finish line killed three people and injured at least 264 — including 17 who had their limbs severed in the blasts or amputated later due to injuries. And many others experienced hearing loss and severe injuries from bomb shrapnel.

In five years, the Boston-area survivors have found ways to heal — and educate others about finding therapy through running.

One World Strong Foundation

On March 29, survivors Dave Fortier, Celeste Corcoran and Michelle L’Hereux officially launched the non-profit One World Strong, a global platform connecting survivors of terrorism, hate crimes and other traumatic events to people in a similar predicament who might be able to help.

“It’s really connecting survivors with various forms of trauma and you’re trying to match them up and give them somebody to talk to that might have a similar injury or a similar form of trauma,” Fortier said of the foundation. “It gives that person somebody they can reach out to when they’re having a bad day.”

Fortier, who serves as foundation CEO, said he was first inspired to find a way to help others after Marines from the Semper Fi fund visited him and other survivors following the bombing, as he was treated for hearing loss and wounds.

“It’s one thing for a doctor or a nurse or a clinician, a therapist, family member to tell you you’re going to be OK, it’s quite another when somebody walks into your hospital room and says you’re going to be OK and you realize that that person has also lost their legs in a very similar way,” Fortier said. “All barriers are dropped and it’s like you’ve known somebody for 20 years when you experience the same type of trauma.”

The seeds of One World Strong were planted when Fortier and other Boston Marathon bombing survivors traveled throughout the United States to thank people who showed support in the wake of the terrorist attack.

During a tour stop in Newtown, Conn., meant to be a brief visit with survivors of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school, turned into an all day event.

“We saw those same bonds form in Newtown that we saw with the marines and then we continued to see those bonds and veterans hospitals and with people we would meet along the way that had experienced any form of trauma,” Fortier said.

Survivors including Fortier, Corcoran and L’Hereux later traveled to Orlando, Fla., following the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting — in which 50 people died — and met with people affected by the shooting.

“It was that trip where I witnessed the power of these connections and people coming together,” Fortier said.

One World Strong now works with localities, police departments, the embassy community and the State Department to meet with survivors, families and first responders from traumatic events throughout the world.

Rescue & Jessica

Jessica Kensky and her husband Patrick Downes, who both lost legs in the bombing, wrote a children’s book aimed at explaining Kensky’s ongoing recovery and her new relationship with her service dog.

The book, titled Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship, follows a fictional teenage girl named Jessica who, like Kensky, is an amputee with a strong bond with her dog, Rescue.

Kensky and Downes told The Washington Post they came up with the idea for the book after being approached by several children curious about their prosthesis.

“Kids come up to us all the time, especially in warmer weather when we’re both wearing shorts,” Kensky said. “Kids have genuine curiosity, they are trying to make sense of their world. They genuinely want to know if we hurt.”

Downes, who lost his left leg in the blast during his final semester of a doctorate in clinical psychology, said his prosthetic has become a talking point that reminds him he still has “a gift to share with children.”

“It’s a totally new experience for them,” he said. “We would invite them to explore our prosthetics, and it demystifies it for them. The instant they’d touch it, they would smile because it isn’t scary anymore because you’ve allowed them to understand it. While adults might discriminate based on disability, kids welcome it. They think it’s cool.”

While the couple hopes the book will help children understand more, the process of creating it also helped Kensky, who lost her left leg and had the other amputated later during recovery.

“Jess was in this incredibly dark place, and I didn’t know anything I could say that would make her feel comforted or happy,” Downes said. “But every time we started working with our [book] agent, she’d always be up for that. It reminded us we still had thoughtful, analytical brains. It felt good and right.”

Running as Therapy

Constant surgeries have become a regular part of life as survivors still recover, but some have found therapy by becoming more engaged in various physical activities.

Fortier said while many of the survivors weren’t avid runners prior to the bombing, they were drawn to take it up after participating in the 2014 Boston Marathon.

“What happened was people started to say, ‘wow, what a great way to take back the finish line,’ and running became a form of therapy. It’s moving and working toward a common goal,” he said.

Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics, based in Manchester N.H., has worked with six Boston Marathon bombing survivors to craft custom prosthetics and allow them to engage in various different activities.

“For us to be able to see somebody that’s benefitted from our services, whether it’s their running or playing golf or working in the garden, it really is the best kind of appreciation we can get,” the company’s president, Matthew Albuquerque told WMUR.

In a 2014 TED Talk, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab Biomechatronics group Hugh Herr, a double-amputee himself, described how he worked with other MIT scientists to craft a bionic limb for Adrianne Haslet, a professional ballroom dancer who lost her left leg in the bombing.

“We brought in dancers with biological limbs, and we studied how they move, what forces they apply on the dance floor, and we took those data — and we put forth fundamental principles of dance, reflexive dance capability, and we embedded that intelligence into the bionic limb,” Herr said. “Bionics is not only about making people stronger and faster. Our expression, our humanity can be embedded into electromechanics.”

Haslet completed the Boston Marathon in 2016 and will run a second time on Monday, while raising funds for the Limbs for Life Foundation.

In addition to providing mental relief and helping raise charitable funds and awareness, Fortier said meeting for marathons helps survivors strengthen their bond.

“What could be just a tragic day for everybody remembering has become almost like a family reunion for some of us now,” he said. “It’s a way to get together and we all look forward to seeing each other.

“The memories are still there of what happened, but you’ve got this new family now of these folks that love, care and support you, and it’s made a tragic event much more bearable.”

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