To say that I’ve never been a runner is an understatement. In fact, any time I’ve even seen people running for fun, I have always wondered to myself, What are they running from? How miserable are their lives that they would resort to such torture? I don’t mean to offend serious runners, it’s just I never understood their passion. This might have stemmed from my childhood. I had asthma, and every time we would play tag at recess, I would think my lungs were going to give out on me.
As I became older, I became friends with more people who loved to run. In fact, their happiness pretty much depended on it. I would hear about the runner’s high, and how there’s nothing else like it. Being an impulsive decision maker, I signed up for my first half-marathon in 2011. Go big or go home right? During that time, I went to the gym maybe once a month. So you probably can guess how much real training I actually did. But when race day came, I was ready. After all, I had on super-cute running clothes. I thought 13.1 miles would be a breeze. Boy, was I wrong. I think I might’ve made it about two miles before I wanted to die. Where was that runner’s high? I promised myself I would never do something so stupid ever again.
Now here I am, nearly five years later, and I have made the insane goal to complete 26.2 miles in the Boston Marathon this April. The funniest part about all this is not the fact I am running. It is that I will be running on a prosthetic leg. Why on Earth would I put myself through this? It’s quite simple: To show myself—and the rest of the world—that I can.
On April 15, 2013, two brothers tried to destroy my life when they brought bombs to the Boston Marathon. I can remember everything so vividly. It was my birthday weekend. My boyfriend at the time had flown my five-year-old son and I into town to watch his mom run in the race. It was such a great weekend. We caught a game at Fenway Park, toured the city, went to a concert. On Monday, our group of nine made our way to the marathon route. First we stopped at the 17-mile marker. There she was. Mona must have been experiencing that runner’s high that everyone always talks about, because she was smiling! Mile 17 and still happy? I was impressed.
We wanted to see her cross the finish line, so we made our way toward Boylston Street. Just a few minutes after we found our spot near the finish, my son Noah grew restless. “How many runners are there, Mom?” he asked with a sarcastic tone. “When can we finally go?” We were on a crowded street, and I had nothing to keep him occupied. Then the most random idea came to me. “Hey Noah, why don’t you sit on Mommy’s feet and play in the rocks like you are a scientist?” Thankfully, this was a cool idea to a five-year-old. I can still remember my feet wanting to fall asleep with his body weight on top of me, but at least I would be able to see Mona and ensure my child wouldn’t be lost in the crowd.
Thinking about that decision still gives me chills. Only a few moments after Noah sat down, the first bomb went off. That is the part I wish I could forget, but the memory enters my dreams every night. I can replay everything. I was hoisted into the air and thrown onto the hard pavement. I tried to move, but my body parts were flung out around me. My eyes scanned my surroundings: Pools of blood, piles of BBs. Was that a foot? I glanced to my right and literally saw a woman take her last breath. It was like the worst possible horror movie, only I was the star. What just happened? Why am I in excruciating pain? But more importantly, Where is Noah?!? I remember turning my head every which way looking for him. I saw tons of people. Their faces were screaming in terror, but the sounds were muffled. (I later found out my eardrums were blown out from the blast.) “Mommy! Mommy!” I couldn’t hear anyone else, but I knew I heard Noah. I had found him. My eyes locked with his, and I began trying to figure out a way for me to get him—but how? I looked down and my legs were arranged in positions even the best contortionist could never pull off. I had an idea. I could pull him toward me. I just had to get my arm above my head. Surely I could do that. Everything would be okay. I took a deep breath. But then I saw my left hand. Its bones were completely exposed and sticking out. This was it. I could do nothing to protect my son. This was the moment I was going to die. My breathing got heavier. I laid my head down and looked up at the sky and said a prayer. “Lord if this is my time, take me. But let me know that my son is okay.” If you don’t believe in miracles already, you will after this next part: Moments after I said that prayer, my boyfriend’s aunt picked Noah up and sat him directly beside me. I knew he was alright. It was going to be okay.
Following the blast, I was in a medically induced coma for a week. Doctors performed surgery after surgery to clean out bomb debris from my body. I remember waking up. My mom is the first person I saw. She came all the way from Texas to be by my side. I tried to talk. But nothing came out. A large feeding tube had been placed down my throat, and the words I was trying so desperately to form came out like gasps of air. My mom gave me a piece of paper and shakily I attempted to write the words, “God is not finished with me yet.” Nearly two years and more than 30 surgeries later, and I still believe that with all of my heart.
Road to Recovery
I spent 56 days in the hospital while doctors tried to piece me back together. I wish I could say that things went back to normal. But any sense of normalcy in my life was blown away. I sustained injuries from head to toe. The worst injury was to my lower left leg. Suddenly, the word “amputation” was mentioned a lot. Doctors spent 18 months trying to save my leg, even though in my heart, I knew I would eventually have to have it amputated. It was still physically attached, but my leg stopped being a part of me the day of the bombing. Chunks of it were missing, and I didn’t have the bones it needed to function properly. I looked like leftovers from a shark’s meal. But still, the doctors knew a lot better than I did, and I trusted that limb salvage was the best route to go. I waited patiently, trying every surgery and trusting in a bigger plan. After all, I was just blessed to still be alive.
After 17 major reconstructive surgeries, I knew what had to be done. It was time to cut off what was holding me back. On November 10, 2014, I made the decision to amputate my left leg below the knee. I referred to it as a bad boyfriend, something I needed to get out of my life for good. So the weekend before I threw it a goodbye party, gave my foot one last pedicure and bid it a final farewell. And let me tell you, the feeling I felt after waking up from my amputation was one I will never forget—the purest form of relief. I knew from the point on I was no longer in limbo, and wouldn’t have to rely on pain medicine or a wheelchair to make it through the day. My life was finally moving forward again.
I guess I had never realized how much I took my legs for granted. I had just gotten up everyday expecting to walk, to run, to jump on the trampoline with my son. But that was taken away from me. In its place though, I received gratitude. Thankfulness for every new day I get to be here, grateful for the platform I have been given to encourage others through my struggles, and so appreciative for how far technology has come in prosthetics.
My life isn’t the same, and it never will be again. But I was standing three feet away from a bomb, and I survived. And every time I look down and see where my left leg should be, instead of being angry, I am reminded that life is precious. Because of it, I will hug my son a little tighter, love my family and friends a little more, and do my small part in changing the world for the better every single day.
Two bombers may have taken my leg, but in a lot of ways they saved my life. They tried to destroy me and instead they made me stronger. That is why I vowed to run Boston this year. I can’t wait to cross the finish line.
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Rebekah DiMartino is chronicling her journey to the Boston Marathon for pace.com. She is also available for speaking engagements. For more information, follow her at facebook.com/newday.newhope.rebekahgregory.