Gina DiMartino’s summer plans in Rochester, N.Y., include reading, sketching, visiting a local pool, and waiting for the severely damaged nerves in her right leg to regrow from her knee to her toes.
It’s not how she imagined the summer.
DiMartino, 31, also didn’t envision sharing a room in her parents’ home with her 28-year-old brother, Peter, while he waits for his nearly severed Achilles tendon to mend. Like hundreds of others injured in the Boston bombing in April, a spring trip brought a summer season of coping with the aftermath of terrorism.
Nearly three months after two bombs at the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured at least 265, the long recovery continues. At least 15 survivors are coping with missing limbs. Others are healing from nerve damage, broken bones, and burns. Families are learning to care for them. Many—including uninjured bystanders—are confronting the trauma of a day seared into their memories.
For DiMartino, some days bring pain and frustration as she learns to manage an injured leg and a foot she may not feel for at least a year. But the Christian and worship team member at a local church says the experience has also brought an unexpected sense of clarity. “I know I’m right where God wants me to be,” she says. “And that’s a good feeling.”
The journey from terror on a Boston sidewalk to comfort in a Rochester living room hasn’t been easy. But DiMartino’s story is one example that offers Christ-centered hope for others facing a summer they didn’t expect.
For DiMartino, confronting life changes began before the Boston bombings. In March, the Liberty University graduate (MBA) had just moved back to her parents’ home in Rochester, N.Y., after living and working in Kansas for several months. (DiMartino has worked for Starbucks for nine years.)
She wrestled with uncertainty about her future, and contemplated the next phase of her life. The time in Kansas didn’t bring answers. DiMartino returned to Rochester, played keyboards at Northridge Church, and prayed for guidance.
She also prepared for a road trip: Her family planned to travel to Boston to watch her mother, Mona, run in the Boston Marathon.
The group included DiMartino, her parents, her brother, Peter, and her sister and brother-in-law from Asheville, N.C. Peter’s girlfriend flew up from Houston with her young son. The group enjoyed a weekend of visiting relatives and watching a Red Sox game in seats atop the Green Monster—the 37-foot, left field wall at Fenway Park.
On Monday morning, DiMartino tracked her mother on an app that showed her location on the marathon route. By Monday afternoon, the family gathered at the finish line. The mood was festive. DiMartino’s father crossed the street to get a better angle for a photo.
The next thing DiMartino remembers is a loud sound: “Everybody was kind of lifted up and floating backwards.” The blast muffled DiMartino’s hearing, but she could see blood pouring from her leg. A piece of shrapnel had sliced a 9-inch gash near the bend of her knee, severing a main artery and two main nerves.
The blast also hit Peter, nearly severing his Achilles tendon and causing serious burns on his arms and back. Peter’s girlfriend suffered a severe leg injury, but her son escaped with a cut.
With DiMartino’s father forced by police to stay across the street, and her mother nearly three-quarters of a mile away, her uninjured sister, Kim, took charge. “She took off her coat and shoved it in my leg,” says DiMartino. While Kim and her (also uninjured) husband tended the family, DiMartino remained lucid: She tied a tourniquet around her knee, and tied her bag (containing her wallet, ID, and phone) to the tourniquet. “Then I laid down on the sidewalk,” she says. “And I thought: ‘Okay, I might die now.’”
Emergency workers quickly loaded DiMartino onto an ambulance with another victim. The man pleaded with workers to find his 4-year-old son, and he held DiMartino’s hand during the transport. One of the last things DiMartino remembers is a paramedic calling ahead to the hospital to tell doctors: “We have amputees here.”
Nearly 24 hours later, DiMartino awoke in the Intensive Care Unit of Boston Medical Center. She was thankful to discover she didn’t lose her leg, but she also learned her injury was serious.
On Friday, doctors operated for a third time. As police and FBI agents in nearby Watertown, Mass., combed the streets looking for accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, surgeons leaned over DiMartino’s leg, meticulously reconnecting her nerves.
The surgery was successful, but doctors told DiMartino her nerves would have to regrow from her knee to her toes before she could feel her foot again. The estimated time: 400 days.
The next two weeks brought a steady stream of visitors, as her parents alternated visits between DiMartino and her brother. (Peter was recovering from surgery and skin grafts.) Friends and leaders from her church in Rochester drove six hours to visit. And the day before DiMartino left for rehab, another visitor arrived: Steve, the injured man who rode with her in the ambulance.
From their stretchers, Steve and DiMartino greeted each other with tears. DiMartino inquired after his son. He was unharmed. She asked Steve about his own condition. He said he was fine. She pressed, and she learned the truth: The paramedics had been right about his injury. He lost his leg from the knee down.
In the months since the Boston bombing, dozens of survivors have learned to cope with injury and trauma. Like the DiMartinos, some families had multiple victims. For example, brothers J.P. and Paul Norden, ages 33 and 31, both lost their right leg above the knee.
Major injuries mean lost income and mounting medical bills for many. Weeks-long hospital stays cost tens of thousands of dollars. Depending on the level of technology, a single prosthetic limb can cost between $5,000 and $50,000, according to the advocacy group Amputee Coalition. Patients must replace the limbs every few years.
Depending on caps in patients’ insurance plans, some could face a lifetime of medical bills. And though donors contributed more than $30 million to The One Fund Boston to help cover expenses for survivors, the fund’s administrator acknowledged it wouldn’t be enough to cover all the needs.
For now, many survivors are focusing on moment-by-moment recovery. Some are finding encouragement in their churches and communities. An overflow crowd packed St. Ann Catholic Church in Neponset, Mass., for a memorial service for Martin Richard, one of three killed in the bombing. The family scheduled the service for June 9—Martin’s 9th birthday.
The many children at the service included Martin’s 7-year-old sister, Jane, who lost her left leg below the knee. Priest Sean Connor talked with the children about hope, and remembered Jane’s first words to him after she awoke in the hospital: “Where have you been? You have to pray.”
For those coping with post-traumatic stress, Alasdair Groves—a counselor with the Christian Counseling & Education Foundation (CCEF)—says it’s important to remind survivors: “This is a normal response to an abnormal situation.” (Indeed, some military officials are beginning to drop the “D” from “PTSD,” recognizing that stress after a traumatic situation like combat is less a disorder and more a normal reaction to something terrible.)
For Christians coping with trauma, Groves says it’s important to learn to embrace both God’s sovereignty and His goodness: “It’s like the story of the redemption of the world: It started great, it went bad, but it’s going to get better. That’s how God works.”
Groves emphasizes that’s not a trite saying, but a process that takes time. Those helping survivors of trauma must give room to grieve and suffer. But Christians who embrace God’s sovereignty can believe God will use evil for good, he says: “You will be useful for having gone through this.”
Back in Rochester, that’s DiMartino’s hope. These days, she balances doctor appointments and rehab with sketching, reading, welcoming visitors, and slowly returning to cooking. Her blog features recipes, music, and pictures of smiling visits with friends.
She’s thankful she and her brother are safe, and says she doesn’t mind sharing a room. (Peter moved back to his parents’ home to recover, and DiMartino can’t climb the stairs to her upstairs bedroom.)
Still, some days are hard: She can’t leave the house without help. She still hasn’t gone into a crowd of people. Everything takes longer. She knows her recovery will be a long process. Not long after returning home, she blogged: “I did sit down on the couch and cry tonight. … But my sweet parents sat with me. Cried with me. And prayed for me. And I know God’s mercies are new every morning. …”
DiMartino says reflecting on her experience helps: She thinks about how her sister—with no medical training—knew exactly what to do in the critical first moments after the bombing.
She thinks about how her spring swimming regimen gave her the upper body strength she would need to use crutches. She thinks about how God is taking care of her family through practical help from her church and friends: “That gives us hope.”
DiMartino began that kind of reflection in the hospital, blogging on April 26 about Matthew 6: “We may never be the same as we were before,” she wrote. “Even if we get to ‘normal’ physically, these events will always be with us.” She continued: “I don’t know what that will look like one month from now, one year from now, ten years from now. But I read these verses and I am comforted. My Father knows what the future looks like, and He tells me: ‘Do not be worried about your life.’”
DiMartino says that’s been a surprising comfort: “I had no idea what to do with my life in March. … And I know it’s not a great answer, but now I know where God wants me to be because I can’t be anywhere else. And I know what he wants me to do because I can’t do anything else. … I’m excited to see what He does with this time, and I just hope I use it wisely.”
In the meantime, she’s happy to return to church. After her second Sunday back, she blogged about a worship song with the line: “You were singing in the dark and whispering Your promise even when I could not hear. …”
She wrote: “Sometimes we don’t know what God is doing or why He is sending trials our way. We can’t see, we can’t hear. But He is reaching for us. … He can see. He can hear. He knows what’s up ahead. He will never forsake us. Not even for a moment.”