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12:37 am
Wed April 16, 2014

After Losing A Leg, Woman Walks On Her Own — In 4-Inch Heels

Originally published on Wed April 16, 2014 1:33 pm

Returning to watch the Boston Marathon was never a question for Heather Abbott. After losing her leg in the bombing last year, watching the race is just one item on a long list of things she did before and intends to do again. Also on that list: wearing 4-inch heels.

"Sometimes, I think: Why am I doing this to myself? Because I could just wear regular flat shoes," Abbott says. "I don't want to give things up that I love to do, so I'm going to get used to it and figure it out."

As Abbott walks around her bright apartment in Newport, R.I., decked out in skinny jeans and a favorite pair of nude-colored stilettos on a special high-heeled prosthesis — with custom-matched skin color and painted toenails — it's hard to tell which foot is which.

She's come a long way since last summer when she struggled to take her first steps in her first prosthesis, a bulky black-metal contraption.

"It felt like I was walking on a stilt," Abbott says. Her leg was still so swollen and raw that every step hurt.

"That would be one of my not-better moments," Abbott says. "This was going to be the first step, literally, in getting my life back, and it was so much harder than I expected it to be."

It was hard not to despair. "This is what I have to walk the rest of my life?" Abbott wondered. "How am I gonna do this?" With time, her wound grew less painful, and Abbott found her stride.

She has had her share of lows — like the day the doorbell rang and she jumped out of bed, forgetting about her foot, and slammed to the floor.

She has also hit unimaginable highs, such as the day she defiantly made her way on one foot and crutches, before she had a prosthesis, onto the mound at Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch. Her friends cheered from the sidelines with "Heather Strong" T-shirts and banners.

That was just hours after Abbott was released from the hospital and about a month after marathon day, when she'd taken her annual trip with friends to watch the race from the finish line.

That day, she was about to enter the Forum Restaurant when the second bomb exploded just a few feet from her. Abbott was blown through the door. Her foot felt like it was on fire, and she couldn't get up.

"So many people were running by, and I was stuck there," Abbott says. "People were literally running for their lives, and I was afraid that nobody would stop."

People did stop, cinching a belt around her leg to stop the bleeding, dragging and then carrying Abbott to an ambulance.

The next few days were a blur, from waking up to news that her foot would never again function or stop hurting, to first lady Michelle Obama showing up in her hospital room just as Abbott was deciding whether to allow doctors to amputate her foot. That was a choice, Abbott says, that was not really much of a choice at all.

"The life that was described to me, with keeping my leg, was not one I wanted," she explains. "I would be in chronic pain, and I was going to be pretty much wheelchair-bound."

Still, the decision kept her up at night in tears. Tending to look at a glass as half-full, Abbott says making that decision herself rather than just waking up to find it done to her gave her a small sense of control when she felt anything but.

"You can't help but have moments sometimes when you say, 'Why did this have to happen?' and 'Why do things have to be so hard now?' " Abbott says. "I can't change it. So I have to try to do the best with the situation that I have now."

To that end, Abbott has filled her days with speaking engagements, talking about her recovery to students, caregivers and college graduates. She believes her story of resilience and the strategies that helped her can apply to anyone.

Tentative at first, she is now poised and upbeat at the podium. She tells audiences about her assortment of prostheses: her high-heeled favorite, her improved flat-footed leg, a donated waterproof leg that allows her to paddleboard, and a blade leg that she runs on.

"Right now I have six legs," Abbott joked to a room full of pharmacology students at a recent event.

Abbott says she has been buoyed by the kindness of strangers from around the world as well as from fellow survivors, whom she avoided for the first month or so, even though they were all in the same hospital.

"I wasn't ready yet to deal with anybody else. I was just absorbing the fact that this had happened to me," Abbott says. "Then I realized I needed to be with them. They were the only people on this planet who understand exactly what I'm going through."

Now, Abbott says, they meet up often for dinners or at physical therapy, and they've even started their own yoga group, where no one has to feel uncomfortable about wearing, or not wearing, a prosthesis.

Abbott says she has also drawn strength from the many other amputees who came to visit her in the hospital, mostly male veterans who were wounded in combat. She says she was especially uplifted by the one female amputee who came: Aviva Drescher, of the reality TV show Real Housewives of New York City.

"It was a really big deal for me when Aviva walked in with high heels," Abbott says. "I had a lot of questions about what I was going to look like and what I'd be able to wear, but I never would ask a room full of war heroes."

Drescher reassured Abbott she would once again wear skirts and heels, and would even go dancing.

"It made me feel OK," Abbott says. "It made me feel like I'm going to be able to do this."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Many of those injured at last year's Boston Marathon bombing turned out yesterday for a ceremony to mark one year since the attack that killed three and injured hundreds. One of those survivors is 39-year-old Heather Abbott. Her left leg was amputated just below the knee.

As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, Abbott is now looking forward to going back to the finish line next week to watch this year's race.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Returning to watch the marathon this year was never really a question for Heather Abbott. It's one of a long list of things she always did before, and refuses to let losing a leg stop her from doing again.

It's 11 o'clock in the morning, and you're in four-inch heels.

HEATHER ABBOTT: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: At her bright beachy apartment in Newport, Rhode Island, Abbott is decked out in skinny jeans and a favorite pair of nude-colored stilettos over a special prosthesis made for heels.

ABBOTT: Sometimes I think, you know, why am I doing this to myself? Because I could just wear regular flat shoes. But I don't want to give things up that I love to do. So I'm going to get used to it and figure it out.

SMITH: With the custom-matched skin color and painted toenails, it's hard actually to tell which foot is which, even when she's walking.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

SMITH: It's equally hard to fathom how far Abbott's come since last summer, when her family videotaped her struggling to take her first steps.

ABBOTT: So just step with this one? Most my weight there?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yep.

ABBOTT: That would be one of my not better moments, actually.

SMITH: Abbott's first prosthesis was a bulky, black-metal contraption.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Step. Good.

SMITH: Her leg was still so swollen and raw, every step hurt.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Take a smaller step than that.

ABBOTT: A smaller step than all of that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Smaller with that, longer with that.

ABBOTT: When I first put it on for the first time, I was so excited about getting my leg, because this was going to be first step, you know, literally, in getting my life back. And it was so much harder than I expected it to be.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Just let your body just react to it.

ABBOTT: I was like, this is what I have to walk on for the rest of my life? Like, how am I going to do this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Don't think about it. Look in the mirror. Step. There you go.

ABBOTT: As time went on, it was less painful and...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Wow.

ABBOTT: And I got better at it.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Do you realize you're walking?

ABBOTT: Yeah.

SMITH: This year has been full of similar highs and lows. There was the day the doorbell rang, and Abbott jumped out of bed, forgetting about her foot and slammed to the floor. But also the day she went back to her job as an HR manager, and the one when she defiantly crutched her way, before she even had a prosthesis, out to the mound at Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Woo. Heather.

SMITH: That was just hours after Abbott was released from the hospital, and about a month after Marathon Day, when she had taken her annual trip with friends to watch the race from the finish line.

ABBOTT: I've got photos of some of my friends and I, we stopped at a restaurant to have a drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMB)

SMITH: The second bomb exploded just a few feet from Abbott.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What was that? Something just exploded at the finish line.

SMITH: Abbott was literally blown through the door. Her foot felt like it was on fire, and she couldn't get up.

ABBOTT: So many people were running by, and I was stuck there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Multiple casualties on Boylston.

ABBOTT: I mean, people were literally running for their lives, and I was afraid that nobody would stop.

SMITH: But people did stop and carried Abbot to an ambulance. The next few days were a blur, from waking up to news that her foot would never again function or stop hurting, to first lady Michelle Obama showing up in her hospital room, just as Abbott was deciding whether to allow doctors to amputate her foot - a choice, Abbott says, that was not really much of a choice at all.

ABBOTT: The life that was described to me, with keeping my leg, was not one I wanted. I would be in chronic pain, and I was going to be pretty much wheelchair-bound.

SMITH: Still, the decision kept her up in tears. But prone as she is to looking at the glass half full, Abbott says making that decision herself, rather than just waking up to find it done to her, also gave her back a little sense of control at a time when she felt anything but.

ABBOTT: You know, you can't help but have moments sometimes, when you say, you know, why did this have to happen? And why do things have to be so hard now? But, you know, I can't change it. So I have to try to do the best with the situation that I have now.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So now I want to turn the microphone over to Heather Abbott.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: These days, Abbott bounces between speaking engagements, talking about her recovery and her assortment of prostheses, including her high-heeled favorite, an improved flat-footed leg, and a donated waterproof leg that's allowed her to go paddle boarding and a blade leg that she runs on.

ABBOTT: Right now, I have six legs. I can't point my toes. That's the only thing.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Decidedly upbeat and constantly smiling, Abbott says she's been buoyed by the kindness of strangers, fellow survivors and other amputees who came to visit her in the hospital - usually male veterans, but especially the one female amputee who came.

(LAUGHTER)

ABBOTT: Thank you so much for coming to see me.

SMITH: Reality TV star, Aviva Drescher.

AVIVA DRESCHER: I saw you on TV.

ABBOTT: I saw you on TV.

DRESCHER: Oh, well...

SMITH: Drescher, who was filmed by Extra TV, had almost the exact same amputation that Abbott did.

DRESCHER: Gorgeous. How are you feeling?

ABBOTT: It was a really big deal for me when Aviva walked in with high heels, because you know, as a woman, I had a lot of questions about what I was going to look like, and what I'd be able to wear. But I never would ask, you know, a room full of war heroes.

(LAUGHTER)

DRESCHER: You will wear skirts again. You will wear heals again. So you can do whatever you want.

ABBOTT: It made me feel OK. It made me like I'm going to be able to do this.

SMITH: It's one of the reasons Abbott became the first of the marathon survivors to sign up to counsel other amputees.

ABBOTT: It gives some kind of purpose to this, to know that somehow, I might've helped another person. At least it makes me feel like there's a positive outcome.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: I just wanted to say I think you're amazing and you are very inspiring.

ABBOTT: Aw, thanks for coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

SMITH: All the attention and invitations have been a welcome distraction.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Three, two, one.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMERA SHUTTER)

SMITH: But Abbott worries how things will change as the marathon fades further into the past.

ABBOTT: You know, I mean, I don't know if at some point it's going to kind of all hit me, because everything will have died down and it's just me now. And I wonder if it's going to get hard, because people are going to not care anymore.

SMITH: Abbott's also bracing herself for when attention will inevitably shift to the bombing suspect's trial. It's already disturbing, she says, to hear his defense lawyers starting to build a case for leniency.

ABBOTT: You know, it's hard to learn this about people who ultimately, you know, took my leg away. But, you know, to be honest, I really just don't spend a lot of time thinking about it. I just want to move on with my own life.

Well, I really appreciate you all coming to listen tonight, and look for me at the marathon this year.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: Abbot says she's hoping to jump in and cross the finish line with one of the people who helped her to the ambulance last year. It will be emotional, she says. And while she wants to be there, she says, it will also be good to put the day behind her.

ABBOTT: I'm actually really looking forward to trying to get back to my new normal a little bit. You know, I kind of have to figure that out, and I think it took me a while to get that, that, you know, every day you're going to wake up to this, and it's never going to change.

SMITH: But just like walking, Abbott says, she's hoping it will keep getting easier.

Tovia Smith NPR News, Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.