Mother And Daughter Injured In Boston Bombing Face New Future

May 1, 2013
Originally published on May 2, 2013 10:59 am

Forty-seven-year-old Celeste Corcoran is propped up in her hospital bed. In a nearby window is a forest of blooming white orchids from well-wishers. On the opposite wall, a big banner proclaims "Corcoran Strong."

She's recalling how thrilled she was to be near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, waiting for her sister Carmen Accabo to run by. "I just remember standing there, wanting to be as close as I could to catch her," Corcoran says. "I really just needed to see her face."

And then the first of the two bombs went off, throwing Celeste Corcoran off her feet. The noise was deafening — it blew out both her eardrums.

"I just remember looking down and seeing my legs," Corcoran remembers. "I really just saw blood and bone. My foot was off at an odd angle. I remember lying there and saying 'no' over and over. Like, 'No. No. This couldn't have happened. No.' "

The story of Celeste Corcoran and her daughter Sydney, who also suffered a grievous leg injury on April 15, is one of many harrowing tales beginning to pour out as victims of the bombing recover enough to give testimony.

Each narrative gives a deeper appreciation of the damage wrought by the Marathon Day terror.

Corcoran, who never lost consciousness through the ordeal, prepared for the worst as she lay on the bloody pavement, grit in her mouth, on her face and in her auburn hair.

"I thought I was going to die and I thought I wanted to die," she tells NPR. "I wanted to die because it hurt so bad. I thought, 'I can't take this. I hope I just die.' "

But that was just a fleeting thought.

"Because then almost immediately ... I think I shocked myself thinking 'I just want to die.' Then I was just sort of like, 'Seriously, I do not want to die. I've got so much to do. I've got my kids. I have my life. I have my husband.' There was no way I wanted to die."

It was the first of three turning points Celeste Corcoran had over the past two and a half weeks.

Her husband, Kevin Corcoran, knelt beside her on the pavement, offering reassurance as he ripped off his belt, borrowed another from a stranger nearby and wrapped tourniquets around his wife's profusely bleeding legs.

Before she got in the ambulance, she asked Kevin if her feet were still attached to her legs. He said yes. That planted the hope that she would keep her legs.

At this point, the Corcorans thought their 18-year-old daughter, Sydney, was somewhere safe, away from the bombs, watching the race with friends.

But in fact, Sydney lay not far away from where her mother fell. She didn't know where her parents were. She saw no one familiar. She looked down to see blood gushing from a gaping wound on her right thigh.

"I remember being in panic and trying to ask someone, anyone, if I was going to be able to keep my leg," Sydney says.

But soon her panic was replaced by overwhelming fatigue.

"I was just so tired and I thought I was just going to bleed out," she recalls in a little-girl voice. "I felt like this was it. I was just going."

Unbeknownst to Sydney, her mother was on her way to Boston Medical Center, a mile away. There Celeste's hope that she could keep her legs was dashed by a doctor who said they'd have to be amputated.

"I think I actually said, 'Both?' and he said "Yes,' " Celeste remembers. "And I was like, 'OK.' I knew that he was telling me — you know, if there was a chance, he would tell me. And there wasn't. So it was like, OK, just do it. If that's what we have to do, do it."

While Celeste was in surgery, a doctor figured out that a young woman with dark hair, large brown eyes and a mangled leg was her daughter.

A piece of shrapnel from the bomb had severed a major blood vessel in her right thigh. A good Samaritan had applied steady pressure to her leg at the bombing site, so she didn't bleed out and die on the pavement.

And doctors were able to save Sydney's leg.

Mother and daughter ended up in the same recovery room, where a doctor told a groggy Celeste that her daughter was safe. Soon after, they woke in side-by-side hospital beds.

Over the next week, Celeste had three more operations to remove shrapnel and damaged tissue from her legs so her wounds could be closed.

The ordeal was wearing her down. "I felt very weak. I had just gone through my last surgery," she recalls. "I still hadn't washed my hair. You know, the bomb debris and shrapnel and smell and everything was still in my hair."

That was the second turning point — a time when her usually resilient spirit flagged as the reality of how her life had utterly changed began to sink in.

"I knew I was going to live and I was very grateful for that," she says. "But I really was very discouraged about what my quality of life was going to be. I love going to the beach. That soothes me and really calms my spirit. And I remember lying here crying and thinking I wasn't going to be able to do that."

She also began to hate the way she had to depend on someone else to do everything for her. She was always the one to organize things, do things, exert her independence in a million little ways.

At that low point, a stranger walked into the Corcorans' hospital room — a U.S. Marine named Gabe Martinez. He's a veteran of Afghanistan who lost both legs from injuries very similar to Celeste's.

"He came in and said, 'You know, I was just like you. I was just like this. I felt helpless. I felt like I couldn't do anything for myself.' "

Martinez, who works with a group of amputees called the Semper Fi Fund that counsels severely injured servicemen, was the living proof Celeste needed that double amputees don't have to be dependent invalids.

He was "steady as a rock" on his prosthetic legs, she says. "And he's telling me I can be the exact same way."

Martinez and a fellow Marine, Cameron West, a single amputee, came back for more visits. They've pledged to help Celeste and Sydney through the coming weeks and months.

That was Celeste's third turning point.

"After I met them, it was like this ... this little spark," she says. "You know, it's really going to be OK. Before then, I knew I was going to live. I knew my loved ones were going to be around me. But the independent me ... after that point, it was like I got it that the sky's the limit. Nothing was taken from me that I can't get back. I can even be better than I was before."

And that's how Celeste Corcoran was feeling as she and Sydney prepared to leave Boston Medical Center and go to a rehab hospital for the next phase of their recovery.

Tomorrow: Celeste and Sydney Corcoran talk about their plans for the future and the men who made the bombs.

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

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Many of those wounded in the Boston Marathon bombings face months and years of recovery. Some will never be the same. Their stories are just beginning to emerge, each one giving a deeper appreciation of the damage brought by this terrorist attack.

NPR's Richard Knox spent time with one seriously injured mother and daughter from Lowell, Massachusetts, who have recovered enough to tell their story.

RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: Forty-seven-year-old Celeste Corcoran is propped up in her hospital bed with a forest of blooming white orchids in a nearby window. On the wall is a big sign that says Corcoran Strong.

She says on Marathon day she was thrilled to be at the finish line to watch her sister finish her first marathon.

CELESTE CORCORAN: I just remember standing there and just wanting to be as close as I could to just catch her. I really just needed to see her face.

KNOX: But before her sister got there, the first of the two bombs threw Celeste off her feet.

CORCORAN: And I just remember looking down and seeing my legs and seeing how bad they were. I just - I really just saw blood and bone. I remember my foot was like off at an odd angle. And I just remember laying there and just saying no over and over, like no, no, this couldn't have happened. No.

KNOX: As she lay there, she prepared for the worst.

CORCORAN: I thought I was going to die and I thought I wanted to die because it hurt so bad. Like I thought I can't take this. I hope I just die. But that was actually a fleeting thought because then almost immediately - I mean I obviously was still in so much pain - but I think I shocked myself thinking I just want to die. And then I was sort of like, seriously, I do not want to die. I've got too much to do. I've got my kids, I have my life, I have my husband. There was no way I wanted to die.

KNOX: Meanwhile, even before the second bomb went off, her husband Kevin Corcoran knew instinctively they were the victims of a terrorist attack.

KEVIN CORCORAN: When I saw the devastation around me and the carnage - blood and gore right in front of me - I knew that it had to be something along those lines.

KNOX: Kevin escaped serious injury because Celeste was between him and the bomb. He ripped off his belt and borrowed another one from a bystander to put tourniquets around his wife's profusely bleeding legs.

CORCORAN: Before I got in the ambulance, when Kevin was still with me and he was trying to reassure me, I did ask him, I said, Kevin, are my feet attached to my legs? And he said yes.

KNOX: The fact that her feet were still attached planted the hope that she was going to keep her legs.

Now, at this point the Corcorans think their 18-year-old daughter Sydney had been somewhere safe, watching the race with friends. But in fact, Sydney lay not far away with a severely injured leg of her own.

SYDNEY CORCORAN: I didn't know where my parents were. So I can remember trying to look around for them and not seeing anyone that I knew. And I looked down and I saw my leg.

KNOX: Blood was gushing from a gaping wound, soaking her pants.

CORCORAN: I remember being like in panic and trying to ask someone, anyone, if I was going to be able to keep my leg.

KNOX: But soon her panic was replaced by overwhelming fatigue.

CORCORAN: I was just so tired and I thought like I was just going to bleed out, there's no way. I thought like this is it and I was going.

KNOX: Unbeknownst to Sydney, her mother was on her way to Boston Medical Center a mile away. There, Celeste's hope that she could keep her legs was dashed by a doctor who said they'd have to be amputated.

CORCORAN: I think I actually said: Both? And he said yes. And I was like, OK. I knew that he was telling me - you know, if there was a chance, he would tell me. And there wasn't. So it was like, OK, just do it. If that's what we have to do, do it.

KNOX: While Celeste was in surgery, a doctor figured out that a young woman brought into the same hospital was Celeste's daughter. Her right leg was seriously mangled and a piece of shrapnel had severed a major blood vessel.

A Good Samaritan had applied pressure to her leg at the bombing site to stop the bleeding. So Sydney didn't die. And doctors were able to save her injured leg. Soon mother and daughter were in the same recovery room, where a doctor told Celeste her daughter was safe.

CORCORAN: I don't remember this conversation, but he said that he told me that my daughter was OK. He said that I acknowledged him and that I said thank you and that, you know, he could see an expression of relief on my face.

KNOX: Soon after, Celeste and Sydney woke up in the same hospital room. Over the next week, Celeste had three more operations to remove shrapnel and damaged tissue from her legs so her wounds could be closed. The ordeal was wearing her down.

CORCORAN: I felt very weak. I had just gone through my last surgery. I still hadn't washed my hair. You know, the bomb debris and shrapnel and smell and everything was still in my hair.

KNOX: And the reality of how her life was utterly changed began to sink in.

CORCORAN: I knew I was going to live and I was very grateful for that. But I really was discouraged as to how - what my quality of life was going to be. I love going to the beach. That soothes me, it just calms my spirit. And I remember just laying here crying, thinking that I wasn't going to be able to do that.

KNOX: At that low point, a stranger walked into the Corcoran's hospital room, a U.S. Marine named Dave Martinez. He's a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who lost both legs from injuries very similar to Celeste's.

CORCORAN: He came in and said, you know, I was just like you. I was just like this. I felt this. I felt helpless. I felt like I couldn't do anything for myself.

KNOX: Martinez was living proof that double amputees don't have to be dependent invalids.

CORCORAN: I don't think I've ever noticed a limp or anything on him. You know, steady as a rock, and he's telling me that I can be the exact same way.

KNOX: Martinez and his fellow Marine, Cameron West, a single amputee, came back for more visits. And they've pledged to help Celeste and Sydney through the coming weeks and months. Celeste says it was a turning point.

CORCORAN: After I met them, it was like this, you know, this little spark, this little light. Was sort of like, you know, it's really going to be OK. Like, before then - I'm sorry.

KNOX: I didn't mean to upset you.

CORCORAN: No. It was - no, it's important for me to say this. Before then, it was like I knew I was going to live. I knew my loved ones were going to be around me. But for the independent me, after that point it was like I got it, that the sky's the limit. Nothing was away taken from me that I can't get back. I can even be better than I was before.

KNOX: And that's how Celeste Corcoran was feeling as she and Sydney prepared to leave Boston Medical Center and go to a rehab hospital for the next phase of their recovery. Richard Knox, NPR News, Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we'll hear more about Celeste Corcoran and her daughter Sydney, how they feel about the men who made the bombs and what their immediate futures hold.

GREENE: Now, the number of bombing victims still in Boston hospitals is going down every day. Just after the attacks 16 days ago, there were 128 victims hospitalized. As of yesterday, 19 victims were still at the city's five leading trauma centers. All but one are listed in fair or good condition.

MONTAGNE: The nature of the two bombs, exploding at ground level and spewing shrapnel sideways, made lower limb amputations, like the one we've just been hearing about, the hallmark of this tragedy. Altogether 15 bombing victims lost limbs. Two of them, including Celeste Corcoran, lost both legs. Three people died at the scene. But remarkably, despite so many serious injuries and so much blood loss, everyone who made it to a hospital survived.

GREENE: And really that's a testament to Boston's emergency preparedness. The city has a high concentration of hospitals experienced in handling severe trauma. And it was just plain luck. The bombs went off just as the hospital's shifts were changing. So a double crew of doctors, nurses and technicians were on-hand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.