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New friendships, connections emerge from tragedy of Boston Marathon bombings

Mary Perra gives Jeff Bauman a hug and kiss while visiting with him at at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, May 5, 2013. Perra is the grandmother of Michele Mahoney, Bauman's friend that was with him the day of the Boston Marathon. Bauman says he gets visitors around the clock. 

(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

Mary Perra gives Jeff Bauman a hug and kiss while visiting with him at at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, May 5, 2013. Perra is the grandmother of Michele Mahoney, Bauman's friend that was with him the day of the Boston Marathon. Bauman says he gets visitors around the clock. (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

It was a series of calamitous, unimaginable moments that brought college student Rob Wheeler and the Brassard family of Epsom together at the Boston Marathon. A deafening explosion; Wheeler’s decision to run back toward the finish line, which he’d crossed 10 minutes before; Krystara Brassard screaming for someone to come help her father, Ron, as she held his bleeding leg while he lay on the ground.

As Wheeler, 23, took off his race shirt and wrapped it around Ron’s leg, he had no idea that later that week he’d attend a Red Sox game with that man’s family. As he held up Ron’s leg and wheeled him toward an ambulance, he didn’t know he’d soon be inviting the family to his college graduation. But when he met Ron again three days later at Tufts Medical Center, the two were instantly comfortable in each other’s presence. When Wheeler met the rest of the family a few days later, it was a natural fit.

“When I did get to see him for the first time, I hugged him, and I said ‘Like it not, you’re one of ours now,’ ” Ron’s wife, Karen, said.

Many connections such as this have sparked between those injured in the bombings, their families and the people who helped save their lives. Bonding with others over shared experiences is crucial to healing after a tragic event. For some, like Wheeler and the Brassards, it can be the beginning of a long-term, almost familial bond. For others, it may be a brief conversation or hug.

“Talking about it, connecting with other people is really the healthiest way forward,” said Dr. Chris Carter, director of continuity for brain injury and spinal cord services for Spaulding Rehabilitation Network, which operates the Boston hospital where the most severely injured patients are still recovering.

These connections are also proof that something wonderful can come from even the greatest terror.

“It is just an unexpected pleasure to come out of something so scary,” Karen Brassard said. “You just find that in life – some of the best things that happen to you happen unexpectedly.”

For the few days after the marathon, Wheeler could barely sleep, wondering if the man he’d helped was still alive. He went on the news two days later and said he was looking for the man. All he knew was his name was Ron and his daughter had been with him. That night, he got a Facebook message from Ron’s sister who had seen the clip. It was past midnight, but Wheeler responded, got Ron’s phone number and called him right away. The next day, he went to the hospital, where Ron was recovering from three surgeries including a skin graft from his thigh to patch a giant chunk taken from his calf.

He’s been home for a few weeks with both Karen, who had two surgeries to remove shrapnel from her legs, and Krystara, who damaged her ankle and also had small pieces of shrapnel all down her legs.

“When I first met him, it was relieving. It was just this weight, like taking off a backpack or something like that,” Wheeler said. “And of course, like Ron, I kind of deal with a lot of things with humor. One of the first things I said to him was, ‘I hear you have my shirt.’ ”

The friendship has grown ever since. At the Red Sox game, when Karen first met Wheeler, she said he was protective and did everything possible to make sure she was comfortable. A few weeks later, the family joined Wheeler as he was honored at a Boston Celtics game for helping victims. Next Sunday, the Brassards will attend his graduation from Framingham State University.

“I don’t think there’s been a day since April 18 when one of the three of us has not communicated with Rob,” said Ron, 51.

They talk a lot about how the Brassards are feeling, to be sure, but a friendship based on more than the bombings is quickly developing. Wheeler said he and Ron have so much in common he’s sure they’d be friends if they met another way. Sometimes, Wheeler worries that he’ll bring painful memories of April 15 back to the family, Karen said. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I just keep telling him I can’t make you understand enough how it’s exactly the opposite – you don’t remind us of the negativity, you remind us of how amazing people are,” she said.

Patient to patient

In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, many of the injured were isolated from each other as they underwent surgeries and were split among a number of hospitals. But the most severely injured, who went to Spaulding in Charlestown, now have a chance to connect formally and informally. Spaulding clusters patients with similar conditions on the same floor, making it easy for patients to pass each other in the hallway or visit each others’ rooms.

“Prior to coming here they’d been in different hospitals, they’d been in private rooms,” Carter, the doctor, said. “They arrived here, now they’re getting mobile, they’re getting out and about, they’re able to see other amputees and other patients, (they’re) wanting to share stories and sort of process and talk about their experience.”

On April 30, a survivors’ support group met formally for the first time. It was an emotional meeting, as it was the first time many of them could really talk about their pain and confusion with others who truly understood it, Carter said. They didn’t have to explain the details to each other of what they had gone through, because they had all been there. It’s similar to how military service members share their most painful experiences with each other, but not with friends and family.

“There were a lot of tears, talking about how frightened they were,” Carter said.

In the group’s second meeting, the patients were talking about all of the outpouring of support, emotionally and financially, they have been receiving from complete strangers. The support can be overwhelming, but it seems to be providing hope.

“You can see the group as a whole is recovering and repairing,” Carter said.

As the patients begin to leave and return home, they will experience many ups and downs in their recoveries. But Spaulding tries to focus on the idea of traumatic growth, meaning that people can grow and find positive experiences through even the worst situations.

“We’re not going to focus on the evil, we’re going to acknowledge that it exists, but we’re going to seek the goodness,” Carter said. “That is where your strength comes from, not so much what had happened to you but what do you make of that.”

There’s also a family support group. For parents, children and siblings, watching a loved one go through so much pain is devastating. Talking with others who are in the same, sometimes dark, place can help them cope.

“The whole family has to adjust to this new reality,” Carter said.

Family ties

Two of those family members are Jeff Bauman of Concord, whose son, also Jeff, lost both legs in the bombing and was pictured in a now-iconic photo, and Alvaro Galvis, of Nashua. Sitting together in the cafeteria at Spaulding last weekend, they described the days after the bombing in the same way – “like walking in a big fog.”

Galvis himself was injured and has had two surgeries to remove shrapnel from the back of one of his thighs. But he’s now taken on the role of supportive family member that Bauman is intimately familiar with. Galvis’s wife, Martha, is recovering at Spaulding. She lost several fingers in the bombing and may never regain feeling in some of her toes, which means she has a long road before she can walk again. As of last weekend, Galvis hadn’t been home since the bombing.

Although their family members’ rooms were in the same hallway, the two men had never met until they sat together in the cafeteria. But they were quickly able to relate based on similar experiences: the pain of watching a loved one suffer and the uncertainty that the future holds, emotionally, medically and financially. When Galvis realized Bauman’s son was the young man in that now-famous photo, and the one who helped identify one of the Tsarnaev brothers to the FBI, tears began to well in his eyes.

“I’m going to go by there,” he said, referring to the younger Bauman’s room.

Galvis talked about what he remembered from the finish line – his wife screaming their children’s names, blood pouring out of her like a faucet. Bauman talked about the difficulties that lie ahead for his son, who had both legs amputated above the knees.

The experiences of the two men were not identical. One had actually witnessed the horror, another had only seen its effects. But the Boston Marathon bombings had touched them both, and given them an instant, if brief, connection.

“You don’t understand unless you live through this,” Galvis said.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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