For Amy West, a fourth-year medical student at Harvard Medical School, the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings on Apr. 15 had special meaning. In many ways, the event changed her life.
Grabbing lunch before stopping to observe the city’s televised marathon tribute in the Tosteson Medical Education Center atrium, West talked about her rotation at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital last year after the bombings.
“After people were discharged from acute care hospitals, they still had whole lives to rebuild. The real healing starts when people have to face that their life has changed,” said West. “It affected their families, their jobs, their homes and everyday things that we take for granted. It made me realize how important that is.”
Working with many of the bombing survivors who required rehabilitative care, informed West’s decision to specialize in physical medicine and rehabilitation. She saw how important it was to help people adjust to the next phase in life after an injury.
One patient gave her a bracelet as thanks.
“To have a patient show you gratitude, when they’ve taught you so much and they’ve been through so much themselves, it means something. For me it’s something that I’ll always take with me when I’m treating patients,” she said. “I’ll know that the things that I do can have a big impact. Little things can go a long way.”
Every Contribution Matters
West was one of hundreds of members of the HMS community who gathered together on the one-year anniversary of the bombings, not only to reflect on the tragedy that claimed three lives and injured more than 260 people—but also to express gratitude for the work that was done to save lives and to demonstrate pride in the city’s resiliency.
West said she learned about the power of gratitude and determination from these patients, and through the tragedy she has sought learning experiences.
“During our third and fourth years, students are at different locations for rotations, and this made us reflect on our roles as medical students and on the community that exists here and within the hospitals,” said West, who believes the focus on Boston hospitals during the marathon created a greater sense of community among care providers.
“Sometimes we can feel that we’re part of a machine, and we don't realize the importance of every individual’s role,” she said. “Even as a student, I can contribute to making a patient’s life a little bit better, which is nice.”
After she graduates in May, West will begin her residency training at Spaulding. In the meantime the New York native, whose father was a 9/11 first responder, is organizing a fundraiser for Boston marathon survivors through her Crossfit gym.
“It affected the medical community so much, how can we not reflect? I think we should. It’s our job to reflect on it every year, out of respect,” said West. “It’s easy to forget what happened or to push it out of our minds, but it’s important to reflect and remember.”
Survivors, Families and Caregivers Reunite
Reflecting and remembering were the order of the day, not just on the HMS campus, but also at ceremonies and events at the HMS-affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutions, where hundreds of those wounded in the 2013 attacks were cared for, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Children’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, McLean Hospital, Mt. Auburn Hospital and Spaulding.
At Brigham and Women’s, a panel of five former patients who were brought to the hospital from the site of the bombings with serious injuries expressed overwhelming gratitude to the hospital teams who treated them—many of the survivors thanking physicians in the audience by name.
A common sentiment among the panelists was that the hospital care they received, coupled with the work they have since undertaken to overcome their injuries, has inspired them to try to help others.
“It’s important for someone who has faced adversity to then be a leader in inspiring the community, and to show how you can take something bad that happened to you and move forward and do something really positive,” said Audrey Reny, who sat on the panel with her daughter Gillian, who nearly lost her life in the blast. Brigham and Women’s doctors saved her and both her legs from amputation.
The Reny family recently launched the Stepping Strong Fund to support research in trauma healing and limb reconstruction.
Later in the morning, representatives from medical teams at Brigham and Women’s reflected on their collective efforts.
Zara Cooper, HMS assistant professor of surgery at Brigham and Women’s, who helped save lives and limbs on the day of the bombings, said one of her most vivid memories was not one from the trauma bay, but instead a phone message she received while walking home at midnight.
The message, from a fellow surgeon, asked a simple question: “OK team. What’s next?”
“The plastic surgeons, the orthopedic surgeons, the trauma surgeons, were all pulling together to figure out the operating room schedule for the next day. And not a moment had gone by that we had stopped caring for the people who were there,” Cooper said. “This was the pinnacle of professionalism and dedication. It set the bar, for me, moving forward.”
Cooper said when she reflected on the day’s tragic events she avoided dwelling on feelings of fear, sadness or negativity.
“It’s really replaced by this pride, and this overwhelming gratitude, that I do what I do, that I am with the people that I'm with, and that I was able to witness such courage and strength and resolve,” she said. “The kindness and gentleness over the weeks that followed have left a real imprint on me, and on our community and how we work together.”
At many Harvard teaching hospitals, the brave acts of physicians, first responders and heroic bystanders were lauded, while opportunities for reflection and support were offered to survivors and caregivers. Although the events acknowledged the collective tragedy and pain, participants also shared an attitude of courage and a sense of resilience.
Beth Israel Deaconess hosted forums and provided meditation opportunities for staff, along with short commemorative ceremonies.
Outside the hospital, displays made of fencing, similar to the makeshift memorials erected after the bombings, were set up for people to leave messages of support, inspiration and healing. One message read, “The more you run, the stronger you get, so don’t stop.”
The display, organizers said, was a tangible way to recognize all the victims of violence whom the hospital cares for on a daily basis.
“People had a feeling that chronic violence was left off the lens, and we wanted to increase the aperture,” said Lisa Hartwick, director of the hospital’s Center for Violence Prevention and Recovery.
Hartwick said the displays and anniversary events offered an opportunity for community members to know that their feelings are shared. “I think sometimes people feel alone in it and that nobody else is experiencing it,” Hartwick said.
Many Hospitals, One Community
At Dana-Farber, a group gathered at noon for music, reflection and a moment of shared silence in the first-floor lobby of the Yawkey Center. Susanne Robertson, DFCI musician volunteer, and Cheryl Adamick, who works in Psychology, Oncology & Palliative Care, played piano and sang from the second floor balcony.
On the third floor, near the Garden of Healing, members of the community wrote messages of hope and healing to the survivors of the bombings, and left notes of encouragement to runners preparing for the race this year.
Outside the Longwood Medical Area, Mass General hosted Remembrance, Reflection and Renewal, a daylong event featuring music and readings, and a panel discussion on lessons learned. Mass Eye and Ear organized a marathon tribute and broadcast the city ceremonies for the benefit of patients and staff.
At McLean, a special rounds titled Boston Strong and Beyond: One Year Later, was planned for April 24. McLean is also partnering with the greater Belmont-Watertown communities, on a variety of activities.
Mt. Auburn Hospital, where the injured were treated on the day of the marathon and an MBTA officer was treated after sustaining a near-fatal gunshot wound in the aftermath of the bombings, co-sponsored a blood drive on Saturday, April, 19 called “Watertown Strong.” The hospital also organized a one-year memorial service for staff members.
Boston Children’s Hospital shared expert advice and tips on how to help children deal with anxiety caused by and questions about the anniversary of the marathon bombings. Tip sheets for school administrators, teachers and parents are available online. In addition, more than 360 people signed up to run this year’s marathon for the Boston Children’s Miles for Miracles team. Eight patients were treated at Boston Children’s after the bombings, the youngest, two years old.
The Final Miles
Back at HMS, Genoa Polumbo, HMS project/content support coordinator in the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Countway, wrapped up lunch as the live broadcast tribute came to a close.
“Even though we weren’t directly involved, we help the researchers and doctors very indirectly. It’s nice to be a part of that community, to be associated with that,” said Polumbo. “It really affected all of us, and we wanted to come here and remember and be a part of our community.”
Like many Longwood area employees, each Marathon Monday Polumbo walks with colleagues during her lunch hour, from her office to Beacon Street, so they can see part of the finish of the race. She said she won’t be afraid this year, despite what has happened, because she doesn't want to focus on the evil in the world.
“We walk to mile 24 and cheer on the runners, and that’s been a really nice work tradition,” she said. “I plan to be at work and to rally the people there to go and cheer again. I think it will be a really special marathon this year.”