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Fort Covington man helps Boston bombing victim heal

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MALONE - Boston, Mass. is a long way from Malone, N.Y.

About six hours of driving, to be more exact. But it’s not every day a bomb goes off in the United States, making the city feel a little bit closer to home nowadays than it normally would.

April 15, 2013, was a day that shook Boston to its core. Two pressure-cooker bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring over 260 more. Sixteen people lost legs as a result of the blast and shrapnel.

Countless more suffered the emotional and psychological distress of having terrorists attack the place they call home in the middle of celebration, joy and triumph.

But somehow, some way, people moved forward. The city mourned and rallied, raising over $71.3 million to date through the Massachusetts-government-based One Fund campaign. Victims of the blast received the medical treatments they needed, and slowly, ever so slowly, they began to recover.

And even as the days go by and Boston drifts a little farther away from our thoughts, the north country is actively involved in Beantown’s healing process.

Local Ties

Enter Paul Ghostlaw, a Fort Covington native who has spent the past two decades building a name for himself in Boston. An athlete all his life, he always had dreams of going pro; eventually he settled on the more realistic dream of pursuing a profession in which he could help athletes of all ages and skill levels recover from injuries and get back to doing what they love.

He’s now an orthopedic and sports physical therapist with his own practice in Brookline, Mass., a town adjacent to the city and often considered by the locals as just another neighborhood. Beantown Physio is no longer just a dream but a reality.

When tragedy struck the city he loves, as a physical therapist Ghostlaw knew what many victims were going to go through and didn’t hesitate to extend a helping hand. Beantown Physio made a pledge of pro bono physical therapy in late April, despite the months of rehab victims would go through before they were ready to stretch, walk and run within the practice’s walls.

“I knew we as an outpatient practice would have some type of play in their recovery,” Ghostlaw said. “I wanted to do something to give back and help these people in any way possible. I wanted to do whatever I could to help them get moving.”

Some three months later, marathon victim Michele Mahoney reached out for help. She had heard about the practice through both her supporters at a local gym and a nurse manager at Beth Israel hospital who screened pledges for pro bono work from local medical institutions, distributing only information on reputable practices to bombing victims.

Mahoney had sustained extensive shrapnel damage to both legs during the first blast.

Beantown Physio’s no-strings-attached physical therapy pledge was exactly what the doctor ordered. Mahoney had been buried for months in paperwork, most of it from her Worchester, Mass.-based insurance company, which required referrals for all the medical help she was receiving from doctors in Boston.

“I would have days where insurance companies were calling me all day long,” Mahoney said. “It was just a nightmare sometimes, and I got to this point where I said I just can’t do this. I don’t want to talk to these people anymore.”

Mahoney described times that she’d be sitting in a hospital bed, scribbling out answers to queries like “please describe your injury” and “please describe the events leading up to your injury,” and naming every surgeon and doctor she’d seen since the bombings — which number quite a few after a long recovery process.

It was “overwhelming” when all she wanted was to focus on standing and moving –– simple things that as a once extremely active 25-year-old she had somewhat taken for granted.

“I went from running 11 miles and powerlifting at the gym to doing leg lifts in bed. That was all I could do,” she said.

“And so to have someone that was offering this service for free that would take me out of that situation and allow me to just focus on the recovery, and not have this timeline, and not have this worry about it, was really attractive to me.”

Her first unsteady steps into Ghostlaw’s practice signified her turn into the final stretch of recovery. With Ghostlaw’s help, she is approaching the finish line.

Bombs in Boston

Mahoney’s race to recovery began with a finish line. One she was cheering beside, out on the street of her city to support her best friend and roommate, Erin Hurley, who had spent months training for the hilly, 26-mile course

When the first bomb went off, she was barely a few feet away. After spending a day rushing around the city with friends Jeff Bauman and Remy Lawler, waving posters and screaming with painted faces, it was more than unexpected.

It was unreal.

There had been, of all things, a man in a hamburger costume running a bit ahead of Hurley. Mahoney was searching the steady stream of nearby runners with an intense “laser focus” for her friend, and after witnessing him run by she took a few steps forward for a better look. One, two, three steps away from Bauman.

Almost everyone around her lost legs. Bauman, who has become a sort of face of the bombing victims after being captured in an iconic Associated Press photo of the aftermath, lost both. She was within an arm’s length of one of the three fatalities.

It was only a few steps difference.

“From the very beginning, I knew that it was not necessarily a bomb but I felt like it was done to hurt people. I just had this feeling that it was something that was done on purpose,” Mahoney said. “And looking around and seeing the scene, you know, there’s body parts lying on the ground next to me. Looking down at my own legs and recognizing that most of my jeans are kind of blown off. And I couldn’t move my legs.”

A fear for her friends forced Mahoney to keep looking, past two people she immediately took for dead. She couldn’t see Lawler anywhere. Scared and confused, she turned for Bauman.

“I saw [Jeff’s] legs before I saw his face and remember thinking ‘Oh god, that person doesn’t have legs anymore,’” she said. “We had this moment where we didn’t say anything. Nothing was said at all. We were just looking in each other’s eyes and trying to comprehend what happened.”

Ghostlaw, in comparison, had spent the morning like many in the city that day. He began by watching the marathon day Red Sox game, which let out around 2 p.m., a little less than an hour before the explosions.

He and his wife wandered out with the baseball crowd to watch the runners, meet friends, and grab a bite to eat. While waiting in line to enter a restaurant, the distraught woman behind him said a transformer had blown up at the finish line.

He blew it off as a small thing.

But soon the streets were being swept by Boston Police officers.

No one knew what was going on. Even with all the televisions inside the restaurant turned to local news stations, Ghostlaw and those around him knew very little about the scene some three miles down the road.

“For something like this to occur at the marathon is difficult to express because we didn’t know what it was. Some type of explosion, but you didn’t think that it was actually what it turned out to be,” Ghostlaw said. It wasn’t until he received texts from friends all over the country asking if he was alright that he began to realize the scale of what had just occurred.

As he and his wife walked back to Ghostlaw’s practice in Brookline, ambulances flew past them on the street.

Meanwhile, Mahoney had been moved to a medical tent, where her injuries were classified as “not life threatening” and people rushed about in a “movie-like” way as they speculated about whether or not she would lose her left leg. Eventually she was rushed to the hospital and entered the first of four surgeries.

The only time she ever really watched the news was the night of the marathon. She was trying to make what happened real. Even as she lay in a hospital bed, she couldn’t connect a day of laughter and fun with friends to the sheer terror and chaos of the bombings.

As she watched the broadcast footage roll through images, Mahoney said, “Oh, there I am getting put into an ambulance. There I am on the ground.” There she was on the television, but it still didn’t seem like it happened to her.

“I try to think, okay, I was blown up by a terrorist’s bomb. It’s kind of a hard thing to wrap your head around,” she said.

As the story unfolded, the bombers were identified as Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev; shots were fired on MIT campus, killing a campus police officer; suspects carjacked an SUV; exchanged gunfire on the streets of Watertown, Mass.; and Boston was locked down. The manhunt that ensued was unprecedented.

It left Tamerlan Tsarnaev dead, shot by police and run over by his own brother. Dzhokar Tsarnaev was eventually discovered hiding injured in a boat in a Watertown resident’s backyard.

“Whether you lived here in Boston or you lived in New York, or even anywhere around the country, your eyes were glued to the story,” Ghostlaw said.

A Long Recovery

“Why was I the one to keep both legs?” Mahoney wondered aloud. She’s absolutely thankful she was, but the question is hard. Equally hard is why she and her friends were so close to the bomb. Why was there a bomb at all?

In one second, the lives of everyone around Mahoney changed. And yet, the bombings still don’t feel real. She admits she doesn’t know if they ever will.

What is real are her injuries. And because they’re real, and every day, Mahoney has made the conscious choice to let go of all the whys and potential anger for what happened to her and just focus on getting better. She sees no use in obsessing over what happened –– every day of her recovery has been about getting back to life as usual.

“From day one she had a smile on her face, and I don’t know if I could have had that same smile,” Ghostlaw said.

Mahoney suffered extensive damage to both legs that required four surgeries, four months in hospitals and at home with her parents and extensive physical therapy. It was a long journey, she says, despite what it may look like from the outside. An independent person at her core, learning to let people help her with simple things like getting dressed and washing her face took time. It was frustrating.

But she pushed forward.

Mahoney refused to adhere to an original estimate of eight to nine months before she was back to work and independent. Instead it took her four. She powered through every milestone and fought for every bit of her mobility.

She started at Beantown Physio around the same time she was moving back into her own apartment and starting up her job again.

“Actually one of the things that Paul said to me on my first intake here was ‘Your legs are your priority.’ And that kind of stuck with me,” she said.

Because even as she had just reached her ultimate goal of independence, of returning to life as usual, Ghostlaw made her stop and think about slowing down and allowing herself time to rest and recover. Instead of marching ceaselessly forward, Mahoney has accepted that now and again she should stop and take a break.

At the same time, she said, Ghostlaw pushes her to work at a steady pace, not letting her slack off when she’s “tired and lazy” or surge ahead before she’s really ready.

“For the most part I’m doing a lot of what I was doing before, which has been nice,” Mahoney said. “It’s a work in progress, and every day’s a little bit different in how I feel and how my legs feel. But I’ve definitely made some huge strides here.”

And how has it been for Ghostlaw working with her?

“Terrible,” he said with a laugh. “Michele is a great young lady. And we’ve seen some great changes with her strength, her power and her flexibility.”

“Michele’s close. I know she’s got some work to do yet, but she’s made some great strides here and she’ll continue to make great strides over the next six to 12 months.”

It is possible that Mahoney may never retain the full power and functionality she once had, he continued, and that’s a sad reality. But everyone at Beantown Physio is going to do everything in their power to help her do the best she can.

“This is my most positive physical therapy experience of all that I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot,” Mahoney said with a smile.

She’s recovering. Almost there.

Just like Boston.


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