Health

'Twice as strong': Brothers rebound after Boston bombing

April 14, 2014 at 10:57 AM ET

Michael Rubenstein / For NBC News
In this series of three images, Boston Marathon bombing survivors Paul, left, and J.P. Norden pose for a portrait outside their home in Stoneham, Mass., on April 7, 2014, a week before the one-year anniversary the terrorist attack in which both lost a right leg.

No one in the Norden family of Stoneham, Mass., wants to focus on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Not Liz Norden, who got the call every parent dreads last April 15: “Ma, I’m hurt real bad.”

And not her sons J.P. Norden and Paul Norden, the close-knit brothers who each lost a leg and suffered burns and other lingering injuries in the makeshift bomb blasts that killed three people and injured 264.

“As of right now, I don’t think of it as the anniversary. I don’t really think of it like that,” J.P. Norden, 34, told NBC News. “I think of it as another day of getting myself better.”

The months since the twin pressure-cooker bombs exploded on that April afternoon have been a whirlwind of devastating loss and unexpected triumph as the young men grappled with the severity of their injuries, said Liz Norden, 51.

Michael Rubenstein / For NBC News
Boston Marathon Bombing survivors J.P. Norden puts on his prosthetic leg at home in Stoneham, Mass., Monday, April 7 2014,

“We’re just regular people from a small town,” she said. “This year has been like a roller coaster ride with ups, downs and everything in between. It’s just that your life can change in the blink of an eye.”

Both brothers lost their right legs. J.P.’s is gone below the knee, leaving behind a stump riddled with sensitive nerve endings that have made fitting a prosthetic limb difficult. He’s endured several operations, including one that left him hospitalized for a month after doctors removed skin from his back to graft to the end of his leg. He lost 80 percent of the hearing in both ears from the force of the blasts.

“This year has been like a roller coaster ride with ups, downs and everything in between. It’s just that your life can change in the blink of an eye.”

Paul, 32, had to have his leg amputated above the knee, and he’s gotten adept at using his high-tech prosthetic with its microprocessor joint. But his injuries put him in a coma and left him with life-threatening infections and a right hand that still doesn’t work correctly. At the same time, the normally private, reserved man still hasn’t gotten used to being stopped on the street as a local celebrity.

“It took some getting used to when I realized that people were looking at me because of the news,” Paul said in their just-out book “Twice as Strong: 12 seconds, 2 Brothers and the Marathon that Changed Their Lives,” written with David Smitherman. “It’s humbling because that’s not something that we really thought about before.”

The brothers, who were out-of-work roofers before the attack, hope to return to their trade, perhaps as early as this summer, Liz Norden said. Though they won’t be able to clamber on rooftops, J.P. Norden may handle the business side of the venture while Paul Norden fabricates metal.

In addition, both brothers have been kept busy with constant media requests and the publicity demands of telling — and re-telling — their story.

“I literally had probably last week three to five interviews a day,” said J.P. Norden. “It keeps you real busy and it keeps your mind off of a lot of things.”

Image: Brothers J.P. and Paul Norden
Michael Rubenstein / For NBC News
As the anniversary of the bombing approaches, the Norden brothers have been besieged with interview requests from media organizations.

Going through such a traumatic ordeal together was a mixed experience for the young men, they say. Although they had the common experience of limb loss, surgery and recovery, they had their individual trials as well, J.P. Norden said.

“We were hurt so differently,” he said. “Watching Paul actually be hurt, that sucked. I didn’t want to see that. Even though it was good for us to help each other out, it sucked to see that.”

As they’ve worked hard to get well, the Norden brothers have refused to follow the investigation and criminal proceedings surrounding Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect accused of planting the marathon bombs.

In contrast, Liz Norden attended a court hearing in July and said she plans to follow every detail of an upcoming trial.

“I want to know what happened to my boys that day,” Liz Norden said. “Their lives are forever changed. As a mom or a parent, I just want to know.”

Slowly, the Norden brothers are moving forward with their lives. Paul Norden proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Jacqui Webb, at Christmas, and the pair plan to wed sometime after next year. J.P. Norden said he and his girlfriend, Kelly Castine, are closer than ever.

“When you come that close to dying and being that hurt, it can only change your outlook. They’re different. They appreciate things more.”

“Me and her have always been pretty tight,” he said.

But Liz Norden said her boys have been altered in ways that go beyond their injuries.

“They were both on death’s door,” she said. “When you come that close to dying and being that hurt, it can only change your outlook. They’re different. They appreciate things more.”

That’s the biggest reason that the anniversary of the bombing is less important than what comes next, Liz Norden said.

“They’ve come such full circle, that I personally don’t focus on the anniversary. I’ve been focusing on getting them back to where they want to be.”

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