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'Battered and broken': Mom of Boston Marathon victim recalls agony after blasts

Audrey Epstein Reny chronicles the agonizing months after the Boston Marathon blasts in a beautiful piece about her daughter.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Audrey Epstein Reny was watching the Boston Marathon with her daughter, Gillian, when the bombs went off near the race's finish line on Boylston Street three years ago. In an exclusive essay for TODAY, Audrey chronicles the chaos after the blasts, and the agonizing months that followed.

My daughter Gillian’s rose-colored dance bag sits untouched in my mudroom. It has been almost three years now. My heart aches every time I walk by it, but I can’t move it. Instead, I cling to the hope that there will be a reason to reach in and pull out a leotard or pair of tights to make sure they are clean and ready for her to wear.

Audrey Epstein Reny and Gillian Reny
Audrey Epstein Reny and her daughter Gillian together last year.Courtesy of Audrey Epstein Reny

It is not looking likely, but as long as the bag is on the shelf, the possibility remains. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can see my daughter twirling to classical music in a sparkly tutu. My graceful beauty with golden blond hair and a radiant, infectious smile suddenly transforms into a brave warrior. The tutu is gone, replaced by her blood-stained white fleece jacket, her beautiful dancer legs splayed open on a sidewalk that morphs into a battlefield of strewn body parts.

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I am not supposed to know what my daughter’s bones and muscles look like, yet I can’t fully shake these images from my memory. It happened so unexpectedly. I was looking through my camera lens, searching for my first born as she completed her first 26.2 miles from Hopkinton to Boston. I was intensely focused on the blur of brilliant colored bibs as they rushed by on the singlets of elated marathoners approaching the finish line.

Suddenly a deafening silence took over my body. The world seemed to stop, then became an eerie cloud of gray stillness, erupting into screeching chaos.

I became aware of the weight of my younger daughter wilted in my arms, her legs blown apart. Battered and broken bodies were everywhere. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I am sincere when I say, we were fortunate, too. Our first hero, a former soldier, appeared from behind the smoke and made tourniquets on Gillian’s legs. My husband and my father, our second heroes, held onto the tourniquets with all of their strength in a valiant but futile effort to control the bleeding. Once in the ambulance, I perched at Gillian’s feet, my eyes transfixed on her ravaged body.

When we arrived at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I implored the doctors and nurses to do everything possible to save my precious girl and begged them to return her to me with both legs. She’s only 18. She’s a dancer. This is a nightmare. This can’t be happening. All of my neurons were firing, trying to understand the barrage of complex medical jargon I was hearing so I could do my best to advocate for her.

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Within 30 minutes of the bombing, Gillian was in surgery and in the care of more heroes. These men and women were put on this planet with a calling for a higher purpose — to heal. They took my baby’s broken body and, over time, miraculously put her back together again.

She is now a patchwork quilt. Skin, muscle and other parts harvested from all over her body combined with metal rods to rebuild her devastated legs. Who knew that a new calf could be made from a stomach muscle? That new patches of human skin could be transferred and stretched to cover open tissue?

Gillian and Audrey in the hospital in 2013
Audrey stays by her daughter Gillian's side in the hospital while she recovers from the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.Courtesy of Lori J. Schroth

Those early days were filled with uncertainty and endless waiting. I spent almost six weeks in the hospital by her side. We called it our “longest sleepover” ever and cherished the constant stream of visits from family and friends. Through it all, Gillian and I marveled at the amazing doctors, nurses and other members of her care team, and wondered how we could ever thank them enough.

As Gillian began to recover, we learned more about the prevalence of trauma — that it is the No. 1 killer of young people ages 1-46 and accounts for 30 percent of all lives lost annually. That 41 million trauma patients seek emergency care across the country each year, and $585 billion is spent on healthcare costs and lost productivity due to trauma. The impact is staggering and far-reaching — from texting teenagers in car accidents to overly aggressive tackles on the playing field to soldiers on the battlefield. We now knew, firsthand, that life can change in an instant at anytime, anywhere in the world.

It became clear that our “thank you” would be to support and advance the research and training of trauma physicians and scientists so they can continue performing miracles for trauma patients like Gillian. Despite the growing need for trauma care across the globe due to an ever-increasing frequency of violence, we could not find anyone who was focusing fundraising on this critical area of medicine. This is why we founded the Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Fund. In two years, we have raised $6.7 million, funded nine physician-scientist teams and established a fellowship to train the next generation of trauma surgeons.

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And I became a warrior, too, on a mission to help spare other people from the devastation of traumatic injuries. As we approach the 2016 Boston Marathon, I hope to invoke the same "Boston Strong" spirit that bolstered our family and so many others in 2013. This time, I would like the focus to be on supporting the work of the ER doctors, vascular, orthopedic and plastic surgeons, biotech scientists and regenerative medicine researchers who are reaching new frontiers and finding innovative ways to transform outcomes for civilian trauma survivors, as well as the service men and women wounded while fighting to protect our freedom.

Our lives changed in an instant on that brilliant sunny day. The experience was tragic, yet miraculously full of tremendous good fortune. Gillian is in college now, living her life in a “new normal,” but with the same exuberant spirit, and we feel incredibly blessed. Our immense gratitude that her fate fell in the hands of an expert medical team has ignited a passion to further their work. I take solace in knowing that our efforts could one day aid in saving the lives and limbs of other families’ loved ones, and that maybe — just maybe —someday my beautiful ballerina may dance again.

As long as the bag sits on the shelf, there is hope.