Six Heroic Saves

For the victims of the marathon bombings, the process of healing isn’t merely physical—it’s emotional, too. And the bonds they forged with the doctors who treated them that fateful day have helped restore both mind and body.

By | Boston Magazine |


Photograph by Henry Busby

The Doctor:

Robert Riviello

Trauma, burns, and surgical acute-care doctor, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

The Patient:

Jarrod Clowery

Carpenter and professional pool player, Stoneham

Jarrod Clowery admits that before April 15, he never would have thought that he and Robert Riviello had much in common. But the two quickly bonded over the doctor’s equipment. “Show me a surgeons’ tool set and I can show you its cousin in carpentry,” Clowery says. “They’re basically mechanics on the human body.”

And Clowery needed a lot of bodywork. He’d arrived at Brigham and Women’s covered in second-degree burns; his legs were full of pellets and nails, and he had “shrapnel sticking out all over the place,” Riviello says.

Clowery’s physical recovery was impressive, but Riviello has been even more taken with the way the patient has grappled with the changes in his life. He’s grown closer with his mother and son, and though he’s unable to work construction jobs due to his injuries, he’s now hoping to create a foundation that recognizes everyday heroes. “He’s put a lot of stock into what this means. It wasn’t just that he was injured and recovered. It was that he was injured, recovered, and transformed,” Riviello says.

“You got one second of the worst that humans can possibly do, followed by endless seconds of good,” Clowery says. “If my attitude is an inspiration, it’s because of the doctors and the first responders.”


Photograph by Henry Busby

The Doctor:

Frank Vittimberga

Chief of vascular surgery, Mount Auburn Hospital

The Patient:

Richard “Dic” Donohue

MBTA officer, Woburn

Frank Vittimberga was sleeping when his phone rang just after midnight on April 19. His wife, who’d stayed up watching the news, already knew about the shootout in Watertown. “I said, ‘I have to run into the hospital, someone’s been shot,’ and she said, ‘I don’t know if you should go, they’re throwing bombs,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘I’m used to bombs.’”

Vittimberga, the chief of vascular surgery at Mount Auburn, learned his trade treating soldiers during the Vietnam War. When he reached the hospital, he learned that Donohue had been shot in the groin and was losing blood fast. “There was blood everywhere,” he says. “This bullet had gone into his groin very high up, making a small hole on the outside and a large hole on the inside.”

The operation took six hours, Vittimberga says, and “his leg was perfect by the time we were through.”

Donohue remembers nothing about that night, but when he woke up several days later, he was overwhelmed, both by the sea of visitors (including an entire SWAT team in full gear, several Red Sox players, and Kevin Spacey) and by the patience of the entire hospital staff. “They put up with the line of police officers all day and night,” he says—not to mention his constant requests for Big Macs (no dice).


Photograph by Henry Busby

The Doctor:

David Crandell

Inpatient medical director for the amputee program, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital

The Patients:

Heather Abbott & Roseann Sdoia

Human resources manager, Newport, Rhode Island & Property manager, Boston

As news spread through the city that many of the injured would need amputations, David Crandell began readying his staff. “We’re not first responders. We’re not even second responders,” he said of his team at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. “But we were going to need to respond in a way the other places didn’t.”

Within a week of the bombings, Spaulding was attending to an influx of patients—33 in all, including 16 who had lost limbs and needed to be fitted for prostheses. For Heather Abbott and Roseann Sdoia, it was an odd reunion. They’d met a few times through a mutual friend who had put them back in touch just a week before the marathon. After the blast, they’d been sent to different trauma hospitals for their injuries—Sdoia’s right leg was amputated above the knee, and Abbott lost her left foot—but they arrived at Spaulding at nearly the same time.

Abbott was too upset to take part in the support groups Spaulding offered. “The only other person I was able to interact with was Roseann,” she says. But the pair bonded with Crandell when they learned that he had been the team physician for the U.S. National Amputee Hockey Team, which Sdoia’s friend had played on. In time, Crandell became the women’s team physician as well. This past May, Sdoia played catcher as Abbott practiced maintaining her balance so she could throw the first pitch out at Fenway Park.

“A lot of healing happens here,” Crandell says. “They learn that having an amputation shapes you, but it doesn’t define you.”


Photograph by Henry Busby

The Doctor:

Jeffrey Kalish

Vascular surgeon, Boston Medical Center

The Patient:

Adrianne Haslet-Davis

Professional ballroom dancer, Boston

As she was being wheeled into the operating room at Boston Medical Center, Adrianne Haslet-Davis told everyone within earshot that she was a ballroom dancer, and they needed to save her foot, which had been badly damaged in the blast. Just hours earlier, she’d been celebrating her husband’s return from Afghanistan—they’d toasted his safe arrival over brunch—only to find themselves in a war zone.

“I went into surgery thinking that I wasn’t going to lose it,” she says of her left foot. Shortly after the procedure, she spoke with her surgeon, Jeffrey Kalish. “I could see on his face that he so desperately wanted to tell me that it was still there,” she says.

“I told her, ‘You still are a dancer, it’s just going to be different,’” Kalish says. Then he made her three promises: When it was time for her to have her stitches removed, he wanted to be the one to do it. When she was ready to dance again, he would be there to see her. And when she was ready to take on the Boston Marathon, he’d be cheering for her on the sidelines. “She’s a firecracker,” he says. “I said, ‘I will be there, no matter what it takes, to watch you.’”


Photograph by Henry Busby

The Doctor:

Jennifer L. Hoffman

Orthopedic surgeon, Tufts Medical Center

The Patient:

Lee Ann Yanni

Physical therapist, Boston

Lee Ann Yanni was at the finish line, waiting for one of her physical therapy patients to complete the race, when she felt something warm brush up against her legs. Looking down, she saw bone and blood. “The bone broke out of my skin and shattered in pieces,” she says. She’d seen enough injuries to know it was bad. And yet she began plotting her own recovery in the ambulance on the way to Tufts Medical Center—she’d been training to run the Chicago Marathon, and asked the EMTs if the hospital had good orthopedic surgeons.

Jennifer Hoffman was in the ER when Yanni arrived. “She had a bad open fracture on her leg with shrapnel [in it], and she had some tendon and nerve damage,” she says. Shortly after Hoffman performed the initial trauma surgery, Yanni was already focused on her next race. “The first time I remember seeing her I said, ‘When can I run?’” Yanni recalls.

Hoffman quickly learned the unique challenges that arise when a patient is also a physical therapist. “Lee Ann fully understood the ramifications of what was going on,” says Hoffman, who saw Yanni push herself harder, perhaps, than she might have pushed her own therapy patients. “I think she mentally knew what she should and shouldn’t be able to do, but it was still hard for her to dial it back and say, ‘Okay, this is what’s expected for the injury I have.’”

Yanni was unable to walk on her leg for five and a half weeks, but resumed her marathon training shortly thereafter. “As a PT I knew that I shouldn’t be running, but they knew how important it was for me to do it,” Yanni says. In October she finished the Chicago Marathon in five hours and 44 minutes.


Photograph by Henry Busby

The Doctor:

Tamara Rozental

Orthopedic surgeon, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

The Patient:

Christian Williams

Senior art director, Boston

When Tamara Rozental arrived at Beth Israel shortly after the bombings, Christian Williams “was the first person I laid eyes on,” she says. And his injuries were extensive: Williams had severe wounds on both legs, but Rozental, an upper-extremities specialist, immediately grew concerned about his right hand, which was broken in several places. “His hand had basically been blown off, and his index finger was hanging by a thread,” she says.

“I think she knew right off the bat that my hand was going to take the longest to recover from,” Williams says. Rozental kept tabs on his progress, visiting him daily, but lost track of him after he was released. “I made multiple attempts to get ahold of him and his docs, but I couldn’t find him,” she says. She did have his cell-phone number, so she texted him to make sure he was okay.

Once they made contact, Williams says, “She’d ask me to send her a photo of my wounds every two days” to help manage his care. What began as a string of digital diagnoses developed into a friendship. And when he learned that his girlfriend, Caroline, who was also injured in the blasts, was pregnant, “Dr. Rozental was the third person I told, other than my roommate and my brother, that we were having a baby,” he says.

Now she’s looking forward to getting another cell-phone photo—a baby picture—around Christmas.

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