Gillian Reny arrived for freshman orientation at the University of Pennsylvania in August, just days after she had started to walk again.
Penn assigned her a first-floor dorm room and scheduled her classes near each other, knowing it was a struggle for her just to be on campus. She did not hide what had happened to her. But she didn’t want to alarm anyone either.
“No one’s expecting someone to say they were in a bombing just because they’re on crutches,” she said. “You expect them to say they sprained their ankle or fell off their bike.”
As the weeks passed, she would join a sorority, make close friendships, and learn to cope with her academic work, while a lightened course load left time for physical therapy.
“I felt like a normal freshman for the most part,” she said.
“Which is so unbelievable,” added her mother, Audrey. “Given where she was on April 15 last year.”
On that sunny spring day, Gillian stood with her parents near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. They were cheering on her older sister when the first bomb exploded.
Less than an hour later, she lay on an operating table at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where doctors having first saved her life, began the daunting battle to save her leg, much of the lower right calf blown away and the bone shattered. Doctors feared they would need to amputate.
The moment would forever change the young woman’s life, as it would that of an American city, “but I didn’t want it to define me,” Gillian, 19, said last week as she sat with her mother at the Sweeten Alumni House.
The Renys try not to dwell on what happened at the race, one year ago Tuesday. Yet they are determined to help victims of similar injuries and support the hospital and its staff. So they speak of that day in hopes of raising awareness for their “Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Fund.”
The family aims to raise $3 million for research into limb recovery. It has seeded the fund with an undisclosed amount.
On April 21, Reny’s mother; father, Steven; and sister, Danielle, will run this year’s marathon to raise money and honor Gillian.
“The work of the hospital is so important to us that we decided, or Gillian decided, she would do anything for them,” Audrey said. “Everyone had an extraordinary level of compassion that was kind of above and beyond the call of duty and really embraced our family and Gillian in particular.”
The Boston Marathon was familiar territory for the Renys, who live in that city’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. Audrey had run the 26.2-mile race three times, and her husband had run it once. It was the first time for Danielle, a junior biology major at Harvard, so the three other Renys stood among hundreds of thousands of spectators on Boylston Street for the annual Patriots’ Day rite.
The first blast caught Gillian and her parents. The second knocked Danielle off her feet.
With the city thrown into chaos, Gillian and her parents were raced in the same ambulance to Brigham and Women’s, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.
Shrapnel pocked Audrey’s leg. Steven had trouble hearing. Danielle was unharmed.
Gillian suffered the worst of it. Her left leg had a deep gash. The right looked lost.
“We thought amputation,” said Christian Sampson, a plastic surgeon at the hospital. “This is a below-the-knee amputation.”
Audrey urged doctors to do all they could to save her daughter’s leg, in part because of the teenager’s passion for dance. Gillian trained with the Boston Ballet as a child and later with a modern dance company.
Her doctors - a team that included vascular, trauma, orthopedic, and plastic-surgery specialists - were surprised to find a main artery and nerve in the young woman’s leg intact.
“Here we had a leg that was alive but had sustained a terrible soft-tissue loss,” Sampson said.
In the first operation, doctors attached an external frame that looked like an erector set to the leg. In the second, they cleaned the wound and fed a rod into the tibia. In the third, Sampson transplanted skin and muscle from Gillian’s abdomen to close the wound.
For 5 ½ weeks, Audrey slept at the hospital, watching over her daughter, a resilient young woman with an open, expressive face and long blond hair.
Three people died and more than 260 were injured, many losing limbs. Like other victims, the Renys were buoyed by an outpouring of support. They received prayer shawls, letters of encouragement from communities as far away as Israel, and notes from schools and communities across the country.
“We were overwhelmed,” Audrey said.
Sampson was impressed by Gillian’s attitude, even in the early days when there was no certainty her leg could be saved.
“There was never any remorse or ‘poor me,’” he said. “Her recovery was extraordinarily fast, in large part due to her incredibly positive attitude.”
No choice, Gillian said.
“I really wanted to enjoy my senior spring as best as I could,” she said. “I wanted to go to prom. I wanted to graduate with my class. I wanted to go to college on time. When there were so many things I was eager to do, sitting around and feeling bad for myself wasn’t something I had even time to do.”
A family tradition
High school sweethearts from the Boston area, Audrey and Steven both had graduated from Penn, Audrey with a bachelor’s in English and an M.B.A., Steven with a Wharton degree. They are executives in family businesses, Audrey in real estate and Steven in printing.
Penn was Gillian’s first choice, and she had been accepted a few weeks before the bombing.
Her doctors were skeptical that she could start on time. She had just begun to walk again as the time for orientation approached. Penn, Audrey said, made it possible.
The university set her up with doctors to monitor her progress before freshmen were to arrive. She took just three classes per semester - a mix of psychology, writing, and history - to accommodate her several-times-a-week physical therapy. For the first month, her mother stayed in Philadelphia.
The fall semester was a challenge, Gillian said.
“Being a college student, there’s a lot of walking as part of your everyday routine,” she said. “I was often very tired.”
The extreme winter weather did not help, but she avoided serious falls.
Questions about her leg exhausted her.
“Soon enough, people just kind of knew, even if I never told them, which is kind of what I was hoping would happen.”
She was touched by the support of her hall mates and friends.
“I wasn’t expecting them to slow down to wait up for me,” she said. “But … they just wanted to hang out with me, which was really nice.”
She tutors at a West Philadelphia elementary school and visits children at the Ronald McDonald House. She brings new empathy.
She now moves around campus with a slight limp. Some days, she has pain.
“I’m definitely still limited in how much walking I can do in a day,” she said.
She may need another operation before she can attempt more strenuous activities. She hopes to dance again.
“I’m not sure as of now how realistic that is, but I haven’t given up yet.”
Through Gillian’s experience, the Renys learned that limb recovery is not as advanced as doctors would like.
“All we can do is close the wound,” Sampson said, “but there’s nothing to replace the functional tissue in a good way.”
When Gillian went home for Thanksgiving, the Renys met with Brigham and Women’s researchers to learn how the fund could best help. They decided it will provide money in three areas: research in skin and bone regeneration; a fellowship in trauma, orthopedics, and plastic surgery; and an award for young innovators in the field.
Sampson and another of Gillian’s doctors are among 14 people planning to run the marathon with the Renys. Sixty more will run a 5K race to raise money.
Gillian says she expects to go home for the marathon. She will cheer from afar.
“I would love to go and watch, but I just don’t think I’m ready,” she said.
Audrey knows it will be difficult to return to a scene so full of emotion.
“I’m running with my daughter and my husband,” she said, “and we’re all going to cross that finish line together.”
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