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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

After Marathon attack, Lowell family healing

The Corcorans followed a public relations woman through the musty passageways of Lowell’s LeLacheur Park toward the ball field, bathed in the last rays of a September sun, where Celeste and Sydney would throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Suddenly the family stopped. Stairs. Twelve steps stood between them and the field.

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“Looks like a piggyback,’’ Kevin Corcoran said, getting ready to hoist his wife on his back to carry her down the steps.

“No,” Celeste said, taking a long breath. “I can do this.”

Gripping the railing with her left hand, and grasping Kevin with her right, Celeste gingerly descended, taking each step sideways. Sydney intently watched her mother inching her way down the stairs, silently willing her forward while fighting the instinct to help steady her.

‘I know that a lot of what people see is smiles and positivity, but . . . I cope with it by getting angry a lot and crying.’

Sydney Corcoran 
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Five months earlier, shrapnel from the first of two pressure-cooker bombs that exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line tore through Sydney’s body, gouging her right foot, slicing her left leg open above her ankle, and searing her back. A cellphone-sized chunk of bomb had shredded the major artery in her right thigh, leaving her breaths away from bleeding to death on the street.

Beside her, where her mother had been standing, the shrapnel spray had been even more devastating. With wounds beyond repair, Celeste Corcoran, at 48, is a double amputee striving to master artificial legs.

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As the two prepared to walk onto the field, the final notes of the national anthem hanging in the air, a series of loud bangs pierced the twilight.

Sydney froze, caught off guard by the gunshots from the color guard in center field. Fear seeped into her eyes, brown and wide, as she stood motionless beside her mother.

“It’s OK, you’re OK,” Celeste whispered, wrapping her arms around her daughter. “We’re OK.”

Of the hundreds injured that April day, the Corcorans are among a handful of families with perhaps the deepest scars to body and to spirit. Theirs has, in consequence, been one of the hardest journeys back. And they have taken every step, forward and back, together.

Anxiety has hijacked Celeste some days, leaving her weepy and not wanting to leave the security of their home.

Sydney has battled a gnawing feeling that her time could be cut short, that anything she does, driving to school or talking to a friend on the phone, may be for the last time. Meanwhile, her older brother, Tyler, has fought waves of guilt for not being in Boston on Marathon Day to protect his sister.

And their father, Kevin, who frantically grabbed belts from strangers after the explosions to stanch blood gushing from his wife’s mangled legs until paramedics took over, often cries while talking about it.

Photos of Kevin hunched over Celeste, and pictures of Sydney, ashen and bloodied on the pavement, with two men — strangers — pressing tourniquets to her leg, have become iconic images of the terror, chaos, and spontaneous heroism of that day.

They have come a long way in the eight months since. Buoyed by the continued outpouring from strangers, and a sense of hope as a new year dawns, the Corcorans close 2013 with a profound gratitude to simply be alive.

They had traveled this near-death journey together before. Three years before twin bombs exploded on Boylston Street, Sydney lay crumpled on a street in Salisbury, struck by a car on a warm June night and catapulted 30 feet down the road.

The thud of the impact was so loud, Celeste could hear it from the third floor of the house across the street. Sydney and Tyler had just returned from an evening at Hampton Beach with friends, and Tyler crossed the street first, turning to talk to Sydney at the moment she was flung into the air.

The Corcoran family’s annual reunion at a North Shore beach house was transformed into a hospital bedside vigil. It was uncertain that Sydney, then 15, would survive the pooling blood in her swelling brain. She would have to be flown to a Boston hospital, and the helicopter could hold only one other family member.

Celeste, a gregarious hair stylist privately plagued by ferocious anxiety attacks, was adamant that she would not leave her daughter’s side. But she was panicked at the thought of climbing into a helicopter. Doctors had to medicate her with an antianxiety drug to get her on board.

“Wherever Syd is going, I am going,” Celeste would say later. “They would have had to pry me away with my fingernails bleeding.”

Recovery would span the next year, with Sydney battling throbbing headaches and a memory so jumbled she would often struggle to remember a page right after reading it. Fatigue was a constant, and she could handle classes only every other day.

Celeste became her cheerleader and near-constant companion. They spent countless hours browsing stores — they called it their “retail therapy” — and savored long drives together and epic sessions of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.’’

The accident made Sydney realize that time was finite, and her goals crystallized.

“I don’t want to feel a chill before I’ve done my part in life,” she would later write in a college application essay. “I want to know what it’s like to be a mother before I die.”

The scar through her right eyebrow from where her head struck the pavement was a daily reminder that she is stronger than she had realized.

“But now,” she wrote, “I’m afraid to die.”

Her sense of vulnerability deepened when Tyler, two years older and hyper-protective of his little sister, was tackled so hard that fall during a football game that he was out of school for a month with a concussion.

That’s when “the bubble” was born. Celeste, frightened that another horrific accident could befall her family at any moment, would say she wanted to wrap them in a giant, protective, plastic bubble. On days she was feeling especially anxious, she would beg everyone to stay home, so she would know they were safe in her cocoon.

Celeste often reminds her family that the Marathon explosions breached the bubble in ways they never could have imagined.

“Twice, so far, things you thought only happen to other people, happened to us,” she says.

In the critical hours after the Marathon bombings, doctors couldn’t stitch together the shredded artery in Sydney’s right leg, so they removed veins from her left thigh to repair it. When blood later pooled in her right leg, they sliced open each side along the calf to relieve the pressure.

Barely three weeks later, Sydney was cleared to go home from Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, her legs a roadmap of footlong, zipper-like scars.

Two reporters, two photographers, and a TV sound technician hovered, recording the 18-year-old, pale and still, clutching her mother’s hand as she listened to a nurse explaining the rehabilitation exercises, medical appointments, and medications that lay ahead. Packed and ready to go were boxes bulging with stuffed animals, cards, and flowers sent from strangers across the country.

The cameras followed them, crowding into the elevator as they rode down to the lobby in side-by-side wheelchairs. Media had circled in the weeks after the blasts, feasting on interviews with the raven-haired mother and daughter, as a region unnerved by the Marathon attacks hungered for symbols of perseverance. The Corcorans obliged, smiling through the pain as a line of celebrities visited, and posting the photos on Facebook.

Unseen by the public were the bad days, when Sydney was traumatized by flashbacks of thick smoke and the stench of blood from the moments after the explosions, and Celeste, in tears in an adjoining hospital bed, was too weak to drag herself over to comfort her daughter.

Sydney’s departure both comforted and unsettled Celeste. Sydney will be soothed by being home, with her father and brother, hugging her dogs and cats, she told herself. But her daughter’s empty hospital bed seemed to magnify her own grueling road ahead.

Before Celeste could be cleared to go home, before prosthetic legs were crafted for her, before she could begin learning how to take one step with them, she first had to build the strength to simply pull herself in and out of her wheelchair.

With cameras snapping, Sydney reached to hug her mother goodbye. Foreheads together, the two were near-mirror images, tearful and smiling.

Then Sydney hobbled from her wheelchair into the waiting car and thrust her arms in a victory sign up though the open sun roof.

After the car, and cameras, pulled away, Celeste sat alone for a moment outside the hospital as a cool breeze blew across from Boston Harbor. She was happy for Sydney, but had never felt so alone.

Two months after the bombings, Celeste was back in Spaulding, struggling to master her new legs.

She was nearly halfway through the 10-day training session and was ready to heave the prosthetics out the window of her fifth-floor room.

“They just feel so unnatural,” she said. “It feels like you’re walking on stilts.”

For 20 minutes, Celeste grappled with several layers of nylon and cotton sleeves that fit over what was left of her two legs, then fit them into plastic sockets that attached to metal leg frames with pins and straps.

“It’s not like throwing on a pair of boots, let me tell you,” she said.

Patience has never been her strong suit. Putting on her new legs was exhausting, and she still had an hour of physical therapy ahead.

“Don’t slide your butt off the wheelchair yet. I already had to pick you up off the floor yesterday,” physical therapist Alyson Jodoin gently kidded.

Sydney, wearing a plastic boot to protect her healing right foot, scurried to help her mother. She had spent the night in the hospital room, trying to cheer up her up. The two had curled up on Celeste’s bed, watching videos on her iPad.

“Ready?” Jodoin said. Celeste stood, gripped her walker, and started to awkwardly walk, tin-soldier like, out of the room to the elevator. Sydney pushed her empty wheelchair behind them.

In the therapy gym, the lesson was balance.

“No hands on the walker,” Jodoin said, instructing Sydney to tap a balloon to her mother for a game of catch.

Celeste reached for the balloon, started to sway, and immediately grabbed her walker. Jodoin held her lightly from behind and encouraged her to try again. Celeste tentatively let go and managed to hit the balloon back and forth with Sydney three times before grasping the walker, again.

Next up, Celeste had to stand, and raise her arms in the shape of a Y, then an M, a C, and an A.

Shaking, but determined, Celeste stood and slowly let go of her walker and completed the exercise, beaming and clearly proud of her accomplishment. Then she sat down on the table behind her and broke into tears.

“It’s so hard,” she said

“It’s going to be hard,” Sydney said, putting her arm around her mother. Then an impish grin crept across Sydney’s face.

“This might be inappropriate,” she whispered to her mother. “But you already have a leg up.”

Celeste looked at her daughter for a moment, puzzled, then started to giggle.

Six months after the blasts, the Celeste & Sydney Corcoran Support page on Facebook was bursting with comments from readers who’ve been inspired by the family’s hopeful postings, and showered them with nearly $800,000 in
donations.

There were photos of Sydney, glowing in a white gown, tiara, and crutches, crowned Lowell High School’s senior class prom queen in late May. A video showed Sydney in June receiving a standing ovation as she walked across the stage, without crutches, for her graduation. September postings featured Sydney smiling, starting classes at Merrimack College in North Andover.

A dizzying array of celebrity-packed photos and media clips also filled the page: from the family backstage with the Eagles band, to Sydney and Celeste taping a segment with Katie Couric, to mother and daughter featured in People magazine, to the ceremony in their honor put on by the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

The milestones were punctuated by setbacks not shared. A July family trip to Florida for Celeste to get a more high-tech set of legs was delayed several weeks because scar tissue was clogging veins in Sydney’s right leg, where doctors pieced her back together after the blasts. She had to go back into the hospital so a tiny balloon could be inserted to clear the blockage.

A month later, doctors needed to go back in and insert a stent to prop open the vein. Sydney also had to start injecting herself daily in her stomach with blood thinners. Then swelling and bruising on her stomach looked ominous one evening and she ended up in the emergency room.

Shopping in the mall in late summer, her legs still a battlefield of scars, Sydney winced when strangers stared at her and then whispered to each other.

One night in late September, her pain and frustrations spilled out in text messages.

“I know that a lot of what people see is smiles and positivity,” Sydney wrote, “but after my first accident and the bombing, I cope with it by getting angry a lot and crying.”

Sydney’s anger shared a berth with guilt. She didn’t lose her legs in the blast, so she didn’t feel she had as much of a right to cry as the 16 who did. Anxiety had become a frequent companion, as had medicine to combat it. “It’s not,” she said, “always rainbows and butterflies.”

The call from Tyler came while Celeste was in Florida after Halloween, getting the fit on her new legs adjusted.

“Is everything OK?,” Celeste asked her son.

“No, not really,” Tyler said.

A bolt of fear sliced through Celeste, and she felt as if she was about to throw up.

Sydney is not doing well, she’s in a rage over something on the Internet, Tyler said. It started after a Michigan woman had dressed as a Marathon bombing victim for Halloween, sporting runner’s clothing with fake blood splattered down her legs. The picture she posted of herself, smiling, on Twitter ignited outrage across the Internet.

Sydney, unnerved by the image, had tweeted a message to the woman.

“You should be ashamed,” Sydney wrote. “My mother lost both her legs and I almost died in the Marathon. You need a filter.”

That exchange provoked another firestorm, with most supporting, but some taunting Sydney with a barrage of messages.

“Stop using your tragedy to dictate actions of others. If I want to make fun of boston runners, I will,” read one.

“You suffered, you cried, now shut up and get on your moms legs and live!” read another.

Celeste immediately called Sydney’s cellphone.

“There are always going to be people in this world, nut cases like the ones who threw bombs at us,” she told her. “You have to take the high road.”

They’ve had this conversation before. But Sydney was seething. The distance between Florida and Massachusetts never seemed so far.

Before Celeste headed home, she called Sydney to tell her when her plane would land in Boston. She got her voice mail, and left a message.

“I love you, and I’ll see you later on,” she said before hanging up. In a fleeting thought, Celeste imagined that if the plane crashed, her daughter would at least have that last voice message.

Hundreds of miles away, Sydney was thinking the same thing. She clings to that message, reluctant to erase it.

Celeste marched through the kitchen door, late but triumphant. She had been on her legs since early that morning cutting and coloring hair at the Newbury Street salon where she has been a stylist for 13 years. Sydney drove her to Boston for the trial run back at work, and they were both giddy at this benchmark seven months after the bombings.

The family was supposed to be at a 5 p.m. UMass Lowell reception honoring Marathon survivors and first responders, and it was already 4:30, but Celeste’s elation was winning out over exhaustion.

At the UMass reception and hockey game that night, Celeste was received like a star and rarely needed to lean on her family for support. Photos of her and Sydney were flashed on the arena’s Jumbotron before the game, and there were lines of people waiting to meet her outside the VIP box where the family sat. Hours later, as the family prepared to leave, people were still lining up to meet them.

When they finally got home after 10 p.m., Celeste was exhausted. She pulled off her legs and stretched out on a daybed in what used to be the family’s dining room.

Sydney wandered off toward the kitchen with her boyfriend, and Tyler gently said he was heading to his girlfriend’s for the evening.

“Stay in the bubble,” Celeste anxiously called after him, invoking the family mantra as if a talisman.

They had recently started family counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, but Kevin Corcoran remained skeptical. He was often melancholy and teary, but talking about that day with a stranger in counseling is not going to make it better, he said.

“I don’t have nightmares,” he said. “I’m dealing with it.”

Celeste raised her eyebrows. It was not the first time they’ve had this conversation.

She wrapped her arms around herself and leaned back on the bed. What keeps her going, what encourages her through her “amputee days,” when all she wants to do is cry, is Sydney.

“When I see her strength, and her pushing through things, I feel like I have to do the same thing,” Celeste said. “I feel like we definitely help each other.”

Sydney had a philosophy exam the next morning and final exams the following week, but Celeste was yearning for a Christmas tree. The lure of shopping trumped studying, and the two headed to nearby Nashua, N.H., late one afternoon earlier this month for some quick “retail therapy,” while debating whether to buy a real tree — Celeste can’t stand the needles that drop all over the floor — or to go artificial.

Either way, it had to be thin enough for her wheelchair to squeeze by in the family’s already-cramped dining room-turned-downstairs-bedroom. Kevin has promised Sydney a monster of a tree next year, when they’re in the new wheelchair-friendly house they’re hoping to build in Dracut with help from the $2 million Celeste received from the Marathon survivors’ One Fund. Nearly every room will be on a single level, with many materials being donated by the plumbing company where Kevin drives a truck.

Before hunting for trees, Celeste and Sydney decided to breeze through T.J. Maxx, and the detour extended into an hour-long journey through the wallet, purse, and perfume sections.

Celeste steadied herself pushing the shopping cart, and Sydney, never far away, picked up one purse after another, to get her mother’s take.

“Would you wear this?” she asked, holding up a mini blue purse.

Celeste unzipped the purse pockets, removed the tissue paper, and peered into the crevices, before taking in the price tag.

“Not for $99,” she said.

By the time they reached the cash register, their cart was piled with socks for Sydney, Christmas candy for the family, and bottles of Celeste’s favorite body lotion. As they walked out, Celeste started to show off her latest feat with her prosthetic legs, negotiating curbs and ramps in parking lots, but she got going too fast down a ramp and started to teeter, giggling. Sydney was right at her elbow to catch her.

The vise-like grip the Marathon bombings have held on the family is showing signs of loosening. Time and therapy have helped.

Celeste, who has depended on her family to drive her everywhere since the bombings, passed a state test the week before Christmas that allows her to drive herself in a car with hand controls. And Sydney has been working on a mantra with her therapist to help her focus on the future.

“I can’t just stay in the house with my thoughts because they will eat me alive,” she said. “I have to go out, and live.”

If you would like to help Celeste and Sydney, their website is www.gofundme.com/
celesteandsydney
. Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.

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