John Odom could almost touch the balmy air of retirement. Only six more weeks, and he and his wife, Karen, would be free to travel with friends, golf, remodel their condo in the California desert, and spend more time with their eight grandchildren.
High school sweethearts, the Odoms have been married nearly 46 years. They live in Redondo Beach and John is the chairman of Murray Co., well-known mechanical contractors.
In mid-April, they traveled east for a family reunion of sorts: daughter Nicole was running her first Boston Marathon, and her parents, her brother, and her husband and their three young sons were going to cheer her on. Nicole Reis, 37, is married to New England Revolution goalie Matt Reis. They met at University of California, Los Angeles, where she was an All-American softball player, he an All-American soccer star.
Karen and John Odom had seats in the VIP stands that Reis had obtained from Revolution owner Robert Kraft. “But we decided to stay with the kids,” said John, who is 65.
It was a fateful decision. Minutes after arriving near the finish line, Odom would be one of the most critically wounded in the Marathon bombing.
The couple recently spoke about the ordeal from their small apartment at the Marriott Residence Inn on Tudor Wharf in Charlestown, near Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. They will remain there for the next several weeks, until John is released from outpatient physical therapy at Spaulding, which started Monday, three months after the devastating double blasts.
Odom, a rangy 6-foot-1, sits in a sunny corner of the living room, overlooking the boats and birds that populate Constitution Marina. He’s surrounded by digital frames that continually flash photos of family and friends, a lava lamp, a fruit basket, and boxes of candy — all gifts from friends, and even strangers. An aluminum crutch is propped nearby.
Odom is most animated when discussing his children and grandchildren, more somber when recalling the life-changing events of this spring and what he calls his “new normal,” living with a handicap.
On April 15, he and Karen were standing near the finish line when the first bomb exploded, sending shrapnel deep into his legs, nearly killing him.
He had two severed arteries, one in each leg. His sciatic nerve was completely severed. He lost so much blood that twice his heart stopped beating: once in the ambulance, once in the trauma center at Boston Medical Center. In all, he would require 23 units of blood. The average person has about 10 units of blood in his body. Doctors said it was the most they had ever given to a patient who survived.
Odom was on life support for 10 days, unconscious and in critical condition for 2½ weeks. The only reason his left leg wasn’t amputated was that the gaping wound left by the shrapnel was so high up, almost near the hip, that amputation was impossible.
He endured 11 surgeries. Doctors said they didn’t know whether he would walk again.
“Every day, I’d ask the doctors, ‘Just tell me he’s going to make it,’ ” Karen recalled. “They would say, ‘We’re sorry, we can’t tell you that yet.’ ” She’s a youthful-looking 62, and has scarcely left her husband’s side since the bombs went off.
After spending 5½ weeks at Boston Medical Center and another 5½ weeks at Spaulding, John was released from inpatient therapy on June 27.
Only one other bombing patient — Marc Fucarile, who lost a leg in the blast — remains at Spaulding, though some former patients have returned to learn how to use prosthetic limbs.
For the Odoms, Marathon Monday started off busy, with family members headed to mile 13 in Wellesley to cheer on Nicole. But they forgot their signs: “Go, Nicole!” and “You Can Do It!” and quickly turned back to the Reis home in Franklin.
While there, Matt Reis, who had failed to put on a belt that morning, grabbed one — a move that would help save his father-in-law’s life. At mile 13, Nicole stopped and hugged her boys: 3-year-old twins Christian and Weston and 6-year-old Jacob. Pictures were snapped, and the twins were left with a family friend. Nicole, on track with her goal of 10-minute miles, was psyched.
The Odom party, seven now, drove into Boston, parked, and arrived near the finish line shortly before the first bomb exploded. “It was perfect weather for the runners,” says John. “It was a wonderful feeling being there, seeing all the runners coming in, everyone cheering."
Matt Reis had put Jacob on his shoulders and stepped a bit away, with Nicole’s brother Donny, the better to see her come in. “Thank God,” John says now.
The family was standing at ground zero for the first bomb. The last thing John remembers is hearing the blast, feeling the heat, and thinking it was a bomb. “Oh no,” he said. Then: “Karen, my leg, my leg.”
Karen, who was uninjured, had landed on top of him, amid a field of broken glass. She could see exposed muscle bulging out of the ripped left leg of his trousers, copious amounts of blood — and her husband quickly turning ashen.
She has no medical training, “but I’ve been a mother for 45 years,” she says, with a wry smile. She tied a pair of pants she’d brought for Nicole around John’s upper thigh. But the bleeding wouldn’t stop.
Reis cinched his belt, tight, around John’s leg, and took off his jacket, which Karen used to apply pressure to the wound. “A huge piece of shrapnel had gone through his left leg, and was sticking out of his right leg,” she says. “He was turning gray. We knew it was trouble.” It was nearly 4 inches long and an inch wide.
“We were all screaming at him to stay awake, to keep his eyes open,” Karen says.
A firefighter gave him oxygen and applied another tourniquet. Donny Odom, at 45 the oldest of the couple’s three children, helped carry his father on a backboard to the medical tent, and then an ambulance. That night, their other son, Michael, 42, took the red-eye from Los Angeles to be with his family in Boston.
When John Odom went to Spaulding in late May, he was still bedridden. “He needed the help of two people to get out of bed,” said physical therapist Jessica Guilbert, who worked with him two to three hours a day.
Odom, she says, progressed much faster than anyone expected. “He is an incredibly motivated person. If I said on a Monday or Tuesday, ‘I want you to be able to walk around the gym on Friday,’ he’d want to do it by the next day.”
Guilbert also credits Karen Odom: “[She’s] absolutely incredible and so supportive of him.” Any assignment Guilbert would give the couple, she knew it would get done. “Like working on getting his leg more flexible and stronger. Because they’re both so dedicated, we were able to progress him a lot more quickly.”
Today, Odom’s left leg is chronically swollen and throbs — not with pain, but because of nerve damage. Though he must use crutches, he says he intends to keep up his golf game.
Despite what they’ve been through here, the Odoms say they love Boston. “It’s a beautiful city, a great city with a lot of history,” John Odom said. “The people are wonderful.”
His wife agrees. “We think the reason he’s still alive is because he’s in Boston.” The couple say they have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. “The good of people has far outweighed the evil act of two,” she said.
They’ve gotten thousands of cards, and people have left flowers at the inn’s front desk. When Karen was recently in a beauty parlor, a stranger told her: “Your manicure is on me. We feel so bad about what happened to you.” But another woman piped up: “I already took care of it.” Both she and Karen wiped away tears.
The Odoms hope to return to California sometime in September. John is postponing retirement until the first of the year. He needs the health insurance. Doctors still haven’t ruled out amputation of his leg left, once the wound has healed.
When retirement does come, the couple will go ahead with their plans to travel, golf, and see more of their grandchildren. “We’ll come and stay for two or three months with Nicole and her family,” says John. “I just don’t want to miss watching the kids grow up.”
Finally, on July 1, he did get to see his daughter cross the Marathon finish line in Copley Square. Nicole Reis was a participant in the One Run for Boston, a coast-to-coast relay race to raise money for those affected by the bombing.
Shortly before 1 a.m., as the relay baton passed to her, she pushed her father’s wheelchair across the finish line.
But as Karen Odom, who blogs about her husband’s journey (caringbridge.org/visit/johnodom) noted in a recent entry: “Our marathon is still not over.”