They met 50 years ago in England, two grammar school athletes on the way to a track meet, and married in their 20s. Empty nesters now, they love taking long walks together through their adopted hometown, like the Monday stroll that led from Charlestown to the Boston Marathon finish line.
Then, they were separated after the bombings. Eric Whalley was rushed to Brigham and Women’s Hospital with a ravaged right leg and right eye pierced by a metal fragment. Ann Whalley was taken to Faulkner Hospital, her right leg badly strafed.
For three excruciating days, they were apart. Finally, Ann was brought to the Brigham. When nurses wheeled them close, Eric reached out for his wife’s hand, his happiness penetrating a fog of medication and pain.
“My dad nearly leaped out of his bed,” recalled Richard Whalley, 25, the younger of their two sons.
What happened next was just as incredible: Michelle Obama appeared, offering hugs, medals, and M&Ms stamped with the presidential seal. Everyone teared up.
“Either of those inspiring moments on their own are once in a lifetime,” Richard Whalley said, conveying the positivity and tenacity of his parents in phone and e-mail interviews, describing the recent weeks as surreal.
Moments of uplift, the kindness of friends and strangers, the quality of care — these are what they focus on.
The Whalleys together have endured more than a dozen surgeries since April 15; more remain. After sharing a room with her husband for two weeks, Ann, a 65-year-old homemaker and former teacher, was transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. Through bone and skin grafts, she may regain full use of her right leg and foot over the coming months, her son said.
Eric Whalley, also 65 and a recent Biogen Idec retiree, was expected to be transferred to Spaulding late Saturday. He had spent the week on his stomach and side after surgery to repair and reattach his retina and should regain partial vision in that eye. The BB that pierced it remains embedded in his brain; removing it would cause more harm than good. After a terrifying first few days in which doctors stabilized bleeding in his brain while trying to stave off infection, Eric has been alert, upbeat, and as sharp-witted as ever, his son said.
For now, doctors plan to reconstruct Eric’s damaged right foot and lower leg through a series of surgeries over the coming year, though amputation may be necessary, Richard said.
Eric, a pharmacology professor in England, brought his family to Colorado two decades ago, pursuing a start-up opportunity. His Biogen job led them to Massachusetts in 1998.
The Whalley boys followed their father into the biomedical world. Chris, 34, lives in Salisbury and works for a surgical device maker. Richard founded a start-up with an MIT classmate to develop a “smart” cap for insulin injection pens, allowing diabetics to track dosage amounts with their phones.
On Patriots Day, Richard was at work and had no idea his parents were hurt until his brother called to tell him about a photo of a wounded man circulating on the Internet. “That’s dad,” he said. The picture — now an enduring image from that day — shows two volunteers in Marathon jackets rushing a man in a wheelchair, one applying pressure to his leg. His face is a mask of blood.
That blood made it momentarily possible to pretend it was someone else. But the blue sweatshirt over the white collared shirt was classic Eric Whalley, who wore navy so often his family joked he would be unrecognizable in any other color. Seeing the sweatshirt knocked the wind out of Richard.
“This is my dad in the picture,” he posted to Facebook, after hours of fruitless, frantic calls. “I have no idea where my mum is. Can you help? . . . I’m worried my Mum is dead.”
Friends sprang into action. Former MIT premed students around the country called contacts at Boston hospitals. A friend with a minivan piled Richard and other friends in to canvass the city. An MIT classmate in Chile, on a Fulbright, started a fund-raising website. A Cambridge crash course for young science and technology entrepreneurs, the Startup Leadership Program, found the brothers temporary housing next to the hospital.
Last week, Richard eased back into work around hospital visits. “It is important to regain a healthy rhythm after such a traumatic event and not to fixate on the things out of one’s control,” he wrote.
He is trying to think about the good in all this — more close time with his parents and brother than he had spent in years; his father, from his hospital bed, calling them “the lights of my life.”
“The support has been fantastic,” he wrote. A naturalized citizen who moved around, Richard said Boston felt like home; now, it is. “I recently acquired a Boston Red Sox hat, and I must say, I’m very proud to be part of such a strong community.”