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Haitian immigrant quietly healing after bombing

The camera turns on, and from her wheelchair Mery Daniel fixes her hair and musters a smile. “I’ve made a tremendous amount of progress,” she says, “and I couldn’t be any happier.”

The progress part is true. Two weeks ago, it took a team to lift Daniel from bed; now she can walk 100 yards on her own. But she is also fatigued and frustrated, six weeks after a blast at the Boston Marathon tore through her legs, shearing off her right calf and forcing doctors to amputate her left leg and massage her failing heart to keep her alive.

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Six weeks of surgery and hospital rooms and the slow grind of rehabilitation, six weeks in which she saw her terrified 5-year-old daughter just three times. Six weeks since the remarkably driven Daniel — a Haitian immigrant who propelled herself from ESL to honors classes to medical school — was jolted off the course she had set for herself.

Now she has a new worry: Making up for lost time fund-raising. While other Marathon amputees and their relatives granted interviews, while millions of dollars flowed toward personal fund-raising sites that they or their relatives or coworkers created, the deeply private Daniel eschewed attention. Only later did her family think of crowd-funding.

Trying to catch up with two GoFundMe pages, Daniel has raised less than $16,000. So she puts on her Boston Strong T-shirt, her Never Give Up wristband, and smiles for the cameras, bypassing feelings that do not conform to a neat narrative of strength and resilience.

As a result, local and national television and radio have hailed Daniel’s “uplifting story,” saluted her “outlook,” and described how “she is moving on . . . [to] dedicate her life to sharing grace and thankfulness.”

But when the red light is off, glimpses of a more exhausted Daniel emerge: a 31-year-old woman admired by family, friends, and former teachers for her determined independence, suddenly so reliant on others.

“It does get frustrating, when you want to be completely independent,” Daniel said, sighing. “Basic things that you need to do just easily and you can’t do them, like showering and picking up something.”

In a series of recent off-camera interviews, she spoke of progress but also uncertainty. Resting in bed in a cinder-block hotel room near Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, she shifted frequently, trying to manage discomfort in her “good leg,” offering short answers, a brilliantly colored head scarf belying a lack of energy.

The joy at being released last Thursday was tempered by an inability to return to the second-floor apartment in Mattapan she shares with in-laws, the stairs insurmountable. There were not good days or bad days in the hospital, just days to get through. She does not know when she will resume medical studies, or will want to.

“Sometimes when I’m bored, I’m like, I wish I had a book,” Daniel said. “But at the same time, I know I don’t have the strength yet.”

Facing more interviews this week — national television, a national magazine — she said she is looking forward mostly to buying a new outfit, her first Newbury Street shopping trip in six weeks, and hoped she could maintain energy through a two-hour filming. “Inter­viewing is tiring,” she said.

It is also productive. By the time Daniel came forward in May, many victims had raised at least $50,000, including about a dozen who had collected six figures and a few closing in on $1 million. That is separate from the more than $35 million contributed to the nonprofit One Fund, expected to disburse at least $750,000 to each amputee. “Even if I had started early, there’s nothing that says I would be able to raise as much as they have raised,” said ­Daniel, trying to reach $500,000.

Though Daniel greeted President Obama, she had declined some visitors and showed no ­interest in interviews when Bonnie St. John, an author and public speaker, arrived May 1.

Health improving, Daniel agreed to meet St. John, an African-­American amputee, Rhodes Scholar, and Paralympic skiing medalist. When St. John walked in, her jaw dropped.

Scanning media accounts and fund-raising sites, St. John had not known that a woman of color had been gravely injured. Even more striking, Daniel was alone, unlike other victims St. John had visited, who were surrounded by flowers and fresh-baked cookies, friends doing their nails or holding hands.

“That just broke my heart,” said St. John, who visited Daniel again at the end of the week, once more finding her alone. (Relatives visited regularly but were unable to maintain an around-the-clock presence.)

Returning a third time, St. John created a fund-raising page for Daniel — a cousin set one up also — and encouraged her to share her story.

“Everyone needs to see that American heroes come in all colors,” St. John said, recalling that she told Daniel, “This is going to be difficult, to do some of this publicity, but it’s important for the American public that they see you, a beautiful woman of color, and your courage.”

The cousin who established the other fund-raiser, Yvrantz Celestin, said Daniel is having a harder time than she tells the media. “She won’t admit it or say anything to you. She’s just used to doing things on her own, getting it done,” said ­Celestin, who admires Daniel’s drive but acknowledges, “her dreams are deferred now.”

As a child in Haiti, Daniel — then Mery Volmar — applied duct-tape bandages to dolls and dreamed of becoming the first physician in her family. She came to Brockton at 17, joining a school bus-driver father she had not seen since childhood.

Teachers remember her as a standout. Sharon Wolder, who taught her African-American history, recalled meticulous preparation and said she was a “role model for kids who were English-language learners.”

She went on to UMass ­Amherst and medical school in Poland. She married and had a daughter.

In Boston this spring, preparing for her final medical ­licensing exams, she envisioned a summer of studying and trips to the zoo with her daughter. Then the blast knocked her onto her back on Boylston Street. “I looked next to me and there was a lady with arms that were completely destroyed, and that’s when I kind of realized, it’s been bad,” said Daniel.

The next 48 hours were touch-and-go. When she regained consciousness, she did not immediately consider her lost leg. Or imagine that she would be speaking to the media, appealing to the public. “I could not think of anything else but that I was alive,” she said.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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