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From tragedy to joy: A baby’s birth reunites Marathon bombing victim and nurse who cared for her

Paul Norden held his newborn daughter, Ella.
Paul Norden held his newborn daughter, Ella.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Maternity nurse Nichole Casper checked the list of incoming expectant mothers during a recent night shift at Tufts Children’s Hospital, a routine that helps familiarize her with the anxious parents-to-be that she cares for in downtown Boston.

As she read the slate for Aug. 21, one name stood out.

“Is that the Jacqui Webb?’ " Casper asked.

Indeed it was. Two women once bound together by sorrow and struggle, had by chance converged again in joy and celebration.

Eight years ago, Casper cared for Webb at Tufts Medical Center after Webb and her current fiance, Paul Norden, had suffered severe, life-altering injuries in the Boston Marathon. On this recent night, while being wheeled to her room after a caesarean delivery, Webb looked up in a daze and saw Casper walking beside the stretcher.

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“When I saw Nichole, it meant there was no more anxiety,” said Webb, 33, whose hands were severely burned in the attack and still carries shrapnel in her body. “It was so comfortable to see a familiar face, someone who knew what we were going through.”

For three nights, Casper helped the new parents in their two-bed room at Tufts, where Norden, who lost his right leg above the knee in the bombing, remained as a constant, reassuring presence.

Although the women had often thought of each other, they had not met since the bombing and its aftermath, each of their lives indelibly impacted by the horror of that day.

But then, Ella’s birth brought them together, and the stresses of returning to the hospital were eased. Instead of reliving the trauma, Webb could focus on her firstborn. And instead of remembering the injuries inflicted by a stranger, she was calmed by the comfort of a friend.

Jacqui Webb (left) opened a baby gift, a fleece blanket made by Tufts nurse Nichole Casper. The two were reunited by the birth of Ella, eight years after Webb was injured in the Marathon bombing.
Jacqui Webb (left) opened a baby gift, a fleece blanket made by Tufts nurse Nichole Casper. The two were reunited by the birth of Ella, eight years after Webb was injured in the Marathon bombing.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Casper’s care also relieved the anxiety for Norden, 40, who had been standing beside Webb on Boylston Street to watch a friend finish the Marathon when the second bomb exploded. Norden, who has undergone multiple surgeries and walks with a prosthesis, said he cannot remember what having two legs feels like.

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Norden was treated at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. His brother, J.P., also lost a leg in the attack.

Casper, who worked in the Tufts surgery and trauma unit in 2013, recalled the first time she saw Webb during the desperate efforts to save lives and limbs in the city’s hospitals.

“Here was this young, beautiful girl, and her hands were all bandaged, and she couldn’t do anything for herself,” Casper said. “It was so sad.”

Since then, anxiety has been a lingering companion for Webb and Norden, ebbing and returning since two pressure-cooker bombs killed three people and injured more than 260 near the Marathon finish line.

“I wasn’t sure if she wanted to see someone from before. Sometimes, you don’t want to see someone from uncomfortable memories,” Casper said. “But it was great to see her so happy.”

For Webb, the presence of a nurse who knew of her ordeal was invaluable.

“There are triggers that go back to before. They creep up on me,” she said.

“We had come in then with injuries that were physical, emotional, mental. But this time, without words, she understood and put her hand on my leg,” Webb added.

The three nights that Casper worked to help the couple and their newborn included an extra shift she requested for the last night.

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“It was important to me that she had continuity in her care,” Casper said.

“Being in a hospital bed would be an anxiety-provoking situation anyway. I talked to her and let her know I was there,” Casper said. “I tried to let her get a lot of sleep because I knew she wouldn’t get that for a while.”

The Marathon bombings have forged a lasting bond between them, but the explosions also have brought differing, individual burdens to each.

“I think about these people all the time. I watched them go through their injuries and stresses,” Casper said. “My life is different after that time, too.”

Casper remains wary of public spaces, and she cannot erase the memories of treating the injured who were rushed into Tufts Medical Center. In that way, Ella’s birth was a blessing for her, as well.

“It was some closure for me,” Casper said.

“This shows that you can’t live in the past,” said Jacqui Webb (left), hugging her nurse, Nichole Casper. “It means that your life is different, and that you can move forward.”
“This shows that you can’t live in the past,” said Jacqui Webb (left), hugging her nurse, Nichole Casper. “It means that your life is different, and that you can move forward.”Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Dr. Megan Evans, the obstetrician who delivered Ella, said an elective caesarean section was suggested because it would bypass some of the unpredictability of a natural delivery. Still, Webb was worried about what the procedure would entail.

“For her, the details were really important,” Evans said.

Still, unpredictability played a role. Webb went into labor a day before the scheduled delivery, and the surgery was moved up. Even checking into the hospital that day was stressful, Webb said, because of the need to recount her long history of injuries and surgeries.

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But on a recent morning at the couple’s home in Stoneham, those memories seemed far away.

Joy filled the house, a scene underscored by the baby’s intermittent cries and her mother’s soft, consoling words.

Webb held up a homemade baby blanket that Casper had just given her as a gift, cooing over it as 3-week-old Ella gazed at the world from her father’s sturdy forearms.

“That is so beautiful. Thank you so much!” Webb said in her living room, embracing Casper and showing the blanket to her beaming fiance. “And unicorns, too!”

Glancing down at Ella, who was dressed in a red onesie, Webb spoke of fresh beginnings.

“This shows that you can’t live in the past,” she said. “It means that your life is different, and that you can move forward.”

For his part, Norden said he has never been happier.

“I’m just enjoying life, loving it,” Norden said, leaning on his kitchen counter. “Just being a new dad, I have all positive thoughts. It’s so amazing that we have this little girl for the rest of our lives.”

Norden knows that Ella, even at 3 weeks old, likes to have her hair brushed. And he seems endlessly curious about the tiny addition to the household.

“Her feet are still purple,” Norden said, nodding toward Ella as Webb rocked and admired the baby.

“She’s fine, leave her alone!” Casper shot back with a chuckle. “Stop picking on the baby.”

Norden smiled as he took in the scene. Webb looked up and chimed in, too.

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“It’s a new life,” she said.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.