From Marathon calamity, newlyweds’ bond deepens
Spectators on race day, they share grievous wound — and resolve
The private beach, the cedar-shingled cottages, the wedge of chocolate cake on the table in front of them. Pieces of their first wedding anniversary looked much the way they imagined they would.
And as Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky celebrated in the dining room of that Chatham resort, they looked whole: Patrick in a trim blazer and pocket square, Jess in a sparkling white dress. The crisp tablecloth hid their wounds.
The first blast on Boylston Street near the Boston Marathon finish line had cost each of them the left leg below the knee. And Jess’s right foot still needed to be elevated, four months after it had been rebuilt despite the wishes of doctors who thought it best to amputate that one, too.
Four months, and they had barely spent a minute outside the network of parents, siblings, and caregivers that had nurtured them since the attack. They needed this time to try to be a couple again, even if the hotel staff had to lift them from the car, even if their parents waited nearby in case of an emergency.
A year earlier, exchanging vows at Waltham’s Gore Place, the “in sickness” part seemed so far into the future. Their wedding, intimate and relaxed, with cocktails in mason jars and photos of loved ones on clotheslines, reflected who they were then — warm, generous, and private. Cambridge-reared Patrick, a psychology doctoral candidate planning to work with traumatized children, and Jess, a spirited Californian and MGH oncology nurse adept at connecting with gravely ill patients.
In Chatham last August, they settled into their room and resolved to watch their wedding DVD. The effortless dancing, the close-ups of her painted toenails, so much of it imbued now with extra poignancy. The vision of the future they had shared during the ceremony — enjoying long runs, throwing dinner parties, scampering after children — pierced them as they lay in bed, one laptop and one good leg between them.
Amid the late-summer glow of the Cape, they debated whether even to go to the pool, self-conscious about their ravaged limbs and the scars from skin grafts and shrapnel. They did not want to disrupt the poolside atmosphere, or force parents to explain to children why they looked different.
But they went for it — Patrick approaching on crutches, Jess crawling on her hands and knees across the smooth tile toward the edge — and the warm water enveloped them. In the pool, they moved with an ease they had lost on land.
The first thing he’d noticed about her was her legs. In a moment he would see her smile, feel the crackle of her personality, and struggle to croak a hello. But when she appeared in the doorway of his friend’s apartment in Washington, D.C., in 2006, it was her runner’s legs that made him forget the football game on TV.
If he was tongue-tied, she barely noticed. Popping by a neighbor’s place on the way back from the gym, she had not expected to meet “New Guy on the Couch,” lanky and handsome at 22, Sox cap pulled down low. In the doorway, 24-year-old Jess tried to gauge whether she was too sweaty to hang out.
When their mutual friends — classmates of his from Boston College — invited her to stay for dinner, she politely declined. But they kept bumping into each other among the young people working on Capitol Hill, and he summoned the courage to ask her out.
His e-mails made her laugh; his nerves eased on their dates. But they really connected while running together, unpacking their days as they circled the Mall, pausing to kiss between the monuments along the Potomac.
On those shared runs, she recalled, “he just became the center of my world.” He already felt that way about her.
Seven years later, through a long-distance relationship and career changes, grad school and marriage, Boston had become their home — a city they were about to leave behind, as they prepared to move cross-country for his psychology fellowship in San Francisco. April 15 offered a kind of farewell tour, one last day to soak up Boston and the Marathon as spectators.
He loved supporting the stragglers, so they settled in along Boylston Street in the afternoon. Craning for a better view, she leaned over his shoulder, arms around his neck, her knees brushing the backs of his legs.
That’s why the first bomb ravaged them in almost the same way. No other couple suffered matching injuries like they did.
He remembers none of it; she, almost all.
“I didn’t hear a noise. I didn’t see anything,” she said. “I just felt like Patrick and I were on a rocket.”
When they slammed back down to the pavement, she glimpsed his severed foot beside them. Nursing instincts kicked in, and she leaned over to block his view. Speaking in a soothing voice, she thought to fashion a tourniquet from her purse straps, not knowing how badly hurt she was herself.
The back of her clothes were on fire. A stranger pressed her to the pavement to extinguish the flames, and cut her jeans off to reveal the extent of her wounds. As four men raced to load her onto a stretcher, Patrick reached up to grab her. Until then, “husband” and “wife” were new words that still felt funny coming off the tongue. This time, his voice was serious.
“That’s my wife,” he said, and they wheeled her away.
While they lay in a narcotic fog in separate hospitals, draped in IV lines, the world fell in love with them through their engagement photo, posted by a friend atop a “Help for Patrick and Jess” website in those first hours.
Something about the sight of them strolling through Harvard Square — her brilliant coral dress, their effortless good looks, the way she leads him by the hand — grabbed people and made them give.
People who had once been newlyweds and people who wanted to be. People who did not know what else to do. Within three days, 7,500 people contributed $500,000.
Deeply private and grievously wounded, Patrick and Jess have avoided the spotlight since, concentrating on healing amid a close-knit circle of caregivers. But they are exploring a more public role now, tentatively embracing the idea that the most visibly injured have become symbols and stewards of Boston’s recovery.
Last week Patrick took the stage at the televised memorial ceremony, speaking eloquently of the “snapshots of grace” that have overtaken the hurt. On Monday, if they feel well enough, they will ride hand cycles in the Marathon from Hopkinton to Boston.
They are leagues from where they were in the aftermath of the attack, but further still from the life they lost. A Cambridge couple with a seldom-used hatchback and a third-floor walk-up, they now live in a handicapped-accessible apartment with her sister, who moved from California to become their caretaker, and a service dog; their new car fits two wheelchairs. Weeks remain defined by appointments — prosthetist, physical therapist, couples counselor, psychiatrist — their days still circumscribed by pain.
Arm in arm on a couch, they shared their story to shed light on the complex path of recovery for blast amputees, and they spoke openly about navigating trauma as newlyweds.
They laughed easily about life before the Marathon — how he prayed his seldom-used credit card wouldn’t bounce on their first date, how they cherished just folding laundry or trying recipes together — but not the year since.
“I keep saying, ‘on the other side.’ One day I’m going to feel on the other side of this,” Jess said. “And I still feel in the thick of it.”
The blast and the month of anesthesia and surgeries that followed, as doctors scrambled to eradicate a severe infection and preserve his left knee, left Patrick with few memories of the hours preceding the attack.
April 15 until then had felt like a luxury, a rare day off together amid Jessica’s erratic work schedule. They had considered going for a run in the morning but laughed about looking like posers on Marathon Monday, so they went to the gym instead; they didn’t know it then, but Krystle Campbell, who would be killed near them that afternoon, was working out there, too.
After a leisurely breakfast, they took a few steps toward the T when Jess realized she was dressed optimistically for the weather, in capris and flats. She ran back for jeans and leather boots — without which the damage to her legs might have been even worse — and grabbed some Christmas gift cards, for Regina’s and Mike’s Pastry, in case they ended up in the North End later.
“Good job, Kensky!” he called, high-fiving her after she emerged with the gift cards. He can still see her, bounding down the steps, into the sun.
“I remember being struck by how beautiful she looked,” he said.
When Jess woke up in her hospital bed, she remembered the panic she felt when Patrick’s stretcher failed to follow hers into the medical tent on Boylston Street. She knew how accommodating he always was, letting everyone else go ahead as they waited to exit an airplane or movie theater, and pictured him bleeding to death while insisting that those with scratches or burns get treated first.
In critical care at Boston Medical Center, unable to speak with a breathing tube, she scrawled a note asking about Patrick. She did not know yet that her left leg had been amputated; it felt like it was still there, beneath blankets and bandages. Surgeons wanted to remove her right, too — with her heel and Achilles blown off, an amputation and prosthetic could save years of agony and improve her mobility — but she pleaded to keep it, that it be rebuilt with tissue from her thigh.
Because she had been standing behind Patrick, the skin on her back was seared from her neck to her hamstrings, her body punctured with shrapnel and bits of melted clothing. Her wound-care nurse would later tell her “she didn’t even know where to start.”
But Jess stabilized first, with Patrick depleted by a fierce infection. Still, transferring between hospitals to be with him seemed out of the question. Her caregivers knew her complex case too well, though whispers began of a possible reunion date.
Fifteen days out, Jess’s doctors gave the go-ahead. Her sister, Sarah, helped wash her bomb-frizzled hair and ran to Target with a hospital gift card to pick up a fresh shirt and lip gloss. A volunteer ambulance company ferried them to Beth Israel. Transferred from a stretcher to a hospital bed, Jess made the slow approach to Patrick in reverse, their beds filling the cramped room, bumping and maneuvering around chairs and side tables.
Side by side now, he shuddered at the extent of her wounds; she swallowed hard at how thin and pale he had become, at the empty space where his leg should be. But when he first caught a glimpse of her coming through the doorway, he could not believe how good she looked. She had never been so thrilled to see him, more emotions swirling than on their wedding day.
Though her parents tried to talk her out of recording so bleak a scene, she would be grateful she asked her wedding photographer to be there, capturing something neither of them today can find words to describe — the moment he leaned across the bed rails to kiss her.
Sometimes the words came out wrong, and well-meaning strangers told them they were lucky to be hurt in such matching fashion. “I get what they’re trying to say,” Jess said.
“If it has to be this way,” Patrick said, “I’m grateful that we are able to be doing it together, because I’m able to empathize with Jess in a way that’s close to her experience, and the other way around.”
For each, the hardest part was being physically unable to tend to the other. The most surprising part was how differently they coped. In the hospitals, it had been enough to know the other was alive. But leaving Spaulding Rehabilitation, they responded in separate ways from the start.
One of their earliest stops: Their third-floor walk-up, where they directed others in packing up so they could move to an accessible apartment 4 miles down the road. Leaving their first home together — the place they spent their wedding night — would have been hard enough for the move to San Francisco. But now he had to mount the stairs on crutches, while firefighters carried her in.
She did not even want to be there. It felt like opening a time capsule from April 15, laundry still half-folded, a recipe torn from a magazine still waiting on the counter. He thought it might be therapeutic, wanting to say goodbye. But in the apartment, he found himself slumping onto a bench to cry.
Weaned by midsummer off the heaviest painkillers, he could not wait to drive again. Merely moving their new car in the garage the first time was exhilarating; he blasted the stereo, though the only CD he could find was a Christmas sampler. Out on the road, getting flipped off like everyone else never felt so good. But she harbored an “unrationalized fear” of the car: If something this devastating could happen to them on foot, what could happen if tons of steel and glass collided at high speed?
People kept helping them, starting with the money from the “Help for Patrick and Jess” site and the One Fund, which gave them the means and time to make deliberate decisions about their care without worrying about copays or keeping up with the rent.
Then came the hundreds of meals prepared by friends, which kept arriving as summer turned to fall. There were daily gestures from strangers, the movers who refused her mother’s check, the tailor who altered his wedding suit to fit a prosthetic for free, the Massachusetts General Hospital employees — from housekeeping to management — who contributed so many vacation hours that Jess will remain on the clock until 2017, guaranteeing them the health insurance they had through her job.
“As equally overwhelming as the evil that day, was how incredibly good these people were,” she said. “How do you thank people for this? How do we deserve this?”
It is a question they wrestle with, knowing so many others suffer without the support they have had.
The day after Christmas, Patrick returned to Beth Israel for surgery to remove painful bone growth below his left knee and cushion the joint with flesh from his back, creating the proper padding for a prosthetic. Jess agonized about it beforehand, but the recovery that laid up Patrick into February allowed her to do what she could not eight months before, as “the wife and the nurse at the bedside.”
“It’s been my greatest pleasure,” she said, “in the setting of my worst nightmare.”
With a left prosthetic for each and with a carbon-fiber brace now for her right leg, there are days today when they can walk a mile together. Still, they remain far from their old life in ways not measured by distance — like dashing back to the grocery store for a forgotten item, or talking to someone for more than a few minutes without looking past them for the nearest chair.
He does not know when he will resume his career. She may never be able to return to critical-care nursing, with so much walking and lifting in a 12-hour shift. But they wear their injuries with a quiet, deliberate dignity, not hiding them. “This is what my body looks like now,” she said. “This is what it looks like when two amputees are married.” And when they reach that “other side” Jess describes, they see themselves working together, treating and advocating for trauma amputees.
They are better at communicating with their parents, with siblings, especially with each other. “We’ve been married a year and a half,” Patrick said, “but it’s like we have the knowledge of a couple that’s been married 10 years.”
Amid the chaos on Boylston Street last April, he had said something else besides “that’s my wife,” as the men with the stretcher lifted her up.
“We’ll figure this out,” Patrick had said to Jessica.
A year later, she said, “we’re still figuring this out.”