Heather Abbott vowed not to give up wearing high heels after losing part of her left leg in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Hillary Cohen, an amputee from Walpole, never dreamed she would be able to wear high heels, ever.
But now the 26-year-old Cohen owns three pairs of three-inch wedge sandals in gold, black, and cream. Come Monday, she’ll be able to walk, run, or sashay in them for the first time, thanks to a prosthetic leg she’s receiving thanks to Abbott.
“Heather gave me this wonderful gift,” Cohen said. “I never could wear heels before. It’s just amazing.”
The prosthetic leg Cohen is receiving is the first to be donated by the Heather Abbott Foundation, which Abbott, 40, launched in December 2014 to provide customized prostheses to people with limb loss.
Abbott, of Newport, R.I., had her left leg amputated below the knee after being injured by the second bomb, which exploded outside the Forum restaurant on April 15, 2013.
Because of the outpouring of donations bombing survivors received, Abbott said she has resumed an active lifestyle with five different prostheses, including one that is waterproof, another one for running, two with cosmetic covers that look like real legs, and a basic, metal model.
But for many amputees, Abbott said, health insurance only covers what is considered “medically necessary.” The prosthetic Cohen is receiving costs around $70,000 and would not be paid for by insurance, Abbott said.
“I had no idea that these things are so expensive and that you need different legs for different activities. You need several to do most of the things that you like to do,” Abbott said.
“I started to meet people who couldn’t do these things because they couldn’t afford [the prostheses],” she said. “I was able to receive so much help it felt like I had to raise awareness around this issue and help other amputees get what I got.”
Cohen said she elected to have part of her right leg amputated nearly two years ago to treat a genetic condition known as neurofibromatosis.
The disorder causes tumors to grow on nerve endings, and in Cohen’s case, a tumor developed on her right heel beginning at age 13, she said.
As a teenager, Cohen said, the fleshy-looking tumor was about the size of a clementine and could be concealed by tucking it into a sneaker. High-heeled shoes were never an option.
But as she got older, Cohen said the tumor grew larger and turned painful.
She underwent two surgeries in her early 20s to shrink the tumor, but each time it regenerated and came back larger than before, Cohen said.
The pain forced her to give up the gym and running 5 to 6 miles daily, made it difficult to sleep and drive, and required that she reduce her hours waitressing, she said.
Eventually, Cohen said, she had to move out of her apartment because she could no longer afford it.
“I couldn’t do the things that I loved because I was in so much pain,” Cohen said. “It was not good.”
At age 24, Cohen said she decided to have her right foot amputated.
“It’s just a foot. It’s not my entire leg,” Cohen remembered thinking. “It’s my foot that I’m losing but I’m going to gain so much more. I’m going to get my life back.”
Cohen said she had her foot removed in January 2014, but developed sores from her prosthetic and still experienced pain. She underwent another surgery to remove a little more of her leg.
Abbott and Cohen were introduced to each other by Claire O’Connell, who was Abbott’s nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Abbott became a resource for Cohen, a person who could answer her questions about everything from phantom pain to how to make shoes look cute with a prosthetic.
When Abbott established her foundation, she said Cohen was eager to help, attending fund-raisers and posing for photos for a public-awareness campaign.
In the spring, Cohen said Abbott called and asked whether she would like to be the first to receive a leg from her foundation.
“I was speechless, in utter disbelief that this was really happening,” Cohen said.
She went shopping for high heels at Frugal Fannie’s Fashion Warehouse in Norwood.
“It was extremely exciting,” said Amy Ohrenberger, a friend who went shoe shopping with Cohen. “It was her first time being able to put on a pair of heels.”
Abbott knows the feeling. She was back in high heels six months after her amputation.
“I can wear my metal leg if I want or I can wear my high-heel leg and no one would know I’m an amputee,” Abbott said. “Knowing that she wanted that too, I just wanted to be able to give it to her.”
Cohen said she purchased a new, short black dress to wear Monday when she gets the leg at her prosthetist’s office in Newton.
“I’m going to show as much leg as possible,” she joked. “No pun intended.”