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Boston Marathon bombing victim defies the odds with every mile. All 26.2 of them.

04/09/2014

We all have the scene seared into our memories: April 15, 2013, two bombs explode 12 seconds apart at the Boston Marathon. Three people are tragically killed. Hundreds are severely wounded. The heart of our city is torn out, yet united stronger than ever.

For Lee Ann Yanni, 32, the moment will stay with her forever. She and her husband Nick were standing near the finish line when the first bomb went off. Lee Ann’s left leg was struck by shrapnel and she was rushed to Tufts Medical Center with an open compound fracture of her left fibula, shattered ankle, broken big toe and significant nerve damage in her leg.

Lee Ann is a physical therapist in Kenmore Square, so she knew what this kind of trauma meant in terms of surgery, recovery and rehabilitation. But as a new Boston resident (she moved from Florida in 2012), Lee Ann didn’t know much about the care she’d receive at Tufts Medical Center. Like so much on that fateful day, that changed quickly.

One explosion, then chaos

Lee Ann and Nick were cheering on some of her clients running the Marathon when disaster struck.

“I thought it was fireworks at first,” recalls Lee Ann. “Then I felt something warm hit my left leg. It didn’t hurt, I just looked down and saw bone sticking out, my leg gushing blood. We tried to get away, but I stepped on my foot and crumbled.”

Lee Ann somehow stayed calm and aware the entire time. Nick helped her seek cover inside the Marathon Sports store, then grabbed a shirt to make a tourniquet for her leg. At some point Nick—who suffered permanent hearing loss from the explosion—went to help other survivors, leaving Lee Ann holding hands with two people nearby.

Firefighters were assisting the wounded, but they soon ran out of splints because of all the leg injuries. A fireman improvised a makeshift splint for Lee Ann: A hanger plus the metal device used to measure shoe size. It didn’t work. Her bone was broken in too many places. The fireman, who would later look for Lee Ann among the amputee survivors, told her it was “the worst leg I’ve seen in 25 years on the job.”

Suddenly, there was a report of another possible bomb. Everyone had to evacuate. A police officer carried Lee Ann to Boylston Street, where she was put on a tractor and taken to the medical tent meant for exhausted marathoners. There, she was cleaned up and put on a gurney for transport to Tufts Medical Center. Nick and Lee Ann got separated in the chaos, but he was able to find her in the tent and ride along. 

“As they put me in the ambulance to go to Tufts, the last thing I remember saying is: ‘Do they have good orthopaedic surgeons?’”

One “amazing” team

An open compound fracture. A shattered ankle. A nerve severed in two spots. (Not to mention a broken toe.) Lee Ann’s injuries were severe, and fixing them would be challenging. “They couldn’t put any pins or plates in like a typical broken leg,” says Lee Ann. “There was nothing to hook it to.”

Instead, Orthopaedic Surgeon Dr. Jennifer Hoffman performed three surgeries over the next few days. First, Dr. Hoffman removed shrapnel and bone fragments from Lee Ann’s leg and repaired the fracture. A second surgery was required to remove dead tissue before she could undergo a skin graft—a third procedure that was almost delayed because of the city-wide lockdown. But Dr. Hoffman made sure it happened.

Lee Ann stayed at Tufts Medical Center for eight days, but she remembers that first night especially well because the nurses let Nick sleep in her room. He had to stay overnight for observation on his hearing loss and if there was ever a time to break the rules, it was now.

“Everyone at Tufts Medical Center was so amazing—Dr. Hoffman, the nurses, the trauma staff,” she says. “I am so thankful that I was taken there and received the care I needed. They all have been so important in my healing process. They just treated us like human beings. The people at Tufts Medical Center will always be a part of our family.”

One determined survivor

Lying in her hospital bed on that first night, the reality of her injuries and the challenging road ahead set in. As a physical therapist, Lee Ann knew exactly how extensive her recovery process would be, which made things easier and tougher at the same time. Yet less than six months after her surgeries, Lee Ann ran the Chicago Marathon.

She had first made plans to run Chicago in January 2013, in memory of her father who had lost his battle with cancer the previous October. The race was slated for the one-year anniversary of the last day she saw him alive, and she was determined to make it. Although she had previously run six half-marathons, it would be her first full marathon. Lee Ann began training in February 2013 and had just ramped up to a 10-mile run the weekend before the Boston Marathon bombings.

“Given her injuries, I didn't think Lee Ann would be able to get into the shape necessary to complete an entire marathon,” says Dr. Hoffman, who has followed Lee Ann throughout her recovery. “But I think persistence, a little stubbornness and a will to accomplish great things all are so important in coming back from injuries, especially devastating injuries. Not everyone has that kind of drive and motivation.”

Lee Ann began physical therapy a month after she was released from Tufts Medical Center, first learning to walk with crutches and then without them again three months later. She wasn’t able to start marathon training until about five weeks before the event on October 13.

At first, she didn’t have the strength to run for more than two minutes at a time. Lee Ann had to completely adjust her running style to avoid putting pressure on her left fibula. She had to change her gait, pressure points and cadence and went through three different pairs of running shoes. The experience of retraining her body was humbling, and as the big day approached Lee Ann had some reservations. She had never run more than 11 miles in training and never longer than 13.1 miles competitively. But she was buoyed by Nick’s continuous support and encouragement from friends and family who understood how much completing the marathon meant to her.

“From the minute I was brought to Tufts, I told anyone who would listen that I still was planning to run Chicago,” she recalls. “Doctors, nurses and technicians constantly had to tell me, ‘Stop asking if you can run!’ But in my mind, it was never an option for me not to do it.”

One big goal achieved

Proudly wearing her “Boston Wicked Strong” shirt, Lee Ann breezed through the first 10 miles of the race. She pressed as she entered unchartered territory. At mile 17, her body began to ache, but she summoned the strength to keep going. It became as much of a mental challenge as a physical one, and once she hit mile 25 she knew she would finish.

“When I crossed the finish line and heard my name called and the roar of the crowd, I just broke down crying,” she says. “There were so many emotions at once: happiness, relief, accomplishment, exhaustion, excitement, amazement. I was in a daze.”

Her final time: an incredible 5 hours, 44 minutes, 39 seconds. “I wish I could have run it faster, but I’ll take it,” she says. “People who know me know how stubborn I am and if I had to crawl or piggyback my way to the finish line, I would have done it.”

One more finish line

Despite her amazing achievement, Lee Ann’s road to recovery has had its ups and downs. Her left ankle and big toe are sometimes stiff when she wakes up. The first few steps every day can be difficult. Climbing stairs still poses a challenge. She has returned to work, but is still working to regain the strength, balance and range of motion she needs for her physical therapy patients. And while she thinks less about her limitations with each passing day, the scars on her leg serve as a permanent reminder.

A year ago, Lee Ann Yanni was one of many Boston Marathon bombing survivors. Today she’s defying the odds with every mile. All 26.2 of them. Not surprisingly, Lee Ann has another marathon in her sights: “No question, the 2014 Boston Marathon.”

Lee Ann reflects: “I realize I’m a lot stronger than I ever thought I was. To learn how to walk again. To see how much I can overcome. I’ll be running the Marathon with my husband—but I told him he has to keep up. Nick really went above and beyond with his help and patience during my recovery, so we’re going to cross the finish line together. Running that race will be the bookend of this chapter, for us and the other survivors. We will do it for the city of Boston, we will do it for those who died and we will do it for ourselves.”

The City of Boston.

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