Health Care
6:00 am
Tue November 12, 2013

Heather Abbott Adapting To Life As An Amputee

A little more than six months have passed since Newport resident Heather Abbott lost her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing. We’ll be checking in with Abbott for the next few months as she adjusts to life without a limb. We’ll also be exploring the growing community of amputees Abbott has joined – a community researchers say could double in the next few decades.

Heather Abbott at home in Newport
Heather Abbott at home in Newport
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Chances are good you’ve seen Heather Abbott on TV, or on a magazine cover. She was waiting outside a restaurant near the Boston Marathon finish line when one of the bombs went off. Her lower left leg was so shattered she chose amputation over a life of pain. And since that day in April, Abbott has been facing a long recovery. But she’s shared her journey - giving lots of interviews, appearing at lots of fundraisers. She’s become, for some, the face of triumph over tragedy, the survivor who seemed to smile her way through adversity. Abbott says that learning to walk on a new, prosthetic leg has been a kind of triumph.

“At this point, I probably don’t even remember what it was like to walk on two legs because I’m so used to walking with a prosthetic leg now that it’s not as big of a deal.”

A prosthetic leg still in the test phase
A prosthetic leg still in the test phase
Credit Kristin Gourlay / RIPR

Abbott sits on an overstuffed couch in her sunny living room in Newport. It’s cozy and light, with a beachy décor that seems a perfect fit in this seaside town. Newporters have rallied around her. But despite the support, getting to this point, being able to get around without crutches or a wheelchair, has been hard. First she had to come to terms with being an amputee. She says it hit her last June at an event for disabled athletes.

“There were a lot of people around with prosthetic legs. And it was difficult to see all these people that at one time I would have looked at and probably felt bad for them. But now I’m one of them.”

Then, she tried on a prosthetic leg for the first time. It wasn’t what she’d expected.

“I didn’t realize, first of all, how much it would hurt.”

It had only been eight weeks, and her surgical incision was still tender. All of this was still so new to her.

“And I guess, you know when I see people walk with prosthetic legs, and they look like they’re walking like everybody else, I guess I assumed it would feel like walking like everybody else. And it doesn’t.”

Next, Abbott had to learn to walk again. She says it’s not as simple as putting on a new leg. The maker of that new leg, her prosthetist, had to show her.  

“When I was first learning how to walk on it, the prosthetist would have to tell me, you know, how to shift my hips or how to kick my leg out, things that I never thought about when I was walking that I guess people do when they’re walking.”

You also have to get the right fit. To do that, she says the prosthetist takes a cast of what’s called her “residual limb,” and uses that to craft a fiberglass test socket to fit over it. That plugs into a metal rod with a foot attached. But that’s just the beginning of a long process.

“And I would try it out for a couple days and see if it fits ok, if there’s anything hurting me about it. And then I would go back to him, let him know how it feels, and if it doesn’t feel right, he’ll make some adjustments. I’ll take it back, try it out for a few more days. And that could go back and forth several times.”

When they settle on a fit, the prosthetist makes a final carbon fiber socket. To put on her new leg, Abbott pulls a silicone liner over her residual limb. That liner has a pin in it that locks into the socket, and that’s attached to the rest of the leg. These days, Abbott says she can spend all day on it. But at night she needs a break.

“The silicone is somewhat of a cushion. But it is hard. I wouldn’t call it comfortable.”

And it can become even more uncomfortable as her limb changes. She says it can take close to 18 months for the swelling to go down after surgery. That means the leg she has now will soon be too big. Gain or lose 10 pounds, you have to be refitted again. Plus, prosthetic legs only last for a few years. So she says she’ll be spending lots of time with her prosthetist – among other medical appointments.

“I have physical therapy, I have appointments with my prosthetist, I have appointments with my surgeon, my rehab doctor at Spaulding.”

On top of that schedule, Abbott says she’s still learning how to handle daily life as an amputee. Sometimes, she says, a situation that was once so routine becomes totally unfamiliar.

“I can remember a time when I brought clothes into a dressing room, a pair of pants, and realized I was going to have to take my leg off to try them on, and sat down and took the leg off, and then realized that I had hung the pants across the dressing room and I couldn’t get over there to get them. So, you know, I shortly learned that I need to keep the clothes close to me when I’m trying clothes on.”

Other lessons aren’t so mundane.

“I was in a hotel room recently where the fire alarm went off in the middle of the night. And I was on the 21st floor. So to have to get down 21 flights of stairs was not easy. So, I’ve learned that I probably need to ask for a low-level floor when I stay at a hotel.”

But Abbott says she doesn’t want anyone to feel bad for her. In fact, she says she wants to help other amputees the way they’ve helped her cope. And that’s why she says she’s decided to talk to the media, to go to the fundraisers, to share her story and her time.

“I don’t think I would have been as successful as I have so if I hadn’t had people that could demonstrate to me that this is not the end of the world. You know, I can remember someone coming to visit me in the hospital, telling me that, she had a prosthetic leg, and this was not the biggest problem in her life. And she said, ‘You know, I get up in the morning and I put it on like I put on a pair of glasses, and then I have a million other problems to worry about.’ And I thought, if I can get to that point someday, if she can do it, I can do it.”

She’s doing it. With lots of help from friends she’s come to rely on.

“Probably one of the positive things that’s come out of this whole experience is, because I’ve never really had to rely on anybody for anything too major, I’ve really discovered who’s really important in my life and kind of came through for me.”