In the hours and days following the grisly attack on the Boston Marathon, Jeff Bauman, whose image captured national attention and almost immediately became an indelible icon of the bombing, helped identify one of the suspects from his intensive care unit at Boston Medical Center. His vivid testimony—of making eye contact with Tamerlan Tsarnaev seconds before the blast—directly led to the manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers and became one of that week's most extraordinary stories.
But these days, Bauman is more concerned with himself.
The Costco deli counter employee is today the subject of a powerful, 4,500-word New York Times feature chronicling his recovery and reflections in the months following the marathon. Naturally, none of it has been easy—Bauman's legs were both amputated the day of the attack, his right eardrum was destroyed, and he describes constant, pulsating pain that keeps him up at night. ("There's always gonna be some pain, I think, because my body's going to be like, 'Where are your lower legs?'" Bauman says in a video report that accompanies that piece.) Nor has Bauman quite adjusted to the fame that arrived, almost instantly, after he was photographed being wheeled to safety, his legs shattered, in the chaos of the blast. He has disliked being an object of pity, and sometimes, there's only confusion:
Bauman had recently asked his mother why people so adored him. They respected his bravery, she had said, and he was the face of the tragedy, of those who survived.
The Times's Tim Rohan was granted tremendous access to Bauman's life and medical procedures over the course of the recovery—watching the Massachusetts native wince in pain as 49 sutures are removed from what remains of his lower legs, observing him as he struggles through a physical therapy regimen—and his most wrenching accounts involve Bauman's interactions with his girlfriend, Erin Hurley. He had gone to the marathon in the first place to watch her compete, and imagine how that must feel. Bauman still dreams of buying a house with her, but she isn't sure:
One night, just as his patience waned, Hurley arrived; seeing her was the best part of his day now. They had been together for about a year. He had decided he wanted to marry her, buy a house with her, start a new life with her. But he sensed her guilt. She said she loved him more now. She was more affectionate. They had figured out how to be intimate in his hospital bed. She just had to be careful of his legs. [ ... ]
“It’s a lot of work buying a house, you know,” she said, looking down. She felt his eyes watching her. “You have to like—I don’t know. It’s a lot of work. It might be too much for you right now. And me, too.”
Then there is the odd anecdote in which Rohan plays fly on the wall to a stammering conversation between James Taylor, who is warming up for a benefit concert for the Boston victims, and Bauman. Their exchange is quietly, strangely heartbreaking:
“So, you’re a guitar player, I hear,” he said, tapping Bauman’s forearm.
“Yeah, I can play a couple of chords,” Bauman said. His ears were still ringing from the music, but he did not mention this, or how he played the guitar for only five minutes at a time now, his ears frustrated him so. [ ... ]
Then Taylor asked about his health insurance at Costco and if it was covering his expenses, and Bauman said yes. But he did not know entirely. He had not seen a bill from Boston Medical or Spaulding. His new legs cost about $100,000 each, but he expected them to be covered by his insurance and a foundation called Wiggle Your Toes.
Then, more promisingly, Rohan tells of Bauman's first attempt to walk, the following day, with the help of a newly made pair of prosthetic limbs. It is a difficult and precarious effort, but Bauman manages five steps with the careful help of Hurley, his mother, and a steady railing.
Read the full Times piece here, a powerful reminder that while national interest faded as the manhunt wound down, the recovery process for the victims is a constant, unfinished affair.