A survivor of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings gave graduates a message of hope and inspiration Thursday evening during the Ogeechee Technical College 2015 Spring Commencement ceremony.
The commencement was held at 7 p.m. in Georgia Southern University’s Hanner Fieldhouse.
Heather Abbott, who walked gracefully to the podium in four-inch heels, suffered a leg amputation after three surgeries failed to save her shattered limb. Shrapnel from the second of two bombs exploding near the Boston Marathon finish line changed her life forever, and Abbott shared some of her experiences with graduates and guests.
Twelve seconds was all it took, she said. The first explosion caught her attention, and when the second bomb (crafted from a pressure cooker) blew, the force knocked her off her feet and through a restaurant door.
“I thought my foot was on fire,” she said. “The pain was excruciating. Others were running for their lives. I couldn’t.”
A former New England Patriots football lineman and his wife, Matt and Erin Chatham, helped Abbott to an ambulance that took her to the hospital. After that, Abbott’s life took a new turn and she was forced to make a decision – remain a disabled amputee or accept the challenges that faced her and move on, she said
“I had to adjust to the new normal of my life. I had to just let it go - it happened, it is what it is.”
That didn’t mean she would pretend the bombing didn’t affect her. “There is a difference between letting go and forgetting,” she said. “Accept what you can’t change and rise above it.”
The bombings eventually left 280 victims with nonfatal injuries. Five were killed, including three spectators, a police officer, and one of the bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev . The surviving bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was recently sentenced to death by a jury after a Boston trial.
The tragedy left many with emotional and physical scars, but Abbott told the crowd she was not going to allow the incident to ruin her life.
“Resign or refocus,” were words of advice she gave graduates who may face challenges in life. “As a survivor, your only choices are to pick yourself up and move on.”
Public exposure and media attention prompted Abbott to fight for the life she once had. Four months after her amputation, she was running and paddle boarding. She was living independently and returned to her job, part time, as a human resources manager, and is now a certified peer counselor, inspiring others facing amputations and severe limitations to try and succeed.
She also started the Heather Abbott Foundation for amputee victims of traumatic incidents.
Abbott encouraged the graduates to make a difference. “In the next chapter of your lives, do what you can to help others. Be a catalyst of hope, reach out.”
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.