Local amputee offers comfort, counsel to Boston bombing victims

As soon as the bombs detonated and the arms and the legs of innocent victims were blown off in Boston that day two weeks ago, Bree McMahon knew she had to help.

If anybody knows how to deal with losing a limb, she does. If anybody knows what it's like to wake up in a hospital bed futilely feeling for a leg that's no longer there, she does. If anybody knows the long, frustrating road back from that brief second when your old life is ripped away from you, she does.

That's why she was on a plane to Boston two days after the terrorist attack that killed three, injured hundreds and took the limbs of at least 15 victims. She wanted to relay the same message to the amputees that she relayed to me nearly five years ago when she laid in the hospital bed at Orlando Regional Medical Center.

The message then wasn't, "Why me?"

It was, "Watch me!"

"Watch me come back from this," she said defiantly back then. "And I will come back from this."

And has she ever. Hers is the greatest comeback story since Lazarus.

Bree, the former Freedom High School soccer play, is tougher than Clint Eastwood in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Except if somebody were making a movie about her life — and they will someday — the name of it should be, "The Good, the Better and the Best."

If you've been reading this column for any length of time, you know the story of Bree. In September 2009, she was at a carwash to help raise money for her club soccer team when an accident happened — a freakish, horrific accident. As Bree was getting ready to wash a car driven by one of her teammates, Chelsea Lingelbach, the driver's foot slipped off the brake and hit the gas. The car surged forward and pinned Bree against a brick wall.

Her lower extremities were crushed. Her left leg had to be amputated above knee. Her right leg was saved — barely — but had to be rebuilt. (Read a column from after her accident here.)

Since then, her story of hoping and coping has been an inspiration to amputees around the world. It's been written about in national magazines and shown on NBC's Today show and ABC's 20/20. She has become an inspiration to youth soccer teams, NFL football players, and anybody and everybody in between.

Soccer legend Mia Hamm called Bree on the phone after her accident and Bree said, "You're my hero." And Mia replied, "No, you're MY hero."

Amputees desperately need heroes these days, especially since the fall from grace of South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius — the double amputee who was been charged recently with murdering his girlfriend.

"What a downer that was," Bree says. "He is somebody we all looked up to."

Now it's Bree they all look up to. And that's why she went to Boston to comfort and counsel two women — Erika Brannock and Roseanne Sdoia — who each lost a limb in the bombings. She wanted them to know that even though they've lost a leg, they can still run down their dreams. Her advice to them was simple: Don't wallow in the what-if and why-me but instead focus on the I-can and what-will-be.

"You can still be whatever you want to be," says Bree, now a 21-year-old junior goalie on the Division II Brevard College soccer team in North Carolina. "I wanted them to know that. I wanted to tell them not to put limitations on themselves. Doctors told me I would never walk again and I'm running and playing college soccer. I have a boyfriend. I go out and have fun. I am an amputee, but I consider myself a normal person."

She knows what the victims are going through because she has limped in their shoes, has endured 20 surgeries and fallen down more times than she can remember in her battle to play soccer again. Walking into the hospital in Boston brought back the dismal memories of chaos and fear. The wondering, waiting, worrying.

Would boys ever find her attractive again? Would she go through life in a wheelchair? Would she ever be able to kick a soccer ball or drive a car?

Bree not only spoke to the amputees, she spoke to their loved ones and advised them to cleanse themselves of the feelings of guilt and responsibility. It's the same thing she told her own mother Kathleen, who was at the carwash that fateful day. And Chelsea, her good friend who was behind the wheel of the car.

Carol Downing is the mother of Erika Brannock, one of the women who lost a leg in Boston. Downing was at the Boston Marathon as part of a weekend getaway with her two adult daughters — Brannock and Nicole Gross. She invited them to watch her run the marathon, and both were seriously injured after the bombs exploded as she approached the finish line.

 
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