For John Cairns the site and feeling is all too familiar. Hospital beds, recovery rooms, bandages, wheelchairs, doctors, concerned family and friends all reminders of where he was twenty one years ago. On November 30th, 1992, close to lunch he was finishing assembly of a train when he was knocked to the ground when a rail car bumped the one he was working on. He fell over the tracks and knew he was in trouble, “I knew there the wheels of the rail car were four feet behind me so I tried to tighten my body.” To no avail, the 68-ton railcar crushed John’s right arm, above the elbow and right leg, above the knee. Lying in the middle of a massive train yard and losing blood quickly it was fourteen minutes before paramedics found him in the labyrinth of trains. Miraculously John stayed conscious the entire time, including the helicopter ride to the hospital where he remembers asking the pilot if they could make a pit stop for Tim Hortons donuts. He only passed out while being wheeled down the hallway watching the fluorescent light strips blur by above while heading to emerge.
Fast forward to a year ago, On that sunny day in April as it has happened every year for the last 117 years since it was started in 1887, runners by the thousands ran the 26.2 mile course finishing on Bolyston street in downtown Boston. Then a loud bang, most thought it was fire works but the billowing cloud of smoke followed by a second blast from down the street lead to reminders of a cloudless September day in 2001. The words ‘bomb’ and ‘terrorist’ conjuring up bad memories and reminders of what it felt like for the United States to feel venerable. ‘Its happening again’ but who, how and why, were the questions all being asked mere minutes after the bombs went off. Runners were thrown about like rag dolls, blood coloured the sidewalk as onlookers ran and emergency workers sprinted into action. Two pressure cooker bombs had been set off and tore through the crowd killing three and injuring over 200 people. In the days that ensued the city would be gripped by fear and America watched uneasily as police roamed the streets looking to bring those responsible to justice as well as answers to the shaken residents of Boston.
After a fierce gun battle and another fatality, the suspect was in custody. The city was free to open its doors and for the victims the long road to recovery began. Back in Canada, John watched the days unfold on the television as many others did and wanted in some way to help. Hearing the news reports talk about the loss of limbs being the major injury sustained by most of the victims, John empathetically related and wanted to extend his wisdom and compassion to the injured.
In short time he planned a trip to Boston, with a blessing from his local Rotary club, a letter from his cities mayor to the mayor of Boston and a hotel room John knew time was of the essence and the victims would be entering the most difficult part of the journey, rehabilitation. A time that when John reached that point himself he says was “where reality hit the pavement.” Rebuilding his life from scratch has been no easy task and there were many days he almost gave up, feeling to sorry for himself to continue but he found strength in others. In rehab he met burn victims who were barely recognizable and made him think about how lucky he had been to have even have survived loosing over 14 quarts of blood. Many of the men and woman in Boston leaving the hospitals after almost a month of constant care, skin grafts, pain medication had doubts about their ability to function back in their day to day lives.
After the long road from his home in Belleville, Ontario to the shores of the Atlantic , John started to make plans for the next week. He would try and track down patients who were still in hospital or those who had begun rehabilitation re-learn how to move and walk all over again. The full days going from office to office, hospital to hospital trying to find people to help point him in the right direction took a toll on John having only one good leg to stand on. Many of the victims had gone home to their families or moved to other hospitals or rehab centres.
John visited the bombing sites and the memorial set up adjacent to the the finish line where people had left mementos and running shoes as a sign of remembrance. John then ended up at city hall to present the letter from Belleville’s mayor to then Boston mayor, Thomas Menino who unfortunately was ill at the time, but John was able to sit in on a ceremony recognizing some of the cities first responders and EMS Chief Jim Hooley who responded so professionally and quickly amid the chaos. Through a chance meeting John was directed to the recently built, state of the art, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital which open just two weeks after the bombings and where many of the victims who had lost limbs were beginning the road to recovery.
Upon arrival at the new facility John commented on the grounds, mentioning that it was a place of healing unlike anything he had experienced during his time in rehab. Within minutes someone came through the front doors being pushed by a relative, leg clearly bandaged at the site of the amputation. With one look John recognize one of the Norden brothers, JP, who lost his leg below the knee while standing near the finish line, the site of the first bomb. After an introduction JP and John leaned in for an embrace, no words were said but right there in the entrance to JP’s new reality, they shared a unspoken connection that things would be alright, it will get better and there is life after lose. The woman pushing JP was his girlfriend who in tears looked on as the survivors promised to keep in touch.
The rest of the day spent at Spaulding was equally as inspiring for John as he toured the facilities and saw the hope on the patient’s faces. While eating lunch another young man was walking the grounds on crutches with his nurse. John went out to greet the young man, who turned out to be survivor Patrick Downes who also lost his leg below the knee. John showed off his the state of the art prosthetic leg as they talked, similar to the ones that would allow many of the victims to get back on their feet and eventually even run again.
Having spent most of the day there John left with a sense of accomplishment but also of reinvigorated inspiration to continue living his own life to the fullest. When he was first planning the trip it was to bring hope to the victims of the Boston bombings but upon heading home to his career of philanthropy and motivational speaking he realized it was he who had been inspired by not the victims but by the survivors of Boston. The motto that came out to rally support amongst the citizens was Boston Strong and it was certainly evident in the people and the survivors that the terrorist had picked the wrong city to incite fear and violence to and that out of the tragedy the strength of the survivors would lift the city to be even stronger.