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Husband-and-wife bombing victims describe pain, horror, recovery

Lee Ann Yanni, a physical therapist, nearly lost her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing – and knows better than most what recovery will take.

April 25, 2013|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Nicholas Yanni describes the Boston Marathon blast that left him without hearing for a time and nearly cost his wife, Lee Ann, one of her legs. Now both are home intent on full recovery and hoping to see justice done in the case.
Nicholas Yanni describes the Boston Marathon blast that left him without… (Darren McCollester / Getty…)

BOSTON — First came the sound, loud and confusing. Then Lee Ann Yanni felt as if something had bumped into her left calf.

"That's when I looked down and saw the bone sticking out and thought, 'I'm a physical therapist, and I know that's not a good thing,'" she said. "I could feel the blood just pouring from my leg almost like it was a hose. And it was like 10 seconds later, after the first explosion, that the second one happened."

Yanni tried to put weight on her left leg so she could hobble to safety, but it wouldn't hold. So she hopped on one leg into a sporting goods store at the blue and yellow finish line of the Boston Marathon and crumpled to the floor.

One minute the 31-year-old was cheering on a friend and dreaming of her own first marathon — Oct. 13, in Chicago, in memory of her father, who died of cancer. The next, Yanni's husband, Nicholas, was grabbing T-shirts from the racks at Marathon Sports and using them as tourniquets in a frantic effort to save her leg and her life.

Ten days later, Yanni is sitting on the sofa of her small apartment hard by Fenway Park. Her left leg, in a massive soft cast, is propped on a stack of pillows. She has had three surgeries in the course of five days and her doctor recently removed a "wound vac," a machine that drew fluids from her shattered calf to help her heal.

And she is planning ahead, to the day when she can finally put a little weight on her damaged leg, with its fractured fibula — "almost as if you took a night stick and just cracked my ankle is how the doctor explained it to me." And the day when she can start to try and flex her foot, a big milestone.

Someday soon, she hopes to stand again without assistance. That's when she'll start to work on strength and balance, doing the same kinds of exercises she used to put her patients through as a therapist who specializes in helping people return to normal lives after surgery.

Eventually, months from now, she will walk. Then jog. Then run.

"I don't have high expectations for the Chicago Marathon," said Yanni, who knows better than most what difficulties are ahead. But she will be there. And she will cross the finish line in Grant Park if her running buddies have to "carry me or walk me or push me."

On this overcast Thursday, Yanni's third day back home, she is sitting close to Nicholas. Her mother, Rosemary Sauer, is at the other end of the sofa. It is early, and the three look alternately stunned and sad and relieved and happy.

They say that they are lucky. They say it over and over.

Sauer, who will soon turn 70, did not know her daughter had been injured until she saw an image of the fit young woman flash on her television screen in Orlando, Fla. Yanni was being tended by a stranger in the middle of what looked like a war zone. Sauer got on a plane the next day and has not left.

Yanni and her husband were standing next to each other on Boylston Street when the first blast went off. The percussion caused the 32-year-old physics student to lose his hearing for several hours. He spent marathon night as a patient at Tufts Medical Center, sharing a hospital room with his wife. Doctors there wanted to keep him under observation.

Nicholas has an open and friendly face. On this early morning, coffee in hand, he is happy to talk about pretty much anything:

How fortunate he and Lee Ann are to have survived and found each other in the post-bomb chaos.

How numb he still feels 10 days after the explosions upended his life.

How he expects the emotional pain to arrive sometime soon. And how hard it was to leave what he calls the "sanctity" of the hospital, which was surrounded by police.

When he was discharged the day after the bombing, "I pushed myself to go out and walk around," he said. Because front and center in his mind was the fear that "anything could be in a trash can. Somebody could have put something there."

He does not expect that fear ever to leave completely, but it is not hard for him to talk about. Yet his face shuts down when he is asked about what happened at the moment of the first explosion, April 15, at 2:50 p.m.

He starts to talk as if words could shield him from the things he saw. "I" becomes "you," as if he is narrating someone else's pain.

"It was a loud noise and it happened so quick that you go, 'Oh, what was that?'" he said, his voice soft and flat. "Then, when you look up, and you see the flash and you see the smoke and you smell the gunpowder.

"And you look down and you see your wife's leg bleeding and the bone sticking out. And you look around and you see other people with fatalities."

Nicholas was supposed to register for the summer session at Bunker Hill Community College on April 16. It didn't happen. But the school, he said, has been more than accommodating, and he hopes to start classes on June 3.

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