Heather Abbott is looking forward to the day she can return to work as a human resource manager for Raytheon Inc. She will be delighted when she can once again drive her car to the office, “just like a normal person.”
Abbott’s life has been anything but normal since two bombs detonated close to the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The second explosion actually pushed the 38-year-old Abbott through the front door of a popular downtown tavern as shrapnel tore through the lower part of her left leg. Days after the blast, she made a gut-wrenching decision to amputate her severely injured foot and ankle.
“The doctors convinced me that amputation and a prosthetic limb were the best options for getting my life back as close to normal as possible,” Abbott said. “Since then, I have really focused on healing, and I am feeling stronger every day.”
Positive Attitude, Focus Keys to Recovery
Her consistently upbeat attitude and determination to overcome the toughest challenge of her life have been an inspiration to many and have made her a celebrity in the Boston area. First lady Michelle Obama paid Abbott a visit in the hospital, and CNN newscaster Anderson Cooper interviewed Abbott about her decision to have her left leg amputated a few inches below the knee.
About four weeks after the bombings, she threw out the ceremonial first pitch for a Red Sox baseball game. She said later that it was very scary and awkward to make the pitch while balancing on crutches. After her adventure on the pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park, Abbott’s hometown of Newport, R.I., threw her a welcome-home party. The party guests included Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and other local politicians and prominent business leaders.
While she appreciates the demonstrations of support, it’s a notoriety that she might be happier without, Abbott concedes. She longs for a sense of normalcy and says the thought that she will eventually return to a job she loves and settle back down into daily routines has helped sustain her through some very tough times.
“Honestly, I just don’t think about or even dwell on the negatives,” she said. “My goal is to get better and regain my independence, and that’s really been my focus through all this. It’s just so hard having to depend on others for things like going to the store or getting to the doctor’s office.”
Since the bombings, Abbott has not watched “even one minute” of news coverage of the terrorist attacks. Avoiding the intense news coverage has kept her from thinking about the tragedy and focused on the future.
“This is the hand that I’ve been dealt, and I have to make the best of it,” she said. “My current situation, where I have to rely on a lot of different people, is temporary, and things are definitely improving for me. It’s this thought and realizing that in a few months things should return to normal are really what keep me going.”
Her friends and family have called her the bravest and most courageous person they know. All of the accolades clearly humble Abbott, who considers her recovery process a matter of survival.
“If I stay focused on the goal of healing and getting my life back to normal, then I will eventually get there,” she said.
Support System, Future Plans Sustain Her
Abbott says her attitude and approach to healing and getting her life back are not radically different from the way she has handled other challenges in her life.
“I don’t think that I’ve learned anything terribly new about the way I deal with challenges,” she said. “What I have learned, and what surprised me the most, is the incredible support system that I have. The outpouring of love and support from friends, co-workers and colleagues in HR has been overwhelming. People have donated their time and money to help me, and others have sent cards. I really can’t thank everyone enough for what they have done for me.”
Several of Abbott’s friends and colleagues collaborated to raise money to help pay her medical bills. A high-tech prosthetic leg can be expensive, and a support fund for Abbott has collected more than $50,000 to help defray the costs. Abbott’s friends and family have set up an online recovery fund at www.gofundme.com/HeatherAbbott.
In addition, Abbott has nothing but praise for Raytheon and her co-workers, whose support has helped immensely, she said.
“My employer has been great, and it’s a great comfort to know that I will still have a job with Raytheon when I’m ready to go back,” she said. “It’s been one less thing that I have to worry about, and I am so appreciative that my boss is being so supportive and flexible.”
When she returns to work, Abbott isn’t sure she’ll be in the same role as a manager of HR compliance and equal employment opportunity.
“Who knows what I will be doing when I return and what my job duties will be exactly, but I don’t expect things will be too much different,” she said.
A Society for Human Resource Management member for more than 10 years, Abbott plans to continue as a volunteer for SHRM and the Northeast Human Resource Association.
“I always enjoyed volunteering, and I’d like to keep doing that when I’m ready,” she said.
When she returns to work, Abbott says her perspective on hiring and providing accommodations for disabled workers will have changed quite a bit.
“A week or so before the bombing attack, I participated in an event held by the Massachusetts Commission on rehabilitation. Several people with disabilities were there and spoke with us about the challenges they face in the workplace,” she recalled. “I thought then just how difficult it must be to be disabled and wondered if I could ever cope like these people did. It is just so strange to remember that now and realize that I am facing this challenge.”
It’s a challenge that Abbott is clearly prepared to overcome.
Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.