Jennifer Gilmore, DO, had just finished running the Boston Marathon. She was relaxing at the end of the finish chute with some friends as they put on dry clothes, stretched and rehydrated. They heard the explosion first, then saw large puffs of smoke muddy the sky.
“There was a police officer just standing there, and the look on his face, you knew that it wasn’t normal, that it wasn’t supposed to happen,” says Dr. Gilmore, who is an osteopathic manipulative medicine and sports medicine specialist with the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine in East Lansing.
More than a mile away, Kyle Snell, DO, was alone in a friend’s apartment, having walked there after finishing the marathon. He hadn’t heard the blasts, but he started receiving texts from friends inquiring about his safety.
“I turned on the TV and found out there was a bombing, and I was in shock,” says Dr. Snell, who is a family medicine resident in East Lansing.
Dr. Snell informed his friends and family that he was safe, then headed back toward the finish line. He had initially planned to shower, change and watch a few friends finish. After hearing about the bombing he was hoping to help. But the area was already locked down.
“I was going to go back either way, but the hard part was you couldn’t go back,” he says. “Everything was blocked off.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Gilmore and her friends learned that their hotel was on lockdown. They camped out for several hours in a different hotel nearby, then headed back to their hotel only to find that the street it was on was closed. They walked some more. Locals offered them food, water and blankets.
“One lady was with her daughter, she said, ‘Do you need to go to the bathroom, do you need to get warm? You can come in my house,’ ” she says. “It was a terrible tragedy, but there was such an outpouring of warmth.”
DOs who ran the 2013 Boston Marathon say their brush with disaster has made them more aware of the brevity and fragility of life, and while deeply saddened by the day’s events, they are encouraged by the displays of kindness and empathy they witnessed.
“I don’t think anyone will ever understand why people do this stuff,” says Derek J. DeTemple, DO, an emergency physician in Mesa, Ariz., who ran his 21st marathon on Monday. “But it makes me want to look at the positive too. The city of Boston and the American people are very good at pulling together and helping each other out. It just reiterates what a strong people we are and what a great people we are.”
Dr. Snell says he’s thought a lot about living in the moment since Monday.
“It really stresses how short life is,” Dr. Snell says. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen next. Hopefully, this experience will encourage me to live every day to its fullest and be happy for what I have.”
Dr. Gilmore says the experience showed her how kind people really are.
“People were out opening their hearts and their homes and giving us their things. The compassion was just incredible,” she says.
How DOs react
Several of the runners say their backgrounds as osteopathic physicians shaped their reactions on Monday.
As a physician, Dr. Snell was pained that he was unable to help the injured.
“DOs treat patients as a whole. So as a DO, I’m thinking about not only the injuries that occur physically but emotionally—how the victims are now going to have to deal with the aftermath,” he says. “It makes you really feel for them.”
Physicians learn to remain calm in chaotic situations, says John Gunselman, DO, who also ran the marathon.
“We’re exposed to a lot of the aspects of life that a lot of people are either scared of or don’t want to be associated with because it’s uncomfortable,” says Dr. Gunselman, who is a urology resident in Philadelphia. “I’m a urologist, and I have surgical training, and we deal with a lot of trauma. It’s been very helpful having that background in a setting of heightened tension. It’s easier to react calmly when you’re used to working under stressful situations.”
Dr. Gunselman says the philosophy of treating the whole patient helped him appreciate the efforts he witnessed on the street to care for people beyond just their medical needs.
“A lot of the good Samaritans out there were just bringing aid to people who were not even in the actual blast,” he says. “That, to me, was the take-home good that came of all of this. It does unite the goodness in people.”
When asked whether they’ll run the 2014 Boston Marathon, many DOs say the bombing won’t discourage them from running again. Dr. Snell says it will be a good way to honor those who were hurt or killed this year.
“There’s so much good that comes out of the Boston Marathon, like fund-raising,” he says. “The worst thing we could do is let something like this prevent future marathons.”
Dr. Gilmore also says she expects to be in Boston next year, running shoes at the ready.
“I don’t want this to be my final memory of such an awesome event,” she says.
Running the marathon is a tradition that Dr. DeTemple shares with his cousin, he says. This year, he ran the marathon for the fifth time, and he plans to be there next year with his cousin.
“Some people it may deter. They’ll say, ‘Well, it’s not worth it,’ ” he says. “But fortunately I think this was an isolated incident. It’s not going to deter me from going.”
Dr. DeTemple envisions increased security at next year’s marathon, though he notes that security was already thorough this year.
“There are a lot of police and medical people there. There’s a presence, and they are watching people,” he says. “I don’t know how they could have done better. But I’m sure in the future they’ll have to close off the street and have a security checkpoint. And people will have to have their bags searched or maybe they won’t allow any bags in those areas.”
Dr. Gunselman agrees that the bombing may change the nature of the Boston Marathon, but he will still run it again.
“The Boston Marathon is special because it has history, and it’s an event for the entire city,” he says. “They said there were half a million people in the crowd, but I struggle to believe that it was not more than that. The energy and camaraderie surrounding the marathon are just really incredible. It’s inspiring, both during the race and afterward, and I’m inspired to do it again.”