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by lisa pierpont | June 23, 2014 | Lifestyle
The Reny family heals itself and others with one of the most successful research funds for Boston Marathon survivors and beyond.
Danielle, Steven, Gillian, and Audrey Epstein Reny survived the Boston Marathon bombings last year.
To walk into the Reny townhouse is an elegant reminder of what hard work, an excellent education, and a strong upbringing can do. Carefully chosen art lines the walls of the four-story home. Tasteful bouquets of purple roses, fuchsia hydrangea, and white orchids punctuate the rooms. Framed black-and-white family photographs dot the shelves, arranged just so.
This is the home that Steven and Audrey Epstein Reny built. It is warm. It is loving. It is perfect. It is where their 19-year-old daughter, Gillian, dreamed of becoming a ballerina; where their older daughter, Danielle, now 21, applied to Harvard College, and where she received the acceptance letter. It is where Steven and Audrey imagined growing old together—the natural evolution after sharing their youth together. They met at Weston High School—he a junior, she a sophomore. “We were high school sweethearts,” Steven says. “We went to my junior prom together, and since then we’ve been a couple.” Audrey continues, “People wonder, Is that how it really happened? But it really is. We fell in love and followed each other through college and our first jobs.” They both graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and landed positions at Bain & Company. Steven went on to be the president of his family’s manufacturing company, while Audrey joined her family’s real estate development group. No matter how busy work was, they both prioritized spending time with their beloved daughters. Life, as they say, was good.
For Gillian, it happened in slow motion. Screams. Pain. Red. Her legs. The legs she danced upon at the Boston Ballet school and onstage. Her dad, Steven, next to her… then down. Pavement. Smoke. Thunder ripping through his ears. Her mom, Audrey—her wrist hurts, but she’s looking for Gillian, for Steven, for Danielle, who is a block away from the finish line. Running in the Boston Marathon. Sprinting. Trembling. Falling. Where is her family? She knows they were waiting for her by the finish line.
In 12 seconds, life was no longer good.
Gillian was rushed to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. At 4 pm, Dr. Eric G. Halvorson, a plastic surgeon, saw Gillian for the first time. It was one hour after the bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, in what would be the worst terrorist attack on Boston soil. Gillian was unconscious on a gurney, draped with steel-blue sheets. “All I could see were her legs,” Dr. Halvorson says. “I could tell that both were severely injured, and one might not be able to be saved.” Audrey and Steven described their daughter to him. “They told me she was a dancer, that she was supposed to go to the University of Pennsylvania as a freshman in the fall, that she had a bright future ahead of her.” Dr. Halvorson got right to it. The vascular system, tissues, bones, and nerves all had to be assessed—and fast. Along with Dr. Halvorson, a team of other doctors was assigned to Gillian in a multidisciplinary approach. Gillian’s legs had been sliced by a six-inch piece of the wall of the pressure-cooker bomb. It had shredded through her right leg and embedded into her left calf. After 24 hours and two surgeries, it was time for Dr. Halvorson to report to Audrey and Steven. Their daughter’s legs would be saved. “It was a miracle that all the major nerves were intact,” Dr. Halvorson says.
Miracles are funny things. Timing, luck, science, even love, it could be argued, are all part of the mysterious potion. Dr. Halvorson isn’t one to utter the word lightly, nor is he one to downplay the life-and-death, limb-or-no-limb outcomes that doctors come to bear. A graduate of the medical school at Duke University School of Medicine, he had seen worse than the Boston Marathon bombings. Back in 2003, he was working as the chief trauma resident at Rhode Island Hospital on the night of the fire at the Station nightclub. One hundred people perished in the blaze, and more than 200 were injured. “As far as casualties go, that was a much bigger event,” he says. “It left a mark and informed me about what types of systems and approaches work best in times of trauma.” When he came to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in 2013, he recognized a thoughtful staff, a multidisciplinary system, and a depth of expertise that ranked the hospital as one of the best, not just on the Northeast corridor but in the world. Did that help save Gillian’s legs? “There’s no question,” Dr. Halvorson says.
Gillian Reny recovering at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
But there was a long journey ahead for Gillian and her family. One of their toughest challenges was adapting from being a fiercely private clan to being thrust into the spotlight in an international news story. “We were in the midst of something that was a public phenomenon,” Audrey says. “We literally heard from every person that we’ve ever known in our entire life.” And people they had never met. “We had so many requests for interviews,” she says. The family declined all of them. “That wasn’t the priority for us at all,” Steven says. “It was about Gillian and the doctors, and our immediate family.”
“[Audrey and Steven] were there around the clock,” Dr. Halvorson says. “They had to be dragged away just to be evaluated—I mean, Steven ruptured both of his eardrums in the attack, and Audrey had multiple shrapnel injuries.” As a doctor trained to manage trauma, Halvorson was struck by how the family handled what clearly was the worst event of their lives. “I could tell when I first met them that they were successful, smart, and private,” he says. “This sort of trauma could break them. It could make anybody in any circumstance fall apart.”
One, two, three, plié. Hold the barre. Two, two, three, relevé. Three, two, three, plié. It was tedious—God, so tedious to Gillian, but making it at the Boston Ballet school had meant being disciplined, being tough. For three weeks at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Center, as Gillian learned to put weight on her legs, practiced bending her knees—fighting each time not to faint from the pain—she remembered her 7-year-old self training at the ballet barre. She remembered how she ignored her feet throbbing inside her pink satin toe shoes. It’s in your head, she would repeat to herself. Every dancer feels this, but the excellent ones manage it.
Audrey and Steven Reny knew their daughter was strong, but they never could have predicted the kind of resilience required of her now. They had cheered in the audience when Gillian twirled onstage for seven years in the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker. Now they held their breath each time she grasped the hospital’s metal bars to take a step. “It was a fine line between pushing yourself and pushing yourself too much,” Gillian says of her recovery. “I was so focused on wanting to get out of the hospital as soon as I could. I was pushing myself to make the most out of it.”
The Reny family representing Team Stepping Strong.
In between therapy sessions, as Gillian was healing, the Renys started to talk about giving back to the doctors and staff who had saved their daughter. In February, the Reny family launched the Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Fund at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, raising money for cutting-edge research and innovation for limb salvage, reconstruction, and regeneration. “We were so indebted to what they had done,” Audrey says. “That was really the genesis behind the fund and our decision to be more public with our experience.” In the first three months, the fund raised a staggering $3.3 million. On July 16, Brigham and Women’s Hospital will host the Stepping Strong Grand Rounds, a reception that will include presentations and discussions with Dr. Mitchel Harris and Dr. Halvorson, among others, and will serve as the kick-off event for the Stepping Strong Young Innovator Awards, which will provide two $100,000 grants a year to innovators creating state-of-the-art inventions to treat trauma.
As part of Team Stepping Strong, Reny family members joined hands as they crossed the finish line of this year’s marathon.
Giving back feels right, Audrey says, and going public as a family to help others feels even more right. “The work of the fund is something that gives meaning to what we have been through. It enables us to take what happened to us and do something that is going to help a lot of people. It has shifted from being about us to being something that embraced a broader community.”
Steven, Audrey, and Danielle ran in this year’s Boston Marathon. They were joined by doctors and supporters of the Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Fund. As they approached the finish line, they held each other’s hands in front of hundreds of cheering spectators. After they crossed, they held their hands higher.
photography by heather mcgrath (family at home); courtesy of the stepping strong fund (finish line); courtesy of the reny family (gillian); marathon foto (danielle)