Jeff Bauman: A picture of resilience
by Karina Coombs
Jeff Bauman holds a copy of his book, Stronger, written with Bret Witter. (Photo by Karina Coombs)
As the world learned of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013, a photo of Chelmsford native Jeff Bauman went viral. The graphic image—showing the 27-year-old in a wheelchair after the loss of his legs—served to document the day’s incomprehensible violence and the heroism of those who rushed in to help.
For those who recognized his face, however, it served as messenger. “That’s what gets me the most,” explains Bauman from his Carlisle home. “That’s how my younger brother found out. That’s how my dad found out. That’s how my mom found out. That’s how my best friends found out…”
Two years later, Bauman presents a different image—a resilient 29 year old, married and with an infant daughter, a public speaker, community volunteer and author of the New York Times and National bestseller, Stronger, written with Bret Witter and released last year. He is also walking.
A life forever changed
“I know exactly when my life changed: when I looked into the face of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. It was 2:48 p.m. on April 15, 2013—one minute before the most high-profile terrorist event on United States soil since September 11–—and he was standing right next to me,” writes Bauman.
Before that day Bauman was a regular guy trying to figure out his life: spending time with his girlfriend, family and friends, working at Costco, following his beloved Boston sports teams and trying to navigate student loans to return to college. “I never thought I would work on something like this,” he says of the book, which has a paperback release date of May 19.
Bauman was at his first marathon to cheer on his wife then girlfriend, Erin Hurley, when the bomb exploded. Despite his injuries, he never lost consciousness, vividly recounting the events from before and after the attack. Initially Bauman tried to tell the EMTs helping him what he had seen. It was not until he woke up from his second surgery 30 hours later that he was able to communicate that he had seen the bomber—writing a note that his family passed on to an FBI liaison. Working with an FBI sketch artist for two hours after his third surgery, Bauman would ultimately put a face on one of the two bombers—Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who would die in a gunfight with Watertown police several days later. His description is believed to have been crucial to identifying the brothers.
The cover of the hard copy of Bauman’s book. (From publisher’s website)
Being a public figure was never on Bauman’s radar. In the following days and weeks, his family tried to manage dozens of interview requests from news and television personalities and deal with reporters sneaking around the hospital trying to get information on “the man in the photo.” He was also meeting sports heroes and movie stars from his hospital bed.
Bauman’s friend Katlyn (Kat) Townsend stepped in to lend her experience in public relations to the family. “She’s my buffer between stuff,” he says. “She’s a good friend and helps me a lot.” With so much attention, Townsend suggested he take control of his story and write a book, putting him in touch with an agency in New York City. A meeting was then arranged with bestselling author Bret Witter.
“I was really impressed with him,” says Bauman of Witter. But he still hesitated in taking on the project just three months after the bombing. “I knew it was going to be a lot of work and I had already gone through so much at this point that I didn’t want to do it. I was still beat up,” he explains. “I was still bad.”
With help from Hurley, Bauman worked with Witter to create an accurate and truthful portrayal of his life before and after the bombing, mindful of protecting family members. “[Witter] was great. We argued on stuff—what to put in, what to leave out.” In the end, Bauman insists the story is bigger than just him. “This book is not about me. It’s about the people around me. It’s about everyone around me: Boston, my family, my friends…”
Becoming a public figure
A private person before this, Bauman found that telling his story made it easier to deal with. “Now it’s just a story. I read reviews sometimes and a lot of [the ones from women] are like, ‘I loved the story, but couldn’t connect with the character. I guess that’s what I am now, a character,” he says. “This would be a good fiction story, but you can’t make this sh*t up.”
In support of the book, Bauman tells his story to audiences around the country, recently speaking in Concord for the Concord-Carlisle Community Chest. He has also presented at a number of schools. Hesitant to tell his story to a young audience, Bauman has since learned that kids want to hear everything and are full of questions.
“I [didn’t think I could] do my story… I figured that. But I was wrong. I was completely wrong. [At a talk for 1,000 students] I opened it up to [question and answer] and every single hand in the gym went up. They wanted to know everything,” he says. “I realized that younger kids have the best questions. They just want to know the truth. They want to know how your legs work, and how they [the prostheses] get on your legs, and how they stay on your legs…”
Bauman and Bandit, eye to eye. (Photo by Karina Coombs)
Learning to walk and inspiring others
Bauman uses his wheelchair when at home, but is fully mobile on prosthetic legs when traveling. “It’s very tiring, but I’m good. I can go on trips and walk through huge airports. I’m tired, but it’s starting to be my new normal.” Thanks to a donation by the manufacturer, Bauman is walking on Genium legs at a cost of $200,000. “The legs are amazing. The knees are amazing,” he says, explaining that the only issue has been the fit of the sockets, which he travels to have adjusted at Prosthetic and Orthotic Associates (POA) in Orlando, Florida.
“POA is an amazing place,” says Bauman of the facility. “You walk down the hallway and they have these plaques of everybody that they’ve helped that has gone on and done something from their injury. It’s just really amazing to see it. Everyone is there and they’re having a rough time, missing legs, and they see me with one of the worst injuries they’ve seen [and] I walk in without a crutch, walking just fine and I see I pump them up. I’m trying to help. The same thing the soldiers did for me [at a visit to Spaulding during rehabilitation]. They came in and they helped. They pretty much said, ‘You’re going to be able to walk.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, right. I’m not going to be able to walk like that.’ And a year later I was walking like that and it was pretty crazy.”
Bauman has also returned to driving, resuming a year after the bombing and without any modifications to his car. He has even been pulled over for speeding a few times. “It was in my town—Chelmsford—so they were easy on me,” he laughs. “I love all the guys over there.” Bauman recently volunteered with the Carlisle Meals on Wheels program.
While he has taken a break from physical therapy (PT) at Spaulding, Bauman continues to work with a local Pilates instructor who visits his home weekly at no cost. “[The trainer] busts my ass in that room,” he says, pointing at his living room. She makes me do a bunch of core exercises so that’s kind of like PT.”
“It’s stuff like that that my wife Erin makes me do,” he admits. “She’s just so great. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am now if she wasn’t here. She just helped me out so much and I’m just lucky. I’m lucky she said yes (to my proposal). I went down on one knee when I didn’t have a knee, on my mechanical knee.” In addition to being newly married, the couple welcomed daughter, Nora, in July. “It’s like the ultra happy ending. Nora’s the best. I just don’t want her to get big,” he says. “I’m very protective of her.”
“Obviously I live a new life: I have a house, I have a dog, I have a kid, I have a wife [and] I have a nice car that I don’t have to worry about breaking down. I have a whole life, [a] different life and I’m just trying to live this life.”
As the second anniversary of the bombing approaches, Bauman explains that requests come in for various fundraising events and he helps where he can. “It gets crazy. A lot of people ask me to do a lot of stuff. I just want to go to Bermuda [and] get out of here.” April is also a busy time for speaking engagements and travel. “It’s always fun [though]. Everyone is always nice when I meet them. It’s all good. It’s kind of like my new job.”
One person Bauman will never turn down is Carlos Arredondo, the man in the cowboy hat from the photo. The two talk regularly and try to get together a few times a month. “Anything [Carlos] does and he asks me to do I say, ‘Yes.’ I owe him so much. He helped save my life so I will help that guy anytime. He’s an awesome guy.”
Looking for answers
The penalty phase in the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is slated to begin on April 21, but Bauman does not have a strong opinion about the death penalty, believing the lives of both brothers ended that night in Watertown. What ultimately follows is just noise.
“It’s tough to see people throw their perfectly good life away,” he says. “Who cares that his parents weren’t there. He lived in Cambridge. My great grandparents lived in the same place he did a hundred years ago. They came over from Ireland. They were immigrants. They had sh*t, absolutely sh*t. They didn’t blow people up because their life sucked. He went to a great school. He was well liked by everybody.”
In Stronger, Bauman wrote that he would like to talk with Tsarnaev. “I kind of did get to talk to him,” he says when asked about it. “He was sitting five feet away from me in the trial. He was giving looks at what I was saying. He had expressions on certain things. It’s just… I think I’d like to have talked to him before he did it. Try to talk him out of it.”
“There are people out there that do a...ton of good. And there are people out there that kill people. It’s just kind of f*cked up. I just don’t know what to make of it. It’s a scary world. Me, myself? I just look for answers. There’s got to be an answer for everything. There is. It’s f*cked up.”
A book becomes a movie
Last summer Bauman traveled to Los Angeles with some of the producers of the film The Fighter to pitch the story as chronicled in his book. Variety reports that Lionsgate Entertainment acquired the options and has launched development.
While excited for the movie, Bauman does have some reservations about the attention he will get. “I got so much attention [from the photo]. So many letters from everybody all over the world. I still have them. When the movie comes out [I’m] going to be out and about and I’m kind of scared about that. I [won’t be] in a hospital bed where people feel bad for me. I’m going to be out there. And I kind of brought it on myself. But I think I’m ready for it. I’m healthy now.”
Bauman has also come to terms with the photo that grabbed the world’s attention, explaining in Stronger that he chooses to see the image as triumphant instead of tragic, “[The picture] shows what happened afterward: Brave people rushed in. They saved our lives. Three people died at the scene. But nobody died at the hospital, or on the way to the hospital. Nobody died from bomb wounds over the next few weeks. There were 260 of us injured, and thanks to the bravery of others, we all have a chance to go on: to love and laugh and inspire, just like before. That’s why the picture doesn’t bother me. Because it’s not a picture of heartbreak… It’s a picture of hope, because the kid without his legs? The one burned and cut and deathly pale? He lived. And he’s going to be fine.”
Visit www.jeffbaumanstronger.com to learn more. ∆