Boston Marathon bombings anniversary: Feelings of ‘what if’

By: Jacqueline Palfy .

Dana at marathon race
Dana at marathon race
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Dana Cushing didn’t realize what she had done when she did it.

It was 2011, at the Twin Cities Marathon, her first, and she crossed the finish line in 3:38. It was her first marathon.

And she had qualified for Boston.

“I didn’t even have it on my bucket list,” says Cushing, a health coach with Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “Once I got into the running community, I was like, ‘Holy smokes, I get to actually go do this prestigious race.'”

She kept getting faster, and ran a 3:31 in Chicago in 2012. So she was set for a personal record at the Boston Marathon in 2013. She headed out to the city with her husband and mom and friends from Brandon, South Dakota. She and friend Sarah set off on the course, and as it happens in a 26.2-mile race, the wheels fell off at some point and Cushing came through the finish in 3:42, well off her goal time.

“I wanted a 3:30, and it didn’t happen,” Cushing says. “But that’s OK, because we’re here five years later talking about it.”

Cushing was one of the thousands of runners, spectators and first responders at the Boston Marathon in 2013, the year two bombs exploded 12 seconds apart at the finish line, killing three people and injuring 250 more.

When she talks about the day, it’s a series of stories that all end with the sentiment that if one thing had gone differently, she doesn’t know that she would be here to talk about it. If she had run faster or slower, if her family hadn’t been stuck on a train, unable to get to the finish.

Matt Pepin, a sports editor with The Boston Globe, was working the day of the bombing. When he talks about the day, he echoes Cushing.

“I have a lot of these feelings of ‘what if,’ and what could have been,” Pepin says. “I had this uneasiness.”

He was in a meeting with other editors when people started looking at their phones, as news of the bombings began to filter in. Everyone dropped what they were doing and went to their desks to begin working — checking on the reporters, photographers and interns who were already covering the race — and the friends and family who were running it.

“There’s no question, it was probably one of the biggest stories I’ve ever worked on, probably the biggest,” Pepin says. Part of his job as editor was to assign people to cover the news and then process whatever they sent back – and it was often graphic imagery and stories.

“It was almost completely autopilot,” Pepin says of that day and the days that followed. “This was breaking news of an international scale. We knew we had to just keep feeding everything we could.”

It wasn’t easy.

“Your head can start spinning, and you have to step back and say, ‘OK, what’s the most important thing I can do right now,’” Pepin says.

And while anyone who goes into media, or emergency medicine, law enforcement or any kind of first-responder position knows that the job can be tragic and painful and very chaotic, that doesn’t mean you’re always prepared for the emotional aftermath of the work.

It took a toll on Pepin, and his staff members.

“It consumed my thoughts for months and months afterward,” Pepin says. “But I felt like I was OK with it.”

For Pepin, vivid memories of the news reports rolling in haunt him.

“Usually after the marathon, we’re looking toward baseball and hockey playoffs, but this lingered for a very long time with the investigation and everything that went along with it,” he says. “It’s been a massive part of who we are and what we do at the Globe. I don’t think any of that will ever leave me.”

Cushing has born witness to many sad stories in her career as a nurse. From counseling women through miscarriage or infertility for part of her career to now helping them manage their lifestyles, she spends her day hearing stories.

Her lingering struggle with the day is a sound.

“Any time I hear like someone slam the lid of a garbage can or a Dumpster, that empty loud boom, that instantly takes me back,” Cushing says. She also said she’s found herself increasingly looking for an escape route if she’s in a large crowd.

Pepin agrees and says he covered the winter Olympics earlier this year in South Korea, and he was less concerned about the tension between North and South Korea and more about random acts of terrorism.

“I don’t know that I thought about that stuff before 2013, despite being in New Haven (Connecticut) on Sept. 11, 2001,” Pepin says. “That raised the level of concern, but it didn’t really truly hit home for me until it struck the city I’ve been affiliated with for a long part of my life now.”

He said he still thinks about terrorism every time he walks around Boston.

Karla Harmon, an integrated health therapist with Sanford Health, says the triggers Cushing and Pepin mention are common – it’s usually something you can smell or hear for people who were close to an event.

Yet each response is like a snowflake, too, Harmon says.

“You can go through a mass trauma, and everyone is going to have a different experience,” Harmon says. “For the folks who are just crossing the finish line, or the ones who hadn’t, their experiences will be different.”

For someone like Cushing, who finished the race, the bombing creates almost a secondary experience.

“It’s totally separate,” Cushing agrees. “Everything up until that point was amazing. The sightseeing, the time I got with my mom and husband. It was this perfect trip.”

But after that, it unraveled.

She was standing with her friend Sarah, from Brandon, South Dakota, when the first bomb went off. Then the second, and they still didn’t know what it was. Then a friend texted her a screen shot of CNN and asked if she was OK.

“We were just in total disbelief,” Cushing says. “This isn’t really happening. It all just started to be so weird.”

She panicked a bit, she says, when the cell service was unreliable and she couldn’t reach her family. Finally she did, and they made a plan to meet a restaurant. They didn’t realize there were two locations, and she went to the wrong one.

They finally connected, but when it was time to leave, they couldn’t find a taxi.

“The streets were just eerie,” Cushing says. “You would see these guys in their military garb with guns draped across their chests, and the only thing we would occasionally hear would be a siren, a whoop, like an ambulance trying to get through.”

Harmon says that’s how memory works – your brain will bottom line an event for you, sum it up into one visual thing, sometimes. The issue is if you don’t process the events, and they build up over time.  Then you can have big responses to little things. Or something like an anniversary can trigger a response, a sudden whoosh that catches people off guard.

The key is to identify it.

“All of a sudden people will say, ‘I’m just nervous,’ or ‘I’m distracted,’” Harmon says. “You have to ground yourself during an emotional wave.”

How long those kinds of feelings reverberate depends on the person.

For Cushing, she tries to remember the kindness of the day, like the food delivery driver who eventually took mercy on her and her family and let them pile into his hatchback for a ride to their hotel.

“As long as you allow yourself to feel the sadness of the day, you’re OK,” Cushing says. “I don’t have to wrap that up into this amazing experience I had in Boston. I’m not defined by my past – I can rewrite it.”

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