June 21st, 2013
06:00 AM ET

Wounded soldiers help Boston Marathon bombing victim

By Greg Clary and Barbara Starr

"I'm getting there," said Boston Marathon bombing victim J.P. Norden to Sgt. Luis Remache, a U.S. Marine and a double leg amputee.

"You'll get there, it's not that bad," Remache said.

It's not always common that a grizzled military veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan can relate with a civilian, but that's exactly what happened time and again on Wednesday at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center just outside Washington.

Norden came to the hospital for just this sort of interaction because his wounds are more common on the battlefield than on the streets of an American city.

He was standing with his brother, Paul, near the marathon's finish line on April 15 cheering on friends when two blasts rocked the crowd and the runners and changed his life.

Doctors said nails and parts of a pressure cooker used to make the bombs blew off the lower half of his right leg and severely damaged his left.

"When he came in we were afraid for his life. He was hypotensive, blood pressure was low and he was bleeding to death," said Dr. Michael Weaver of Brigham and Women's Hospital, who was the first doctor to treat him.

But with quick intervention from first responders and doctors (he was in the operating room within 36 minutes of being hit by the blast) Norden is recovering.

His brother also lost a leg in the blast and was going to go to Walter Reed as well but is recovering from surgery.

At the rehab facility in Boston, many of the amputees being treated are older, and sustained their injuries in car accidents or from diseases like diabetes.

The injuries are similar in scope but a blast injury from a bomb is something only a soldier knows.

At Walter Reed, Norden sees guys around his own age recovering from injuries similar to his.

"This is stuff that I wanted to hear that life goes on and everyday he can do everything and more than he's done before he had his accident. So, that's what I want to be doing," Norden said.

The road isn't always easy though, even for guys his own age.

Soldiers with one or multiple limbs missing slog through rehab with grit at Walter Reed. Chains clank as soldiers drag them around a track, hoping to build strength.

Ropes go taught from the ceiling, preventing one quadruple amputee from falling as he practices moving up steps.

Yells and grunts are heard as he uses all of his strength to pull himself up again but smiles of encouragement crack among the others.

They've seen him fall before. And they'll see him get up again.

Dozens of wounded soldiers participate in similar drills to get back upright in a scene at first upsetting but then something else altogether: inspiring.

"I just think that what we're seeing here is incredible. I wanted you to see this. I mean, look at these guys," another of the doctors, E.J. Caterson of Brigham and Women's, said to Norden as he surveyed the scene.

This wasn't just a trip for Norden's benefit, however.

As much as Norden was looking for advice and mentoring from soldiers, his doctors sought the same from their military counterparts.

"From our prospective, their experience can help inform all of the patient care we do for the blast- injured victims because they have the most experience in the world of this particular condition," said Caterson.

And it's not just comparing notes on physiology. The doctors agreed that soldiers at Walter Reed can be a source of inspiration.

"I think a lot of the blast victims feel alone and this is really showing them that they're part of a larger community that there are other people with these injuries who are doing very well and that they can do that too," said Weaver.

As for Norden, his doctors say while his recovery may be long, he is well on his way.

"The prognosis in the long term is excellent. You know, all of these patients that are blast injury victims have hurdles to overcome and JP and his brother are no exception. But I think some more time and work and rehab and surgery, he's going to do great," said Weaver.

It's one thing to hear that encouragement from doctors but another coming from someone going through the same thing.

Norden also met with Army Sgt. Ryan Long. He lost the same leg Norden did while serving in Afghanistan.

"It gets better," said Long. "It's only going to get better."

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