At President Obama’s State of the Union address, the audience in the U.S. Capitol was filled with the expected faces of politicians, their aides, and the press. But behind Michelle Obama was a young man in an olive suit who’d never imagined that one day he would be seated in a box there as a guest of the first lady. He was Jeff Bauman, 28, who is probably the best-known survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Last April, Bauman was standing near the finish line on Boylston Street, waiting for his girlfriend, Erin Hurley, to complete the race. At 2:49 p.m., his life changed forever when the first bomb exploded next to him. Thanks to the swift actions of a few citizens, including a cowboy-hatted Good Samaritan, Carlos Arredondo, Bauman was wheeled to an ambulance, but not before a photographer captured his image—his face ashen, his hands gripping his wounded legs. The photo would end up in news reports across the world, representing for many people the senselessness of the attack.
Both of Bauman’s legs had to be amputated above the knee, requiring hours of physical therapy he still endures as he learns how to walk again, this time with prosthetic legs. For someone who came so close to death—about three minutes away, doctors guess—Bauman has made incredible progress in less than a year. His home in the Boston suburbs is filled with letters and gifts from well-wishers who consider him a symbol of resilience. In a conversation with Reader’s Digest, Bauman, author of the new memoir Stronger, talked about what it’s like to come back from tragedy and some of the people who’ve inspired him in his journey.
Obviously, your life changed completely on April 15, 2013. Tell me about who you were before that day.
I was a normal guy with a job at Costco, thinking about going back to school. I played sports; I hung out with my friends. I wanted to make something of myself, but I didn’t know what.
I’m still basically the same person; I just have to deal with more obstacles. Sometimes walking to the end of the street with my prosthetics feels like running a mile. But before [the bombing], I didn’t feel like I had much to offer people. Now people write to me all the time and tell me how inspiring I am. Knowing that I might be encouraging others by facing my own difficulties is what helps me get out of bed in the morning.
Your perseverance after suffering such a devastating injury has impressed so many people. But how did you feel in the moments right after the explosion?
I was lying on the ground, and I thought, I’m going to die right here; I better start trying to call people and say my goodbyes. But as soon as I made it to the ambulance, I remember that my mind-set was changing. I was like, I might make this. Then when I woke up [after surgery] in the hospital and saw my best friend, I thought, This is great! I was just happy I was alive.
Have you always been optimistic?
Yes, I have. I feel grateful. I consider myself really lucky every single day. To the point where I feel guilty a lot because I have so much and so many other people don’t have what I have.
How do you deal with that guilt?
I try to remember what [musician] James Taylor told me. He was playing at a concert for One Fund [a charity for marathon victims], and he invited Erin and me to listen to the sound check. I told him I felt bad about getting all this support and donations, and he said, “You know, as much as it helps you, it helps other people by being able to give [something].”
That ties into a line from your book that I found very moving: “Bad people are rare, but good people are everywhere.” What did you mean?
There were only two people who did [the bombing], but their actions have been pushed aside by all the good people who’ve come through and helped out. I don’t even think about those two bad people anymore. I prefer to think about the ones who sat down and wrote me letters and sent me things. Someone sewed me a quilt! This guy Joe from Oregon sent me a custom Les Paul guitar! Before this, I didn’t realize that people cared so much about other people, you know?
Speaking of caring, a man named Kevin Horst is an unforgettable character in your book.
He runs the Costco store where I worked. When I was in the hospital, he walked my family through my health insurance benefits so we all understood them. I remember my dad asked Kevin if he’d hire me back if I made it out, and Kevin said, “We can’t hire him back, because he still works for us. We’re not going to let him go.” Kevin also brought me food from restaurants because he knew I didn’t like the hospital food. He even took a couple of days off work, and he spent the entire time helping me.
Wow. Do you still see him much?
Yes. He’s over all the time. He takes me to my physical therapy appointments. He even brings treats to my dog, Bandit.
Tell me about the soldiers from the Wounded Warrior Project, the U.S. veterans with amputations, who visited you in the hospital. What did it mean for you to meet them?
These guys had lost both their legs in combat, but they walked into my room with confidence and strength, like it was nothing. It was just a few weeks after the bombing. And that’s what I wanted for myself—to walk without fear or embarrassment. Up until that moment, I’d never seen it done before. That made me think I could too.
You and your girlfriend, Erin, had gotten back together a month before the bombing. What has this experience taught you about love?
That it’s about being there no matter what happens. When I was in the hospital, I felt weird about our relationship—we’d been together for only a year. I didn’t want to hold her back. So I told Erin she didn’t have to stay with me. She just told me to shut up. She said she knew right away she wasn’t going anywhere.
The bombing’s first anniversary is coming up, and the famous photo of you being rescued by Carlos Arredondo will no doubt be shown everywhere. How do you feel about that image?
The first time I saw it, I couldn’t sleep. It brought me right back to the event. But now when I look at that picture, it doesn’t bother me, because it doesn’t show me getting injured—it shows what happened after. Brave people rushed in and saved our lives. It’s a picture of hope because I lived. And I’m going to be fine.
At Reader’s Digest, there are a couple of questions that we like to ask all our interview subjects. What’s your favorite word?
I like the word faith. I think you have to have faith that everything’s always going to work out, and faith that the people around you will be there when you need them.
In your book, you come across as something of a practical joker. Can you tell me a joke?
Here’s one that’s family friendly. What did the cupcake say to the doctor? [Pauses] I’m feeling crumby!
Bauman’s memoir, Stronger, is available here.
Watch Jeff Bauman in The New York Times: