It’s a small world. And, as we saw last Monday in Boston, even amidst the cruelty, suffering, and heartlessness that sometimes arrives with shocking suddenness, it can be a wonderful world, too.
The emotions of the Boston Marathon may never, and for all the obvious reasons, hopefully never will, reach such heights as 2014 again. It took 371 days for the emotions of Boston 2013 to find their full release on Patriot’s Day 2014. And the support, camaraderie, and unity of purpose that was on display throughout the year, and that came to such a dramatic and cathartic climax with Meb Keflezighi’s win in the 118th Boston Marathon, will stand as a symbol of Boston Strong and Running Strong for ages to come, a reminder of the power of love and community.
In that sense, then, one final story on this year’s marathon.
I was standing in the security line at Logan Airport for the flight home to San Diego Tuesday afternoon. Being a frequent traveler, I had been pre-screened by TSA and only had to go through the short, keep your shoes and belts on line. Wife Toya, on the other hand, had to suffer the serpentine, take everything, including your nose hairs out experience.
While putting my bin on the security belt, an attractive woman in front of me turned and said, “You probably don’t remember me.” (I reflexively gulped.) “My name is Karen Odom, and I used to be with the Mobil St. Patrick’s Day 10K in Torrance, California?”
Yes, of course! Mobil St. Pat’s was a race we used to cover on ESPN’s Road Race of the Month in the early `90s. Anyway, “how are you?”, and “I’m fine.”, and “How about that Meb?” We kept on chatting as we went through screening, and while picking up our bags on the far side I asked if she had run or had someone she was cheering for in the marathon.
“No,” she said looking back, “I’m here with my husband John.”
I followed her gaze and saw a man seated in a wheelchair just coming through the screening radar.
The name was familiar, but not from the St. Patrick’s Day race in Torrance years back. Wait. Yes. John Odom was one of the most fortunate survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Though he nearly lost his life, and emerged from the experience paralyzed from the left knee down, in the ensuing year John and wife Karen have come to know the goodness of Boston, and the power of community represented by The Marathon.
Immediately I knew I had to interview John and Karen, as we had far too many mutual connections to let the moment pass so quickly. Toya was still making her way through security, so John, Karen and I sat down at Gate 12 awaiting their Jet Blue flight back home to L.A. There they proceeded to take me through their combination annus horribilis / annus mirabilis.
In 2013 their daughter Nicole was running her first Boston Marathon, raising funds for the Patriot’s Foundation, as her husband Matt Reis played goal keeper for the Robert Kraft-owned New England Revolution soccer team. Though John and Karen could have had VIP seating across Boylston Street via Mr. Kraft, they chose instead to stand along the north side of the finish stretch with son-in-law Matt, their three grandchildren and Nicole’s brother Donny whose girlfriend Sarah was also running.
It’s a small world. Nicole and Matt met at UCLA where she had been an All-American softball player, he an All-American soccer star, and Meb Keflezighi an All-American runner. Last year Meb was in Boston doing appearances at the marathon, and met up with Nicole to wish her well in the race.
“At 2:49 we were twelve feet away (from the first bomb),” recalled John, now-retired chairman of the Murray Company, a mechanical contracting firm out of Redondo Beach, California.
Karen was thrown by the force of the explosion, landing on top of John who had been hit by flying shrapnel. Fortunately, of their seven person party only John had been hit. Quickly, they learned the seriousness of John’s injuries. The jagged piece of shrapnel had severed two arteries, one in each leg while John’s left sciatic nerve was completely destroyed.
To show how tender can be the mercies of fate, John and Karen’s son-on-law Matt remembered that he had forgotten their “Go! Nicole!”, “Go! Sarah!” signs as they were leaving their Franklin, Mass. house that morning. So Matt doubled back in a hurry to grab the signs and his camera. Karen picks the story up from there.
“Matt wears shorts all the time, but never with a belt. But for some reason, when he came back out of the house with the signs and his camera, he had also put on a belt. And it was that belt that he used as a tourniquet that saved John’s life.”
“I stayed conscious until they put me in the ambulance,” John remembered. “But I have no memory at all of the next 3 ½ to 4 weeks.”
Transported to Boston Medical Center, John was rushed into surgery as the family anxiously awaited news. He lost so much blood that twice his heart stopped beating, each time for five minutes. Doctors would pump a total of 23 units of blood into his savaged body. The average person has about 10 units circulating. Doctors told him later that it was the most blood they had ever administered to a patient who survived.
“When the doctor comes out of the operating room and can’t look you in the eye…,” Karen recalled, the memory still caught in the wells of her eyes. “Minute to minute’, he told us. After five days it was ‘hour to hour’. Then, after two weeks he was taken off life-support, and they said, ‘We think he’s going make it, but we don’t even know what that means yet’.”
John spent 5 ½ weeks in intensive care at BMC, then another 5 ½ weeks at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. He and Karen remained in Boston at a Residence Inn near Spaulding as John underwent out-patient treatment until September 6th, two days before their 46th wedding anniversary. He was the final marathon survivor to leave town for home.
“We always knew we would come back to Boston,” said John as he awaited his flight back to LAX. “We kept in touch with the One Fund people all year, but wanted to come back and say thank you to the doctors, nurses and therapists who saved my life. They are like family now.”
John and Karen were still in Boston last July when One Run for Boston, a relay that traveled 3000 miles from California raising funds for One Fund Boston, came to its completion. Organized by three Brits, the organizers asked Nicole if she would take the baton across the finish, because she had been one of the nearly 4500 runners who didn’t get a chance to finish the marathon in 2013 after the bombings.
“And Nicole pushed me across the Boylston Street finish in my wheelchair,” John told me. “They did it again this year, and this time they asked Karen and me if we’d start the relay in Santa Monica. Then we came to town early enough to see the finish on April 13th. We all walked the final few hundred meters from Exeter Street to the finish line.”
The next day, Monday the 14th, John was invited to speak at Boston Medical Center at a flag-raising ceremony.
“It was very emotional to go back to Boston Medical,” confirmed John. “To see and say thank you to the doctors and people who saved my life. To thank them for how they took care of my family. That’s why it is so important for them to get the credit they deserve. I had 11 surgeries in 28 days at Boston Medical.”
John also stopped by Spaulding Rehab Hospital where he had spent more than a month in recovery, and even walked the entire Tribute Mile last Saturday before the Scholastic and Invitational Miles were contested on Boylston Street.
Each of the bombing survivors received two Boston Marathon bib numbers to give out to whomever they chose this year. John gave one of his numbers to Jess Guilbert, his physical therapist from Spaulding — “she taught me how to live again,” — and the other to family friend, Jen Deslaurier. And when Meb made his historic crossing of the finish line on Monday as the first American man to win Boston in 31 years, one of the first places he went was to the VIP seats along Boylston Street.
“‘I did it for all of you’, he told us,” remembered John. “Meb and our daughter Nicole went to UCLA together along with her husband Matt. They were all athletes there.”
After saying ‘so long’ and ‘good luck’ to John and Karen, I walked down the concourse for my own flight to San Diego. Light blue Boston Marathon jackets could be seen everywhere along the terminal, reminding one and all of yesterday’s magical day. It seemed to generate an almost festive mood in what ordinarily is a grudging environment.
At Gate 14 I found Toya sitting with Meb’s wife Yordanos, who was heading home to their three girls while Meb remained back East for days of public appearances. When I mentioned who I’d just run into, Yordanos instantly asked to go meet the Odoms. So back to Gate 12 we went. Fortunately, it was only across the concourse. Small world.
Sometimes a wonderful world.
P.S. In another crazy coincidence, Karen Odom’s mother went to Venice High School 1949 with Don Hall, Ryan’s grandfather, and Karen graduated from Culver City HS 1969 with Mickey and Kathy Hall, Ryan’s father and aunt. Small, small world.