It was a hot June day when we joined Mery at United Prosthetics. It was the day she had been waiting for -- the day she was getting her new leg.
"How are you feeling?" I ask Mery.
"Excited!" she replies, sitting in a chair as one of the employees she'd gotten to know from her multiple visits here removed the dressing from what remains of her left leg.
Prosthetist Paul Martino enters the room with Mery's new leg. Although she'd had several fittings, she's surprised at the size. "That's what I'm getting?" As she examines the leg, her initial excitement turns to concern.
Martino explains that a small battery will power her new knee, which is computerized and controlled by the amount of weight Mery puts on the leg. As Mery tries it on for the first time, she says it feels awkward and heavy. She's worried about falling when she tries to walk with her new leg. But she doesn't let her fear get in the way and uses her crutches to help her stand up.
With Martino's help, she begins to take steps.
But walking is tough, even with crutches. She has trouble bending the knee and says it hurts "where my knee used to be." She slowly walks up and down a narrow hallway as a computer in a nearby room measures her gait and works to calibrate her computerized knee.
After just a few minutes, Martino takes one crutch away from Mery, encouraging her to put more weight on her prosthetic leg. "I'm not comfortable yet," she says. But she doesn't fall or even hesitate as she takes slow, steady steps. And with each one, her excitement quietly returns. "It's hopeful. Like I'm going to be able to walk and do things I want to do."
The team at Boston's Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital will now help Mery learn to do more and more.
"I describe myself as the last responder," quips Dr. David Crandell. He's the director of Spaulding's Amputee Program and is leading Mery's rehabilitation. As he displays how the parallel bars in the hospital will help Mery relearn how to walk, he points out that for amputees, their mental strength is just as important as physical strength in recovery.
"There's a lot of joy of taking those first several steps, but then also there's the realization that it's actually a lot of hard work and they're really going to need continued rehabilitation." In fact, rehabilitation often lasts a lifetime, as prosthetic technology changes and improves.
Dr. Crandell says his work with Mery will continue indefinitely. "As long as she stays in the Boston area, for the rest of my career, most likely."
Since the bombing, Mery says her insurance hasn't put up a fight about paying her medical bills. Her new leg alone cost $50,000. But Dr. Crandell worries that years down the road, as Mery and other amputees from the bombing try to get new prosthetics -- either for the advanced technology or for cosmetic purposes -- insurance may not cover those costs. "Sometimes they will cover a basic but they may not cover the full or the higher-end prosthesis, so the patient has to be a good advocate," he says. "We have to be able to show that the added cost has real value; value in function and in quality of life."
One person who has greatly helped improve Mery's quality of life as she heals is fellow amputee and paralympian Bonnie St. John, who paid her a surprise visit in the hospital after the bombing. "She's a hero to me," St. John says of Mery. "She's a real American hero." St. John helped Mery set up a fundraising website to help cover the cost of her mounting medical bills. She's also helped Mery see that losing her leg doesn't mean losing her life.
Mery is determined to become a doctor in family medicine and talks about studying for her boards. But now she also has another goal: to "motivate people" as St. John has done for her. "You never know how strong you are until you have no choice but to be," Mery says.
In moments of weakness, Mery says she looks down at her necklace, which was given to her by a fellow survivor.
"Never, never, never give up," it reads.
"I now look at things for what they are and see the positive in things," she says. "And when you get to do that, you get to see the beauty in life."
-- If you'd like to donate to the victims of the Boston Bombing, visit the One Fund Boston site
To donate directly to Mery Daniel, visit merydaniel.com