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Two years after tragedy, stepping stronger than ever

The excellent treatment Gillian Reny received at Brigham and Women's Hospital in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings eventually led to the creation of Stepping Strong Fund. Courtesy of Reny family

She was a dancer in a runner's family, a graceful, cheerful 18-year-old high school senior who enthusiastically awaited the arrival of her older sister Danielle at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Like so many hundreds of others on that haunting day in April two years ago, Gillian Reny's life was forever changed when a bomb exploded on Boylston Street and shattered her idyllic spring afternoon.

Marathon day was a family tradition for Gillian, Danielle and their parents Audrey and Steve Reny. Most years they took in the Red Sox game, then joined grandparents Esta and Bob Epstein at the finish line of the race.

Bob Epstein, a managing director of the Boston Celtics, is also the CEO of the Abbey Group, working side by side with his daughter, Audrey, from their offices on Boylston Street.

On that particular marathon day, his other daughter Jennifer and her family lined up on one side of Boylston because they lived in the South End and wanted to be able to scoot out quickly after Danielle ran past them. Audrey, who lived in the Back Bay, settled in directly across the street.

"My wife Esta and I split up, randomly,'' Bob Epstein explained.

Bob went with Jennifer and her family.

Esta stayed with Audrey, Steve and Gillian. The blast tore through each of them, but none were as severely injured as Gillian.

She suffered horrific injuries to both legs and was whisked to Brigham and Women's Hospital, where doctors worked feverishly to save her life and her limbs.

People react to trauma and tragedy in their own way. The Reny/Epstein family quickly closed ranks and privately -- but fiercely -- supported Gillian's recovery. Audrey, who had a large chunk of shrapnel lodged in her leg, stayed by Gillian's bedside for the duration of her daughter's stay in hospital.

Former Celtics star Rajon Rondo and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge also dropped by for a private visit.

Both mother and daughter were touched by the compassion, diligence and care they received. Thirty-nine marathon victims were transported to Brigham and Women's Hospital that day, and each of them, said Gillian, was made to feel as if he or she was the only patient in the hospital.

"From the beginning, it was just overwhelming how great the people at the Brigham were,'' said Gillian. "As I started getting better, we started discussing a way to show our appreciation.''

Audrey Reny investigated making a donation to a fund that supported trauma victims, but discovered there wasn't one.

And that's when the wheels began turning. Trauma care, Audrey learned, extended well beyond bombings or military strikes. It included car accidents and even acute sports injuries.

The Renys formed the Gillian Reny Stepping Strong Fund to encourage innovative research and clinical programs in trauma healing.

"When we launched it, we had no idea whether it would resonate with anyone,'' Audrey said.

Audrey set a goal of raising $3 million over a span of three to five years.

In the first year alone, they raised nearly $4 million.

The Celtics got involved as well. Jared Sullinger, for one, wore a Stepping Strong bracelet to practice.

Last year, 14 marathoners ran the Boston Marathon for Stepping Strong. This year, that number has swelled to 65, along with 115 runners who will run in the 5K race, including Bob Epstein.

The fund has drawn supporters who have used the Falmouth Road Race, the Chilmark Road Race, and spin classes and walkathons as fundraising vehicles for Stepping Strong.

"The idea,'' explained Audrey, "is to get people back to what they enjoyed doing before their traumatic injury.''

Gillian, who had performed in the Boston Ballet's Nutcracker, hoped to dance in college, but because of her injuries that dream has been put aside. Even so, she said, she remains grateful for the progress she's made in her recovery.

"Our whole attitude since day one was not to focus on the bad, but to move forward,'' Gillian explained.

Gillian said she was "super-goal-oriented" in learning to walk again, making it to her high school graduation and to her prom. She accomplished each one of them -- along with enrolling at Penn on schedule.

"She was the darling of the hospital,'' Bob Epstein said. "She has carried our family through this. Instead of getting beaten down, she's blossomed.''

His granddaughter's ordeal was heartbreaking for Epstein. The Celtics have honored countless victims and first responders of the marathon tragedy through their halftime Heroes Among Us initiative. In each instance, it was a reminder of that somber day, and the natural emotions of anger, disbelief, sadness and helplessness occasionally overtook him.

"I've worked very hard to reduce it all," Bob Epstein said. "I saw everything. It was like being in a war movie, except it was real. There's no virtue in the memory.

"You have to find a way to move forward, and this fund has helped so much. You can't ever put a reason on [why it happened], but you can put a positive purpose on it.''

Stepping Strong supports research scholars who are working on how stem cells can advance bone regeneration. Another group of scholars is examining how to regenerate skin for wound healing. A surgery trauma fellowship has been created at Brigham to advance techniques for treating acute trauma injuries.

The fund also awarded grants for its Stepping Strong innovator's award. A panel of medical experts vetted 18 applications down to three finalists and then opened it up to public online voting. School kids, researchers, marathon victims and marathon fans voted from all 50 states and 36 countries.

Dr. Matthew Carty will use his $100,000 grant to research new approaches for recovering limb functions.

What Carty hopes to accomplish, said Audrey Reny, is to preserve the nerves and tissue in a patient so that when a prosthetic limb is attached, it might enable the amputee to feel a sensation through the prosthetic.

"The idea is you will be able to feel the grass through your toes, even though you don't have toes,'' said Audrey.

The second $100,000 innovator's grant went to Dr. George Dyer, who is interested in using silk-based orthopedic repair rods for limbs, replacing the metal alloys that are the current standard. The hope is that this technique will minimize the need for subsequent surgeries.

The third finalist was Dr. Indranil Sinha, whose planned research involved injecting muscle stem cells back into the body to help trauma patients regain strength -- or, possibly, the ability to walk.

The Reny/Epstein family had a keen interest in that grant because Gillian's leg has lost a significant amount of muscle, which has limited her capacity to recover.

"The selection was all done very democratically,'' Epstein said. "The one our family actually voted for didn't get chosen. It was a little disappointing, but all of these projects are all extremely worthwhile. Everything being funded is a potential miracle.''

Epstein talked it over with his wife Esta. It was a short conversation. The Epsteins donated $100,000 of their own money to fund Dr. Sinha's work.

"It was just so incredibly touching,'' said Gillian. "My grandfather is the kindest, most charming and amazing man, and I was so honored that he would do this -- not only for me, but for all the other victims who face even bigger challenges than us.

"That's what the Stepping Strong Fund has done. It has given our family some peace, a way to channel a really horrible thing into something positive.''

Last year Audrey, her husband Steven and daughter Danielle (and boyfriend Kyle), and Audrey's sister Jennifer and husband Bill ran the Boston Marathon together along with Dr. Chase Schumacher, the trauma physician who helped save Gillian. They did not run for medals or for photo ops. They ran for Gillian and her fellow marathon survivors, and when they crossed the finish line in unison, arms linked, it was, said Bob Epstein, "Just amazing. Like a little blowback."

Marathon day understandably remains difficult for Gilliam Reny. She is 20 years old now and still faces additional surgeries. A spring sojourn to the Boylston Street finish line doesn't evoke the same memories it once did.

"It definitely has taken on a new meaning,'' said Gillian. "I try not to focus on my injury for most of the year, but around marathon weekend it's hard for it not to come rushing back.

"But I'm so proud of my family and the support they've given Stepping Strong. As nervous and as horrible as that day is for me now, at least it's centered around something that gives people hope.''

Audrey Reny is optimistic that one day soon, the Boston Marathon will reclaim its innocence and its place in running circles as an elite competition.

"The Boston Marathon is like the World Series or the US Open,'' said Audrey. "An awful thing happened [two years ago]. We will always remember it and be respectful of it, but I hope we can get back to thinking of the marathon as a world-class sporting event, because that's what it should be.

"It should go back to that, otherwise it's a victory for the people who put a mark on it in the first place.''

That mark is indelible in our city's history, but so is the resolve that has emerged from its survivors. Some are Boston natives, others are lifelong distance marathoners.

One is a resilient 20-year-old from a runner's family who just may dance again someday.