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'What an amazing present': Boston Marathon survivor makes bid to walk

Courtesy of Rebekah Gregory

Rebekah Gregory, 26, has had 14 surgeries in a bid to save the leg, though she has faced constant pain and the prospect of amputation many times.

Eight months after twin bombings at the Boston Marathon nearly took one survivor’s left leg, she can finally put two feet on the ground.

Rebekah Gregory, 26, has had 14 surgeries in a bid to save the leg, though she has faced constant pain and the prospect of amputation many times. She started physical therapy in the summer but had to stop when her doctors determined she would need to wear a device to get her foot into the right position if she hoped to ever walk on it again. That came off at Thanksgiving, when they replaced it with a cast. And on Monday, Gregory graduated to a walking boot.

“To put two feet on the ground again was the most amazing feeling,” Gregory told NBC News Tuesday from her parents’ home in Richmond, Texas. “And just right before Christmas, too. It’s like, what an amazing present this year.”

But Gregory still has a long way to go, a reminder she got the first moment she put her foot down in the boot.

“It was awful. It was the worst pain all over again,” she said. “Putting it on the ground doesn’t feel right and it feels like it’s just crushing what bones I have left.”

“It was the hardest thing to do to try to stand up and put weight on my leg,” she said.

Gregory suffered multiple serious injuries in the April 15 attack on the iconic Boston road race that killed three people and wounded 275 others: she lost a lot of soft tissue in a series of what she calls “craters” going down her leg to her foot, and she endured multiple fractures to her foot as well as the loss of part of her fourth and fifth metatarsals. Doctors had to rebuild her ankle and she was treated for months for a painful bone infection.

Her case was rare even among the more seriously wounded: while amputees moved ahead with prosthesis training and others recovered in rehabilitation, she was stuck many steps behind since salvaging such a severely-wounded leg is a slow process. She is believed to have been the last patient connected to the bombings released from the hospital when she was discharged on June 10 -- after 56 days in medical centers in Boston and Houston.

How much use she will have of her leg and foot won’t be clear for another six months to a year, said one of her physicians, Dr. William McGarvey, an orthopedic surgeon at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. There are still many unanswered questions, including how much stability, neurological function and muscle use she will have.

“I gave her the boot yesterday and gave her the green light to be able to get up, just try and put some weight on it,” he said. “The entire leg is structurally different and functionally, certainly, just from not using it. … The first few weeks are just basically getting used to her foot as it is.”

But this phase was a “huge milestone” in her recovery and amputation was less likely as she moves forward, said McGarvey, chief of foot and ankle surgery at UTHealth.

“She’s seeing that the effort and the energy she’s expended to try and get well, and that have gone into trying to heal her, have actually borne some fruit.”

Gregory said she at first was disappointed Monday that she couldn’t walk out of the doctor’s office in the boot. It will be a while before she can do that, with weight bearing on her foot being the first challenge. But she did realize her efforts have paid off on Tuesday morning while looking at pictures of herself in the intensive care unit in Boston on a ventilator in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. 

“It just hit me: I’ve come such a long way and even though I have such a long way to go, I’m so blessed for this journey and to be able to help people and inspire people along the way,” she said.

McGarvey cleared Gregory for another first following the bombing: taking a bath. She spent a few hours in the tub on Tuesday and checked out her lower left leg, which was hidden under devices and the cast a lot of the time. It bears the many scars of that day, when she went with her boyfriend-now-fiancé Pete DiMartino to watch his mom compete in the marathon. He and his sister, as well as Gregory’s six-year-old son, Noah, were also injured in the blast.

Eric Kayne / for NBC News file

Boston bombing survivor Rebekah Gregory, right, speaks with physical therapist Andrew Hyde during a physical therapy session, on July 25, 2013 in Katy, Texas.

“I keep going even though it’s really hard some days,” she said. “Every day I wake up, I have the choice to wallow in self-pity or get up and try to do something to progress that day … whatever I can do to make that day worth it because every single day is so precious.”

The family was honoring that attitude this Christmas Eve: they all assembled at the home of her parents outside Houston, where they were “in the middle of flour and sugar and everything else,” quipped Gregory, who keeps positive amid some of her toughest times.

Her mom, Tina, said she had to admit she was anxious about the next part of her eldest daughter’s journey: “You’re afraid it’s not going to be perfect or it’s not going to be as good as what we anticipate.”

But at the same time, her being able to try and use her foot was “the best Christmas present ever, ever. There’s no comparison. Nothing – nothing -- could beat this.”

Though Gregory has never ruled out amputation, she is clear on one thing: She will walk again.

“No matter what happens, I am going to be fine. I am fine,” she said. “I’m just happy to be able to see another day.”

Do you have a Boston Marathon story? Share it with reporter Miranda Leitsinger at miranda.leitsinger@nbcuni.com or on Facebook.