For five years, I’ve served on the medical team for the Boston Marathon. In 2013, I was assigned to the finish line area.
The day started for us at 7 a.m. with a standard medical meeting, even though the first runners wouldn’t be crossing the finish line for another several hours. In the meantime, we mostly enjoyed the fantastic weather perfect for marathon running.
Early afternoon approached, the start of our busiest time period as the “charity runners” who inevitably push themselves a little harder to finish the race begin pouring into the medical tent. Usually, we treat 1,500 to 2,000 runners per race.
After about an hour of our peak treatment time, I remember sitting there, finishing with a patient and saying, “This is really easy today.” Not long after, the first bomb went off.
Without knowing what it was, it didn’t seem like a big deal. Until the second explosion.
Twenty seconds later, people carried in a police officer on a stretcher. Then, all hell broke loose. Patients kept coming, and the athletic training tent quickly became a fully functional hospital, treating trauma victims of a terrorist attack instead of runners with strained muscles and blisters.
There are two things I’ll always remember from the day over everything else: The smell of gunpowder that clouded Boylston Street, and the frustration of the medical staff when the first fatal victim was brought in and they couldn’t save her.
My memory was that the treatment took hours, but the reality is that it only took half an hour to treat those who came to us. Sometimes, I’m still shocked when I think about how smoothly the process went in the midst of the utter chaos that none of us had experienced before. Soon, the FBI would kick everyone out in order to begin its investigation.
The magnitude of the event didn’t hit me until Wednesday, two days after the marathon, when I went back to work. I looked at my watch and realized I’d been staring blankly for nearly an hour, just reflecting on what had happened.
It may have taken a while to sink in, but three years later, the impact on my life is as stark now as it was then.
In American culture, sports are placed on a pedestal. Premier athletes are full-fledged celebrities. And many times, winning is seen as a cure-all.
It’s a mindset that even I subscribed to. As a young clinician, I approached athletic training when treating an athlete with the notion, “I’ve got to get you back in this game. You’ve got to play. That’s the most important thing.” It’s an easy trap to fall into, as parents, coaches and athletes themselves want to return to action as soon as possible.
The bombing has completely changed how I approach my patients.
Now, I don’t care what the scoreboard says. I don’t care what the coach says. Let’s look at things more holistically and ensure that athletes understand the ramifications of returning too quickly.
In the big picture, whether you return to the field, court, track or rink instantly is not that important. Continuing to be physically active in your sport and in life in general long-term is much more crucial. It’s something I recognize more fully now, and something the athletic training field overall understands better.
The same can be said of my personal life. Before the bombing, I worked a lot. Between providing medical coverage at sporting events and my ongoing research and publishing efforts, I was never home.
I realize now that I don’t have to cram the next 30 years of my professional life into the next five years of my career. I’ve adjusted my workdays to be home for the important things I really took for granted. Now, I pick my kids up from school most days and have family dinner every night.
It may sound utopian, but life-altering events are only such if you actually alter your life. And rather than changing out of fear, I’d rather change for the better.
The following year most of the staff returned, undeterred by the thought that we might be in danger. When we had the tent set up, I closed my eyes for a minute and the memories brought me back.
But there was never a moment where I didn’t plan to return. We’re simply back doing what we love to do.
Rather than altering my behavior on that single day of the year, I’ve chosen to change how I live the other 364 days.
Murphy is assistant professor and director of athletic training at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. He has served on the Boston Marathon medical team for the past five years and will be returning again Monday.