When Savannah Booth first saw Boston Marathon bombing survivor Heather Abbott on TV, she felt an instant connection.
In the strong and well-spoken businesswoman in her early 40s, Booth, now a 21-year-old marketing major, saw a bit of her future self. And having lived her life as an amputee, the UNC-Wilmington student knew the particular struggles Abbott would face after losing her leg below the knee in the 2013 terrorist attack.
So, Booth reached out via social media to offer her support, share her own story and express her excitement over Abbott’s recently acquired prosthetic that allowed her to wear high heels.
That simple message, in turn, bonded Abbott to Booth, and it helped inspire her to help others receive life-changing, hi-tech prostheses.
It’s an effort that recently came full circle, when Abbott was able to return that initial gesture of kindness in a big way: by giving Booth, a Rocky Point native, the chance to live like any other normal beach-going college student.
Earlier this month, Booth became the fourth beneficiary of The Heather Abbott Foundation, receiving a free technically advanced leg that will allow her to wear flip-flops and sandals for the first time in her life, and to move about pain-free. Abbott teamed up with A Step Ahead Prosthetics on the special leg, which took more than 130 man hours to create.
“Savannah reached out to me when saw the special about my high heel leg. She told me…how sorry she was that happened to me and that she realized there were not a lot of women amputees out there and asked if there was anything she could do to help,” Abbott recalled. “She just shared her experience and said she always wanted realistic looking legs. It was just her offering her support and also commiserating on unfortunate circumstances. It was people like Savannah who inspired me to start the foundation.”
Booth was born without a fibula – the outer bone between the knee and ankle – and doctors gave her parents a tough choice: Keep her leg, which would confine her to a wheelchair, or go ahead and amputate below the knee.
“Obviously they made the right decision because look how far prosthetics have come,” Booth said.
But, she added, advances mean nothing if you don’t have the money to pay for them. Legs like the one she just received, both aesthetically superior and designed for comfort and mobility, cost around $35,000. More technologically savvy designs for above-the-knee amputees can run upwards of $100,000.
Booth and Abbott said the problem is health insurance companies only pay for one prosthetic, which is typically quite basic. But fitting in—as Booth always wanted—or regaining your former life, as Abbott desires, requires much more than basic coverage. “That metal leg that your insurance company wants to give you just doesn’t do it,” Abbott said.
Abbott, who described herself as active and independent, was driven after the attack to remain the person she had been before it. The bombing killed three and wounded more than 250, of whom 17, including Abbott, lost limbs.
“For me, losing my leg was very tragic. One of the only bright sides to it was I was told I wouldn’t have to give up all the things that I love,” she said.
That was, of course, if she had the right prosthetics. Luckily, people rallied behind her, a blessing she later decided to bestow on others through her foundation. Crowd source campaigns helped Abbott raise the money needed to buy the different prosthetics to allow her to jog, to exercise, to flaunt her shoe collection.
That last desire isn’t simply a superficial one, Booth said.
“Having toes and toenails on this new prosthesis is about more than vanity. It gives me motivation to get up in the morning and live my life normally because I don’t feel abnormal,” Booth said. “I’m excited about shoe shopping. To be able to be myself is really important and Heather gave me that opportunity.”
Even deeper, Abbott said being able to give someone like Booth, whose family couldn’t afford a second prosthetic leg, helps her find meaning in her own suffering. The Heather Abbott Foundation has previously donated a high heel prosthetic to a young woman and a high-impact one to an eight-year-old girl who wanted to play soccer and another child who wanted a running leg.
“I understand how she feels, and it’s nice to be able to help her feel better about herself and how she looks. But it’s also healing for me to be able to do that, to take this senseless tragedy and make some sense out of it,” she said.
Now, equipped and empowered, Booth has yet another connection with Abbott—a desire to give back.
“It was awesome to be able to be a part of something like this, and to know I was part of the inspiration. If that’s all it ever was, that would have been enough for me,” she said. “It’s important for me to be able to tell others I am an amputee to help others in my situation.”
After graduating from UNCW, the rising senior hopes to land a job with a prosthetics company and become an advocate, particularly for female amputees. In the meantime, she plans to create a blog full of advice and resources.
“As a high schooler, I would search online for answers to different questions I had, like about dating and social awkwardness, and there was nothing out there. So, that’s in my plans, to make something for women like me but that is also general enough that it would have something for any amputee,” she said.
And, of course, she’ll be doing a little shoe shopping, too.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.