A year ago today, it wasn’t clear whether Gillian Reny would be able to walk again.
On April 15, 2013, Gillian sustained severe leg injuries from the bombings at the Boston Marathon that struck both runners and spectators on Boylston Street. Her doctors were initially unsure whether she would regain the ability to walk on her own and be able to arrive for the start of the fall semester at Penn.
But after treatment from doctors in Boston and a nurturing environment fostered by the Penn community, Gillian can walk — with occasional pain — and is getting ready to cap off her first year at college.
“My main goal was to get to college and once I did, my next goal was to have the typical freshman experience,” Gillian, now a College freshman, said. “I did not want to let my injury prevent me from participating in any of the activities that Penn has to offer.”
Last year, Gillian was standing near the finish line of the marathon, cheering on her sister, Danielle, who was just about to complete the last mile. Suddenly, the first blast went off and Gillian and her parents, Steven and Audrey Epstein Reny, were injured.
Gillian’s parents’ injuries were minor in comparison to the wounds that she received — there was a deep gash on her left leg and her right leg was severely damaged. At first, medical staff at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston thought that Gillian’s right leg would have to be amputated. After a series of surgeries, however, both of her legs were saved.
Though Gillian’s first few months at Penn were a challenge as she kept up with an intensive physical therapy schedule, Gillian made a home for herself at college by the start of the spring semester, becoming involved with tutoring in West Philadelphia, the Ronald McDonald House charity and the Delta Delta Delta sorority.
“Penn was incredible,” Gillian said. “Everyone at the University really made [the transition] possible for me.”
Gillian, Audrey — a 1986 College graduate — and Steven — a 1987 Wharton graduate — worked closely with Student Health Services and the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life to create a schedule that would allow Gillian to balance her coursework with her continued recovery.
Throughout the semester, a case manager from Student Intervention Services checked in with Gillian to see how she was progressing at Penn. The Office of Student Disabilities Services also worked with her to make sure that she didn’t have long walks between buildings where her courses were located.
“We found a whole community of faculty and administrators at Penn who were very compassionate and welcoming in working together to make sure that Gillian had a very normal start,” said Audrey, a former Daily Pennsylvanian staffer. “They made such a big university feel really personalized.”
Over the last few months, Gillian has found a way to give back to those who made her recovery possible. Inspired by the expert medical treatment that she was given at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Gillian and her family created the Stepping Strong Fund, a charity that raises money for clinical programs and research related to bone and skin regeneration and treating limb-related injuries. The charity will fund some of the projects being carried out by doctors and nurses who were involved with Gillian’s surgeries.
“We knew pretty quickly that we were interested in supporting Gillian’s caregivers, ” Audrey explained. “With the fund, we hope to help people who have injuries similar to those that Gillian had, but also will be helping many types of limb injuries from different contexts.”
This year, Audrey, Steven, Danielle and some of Gillian’s doctors plan to run the Boston Marathon in honor of her, and to raise money for the Stepping Strong Fund.
Gillian’s progress has exceeded her original expectations.
“I think that with my recovery, there have been a lot of uncertainties, and I never predicted that I would come so far in just a year,” Gillian said. “I’m so grateful to have had so many supporters and so many people rooting for me.”
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