Eric Kayne / for NBC News
Boston bombing survivor Rebekah Gregory is shown how to climb stairs with a crutch by her boyfriend, Pete DiMartino, on July 25, inside a model home in Houston that looks similar to the one they are having built.
RICHMOND, Texas – A young couple seriously injuredat the finish line of the Boston Marathon are making plans for a new, post-tragedy life: building a home and a support system to take them each through the work of recovery.
Rebekah Gregory, a 26-year-old mother from Richmond, Texas, was severely wounded in the April 15 attack; after 13 surgeries, she is still hoping to escape having her left leg amputated.
Her boyfriend, Pete DiMartino, 28, lives 1,500 miles away in Rochester, N.Y. He lost 90 percent of his right Achilles' tendon and suffered multiple broken bones in his ankles when two homemade bombs exploded at the race, killing three people and wounding 275 others.
At the time of the marathon, Gregory and DiMartino had been together less than a year. Now, DiMartino is planning a move to Texas. Their early bond has fused into something unbreakable.
“This guy is the love of my life, and I want to spend the rest of my life with him,” Gregory said last week as the pair reunited in Houston near her parents' home. They'd last seen each other in May, just before Gregory was medically evacuated home from Boston to Texas and DiMartino returned to upstate New York to continue his rehabilitation.
“I was scared to death that I wasn't ever going to see him again that day,” she said. “The fact that we get to go on and build our lives together is pretty awesome.”
Eric Kayne / for NBC News
DiMartino and Gregory hope to move in together later this year.
The couple had sketched out their future before being hurt; they knew they wanted to live in the same city and take their relationship to the next level. But the bombings propelled their plans forward and spurred them to make decisions.
A developer in Houston offering them a discounted deal on a new home helped, too. The highlight of DiMartino’s weeklong Texas trip — the first of many he’ll make to be with Gregory as his physical therapy winds down — will be settling on a design for their house. One non-negotiable: A master bedroom on the first floor to make getting around easier for Gregory, who can’t put weight on her vulnerable left leg.
“It's really going to be solidifying things,” DiMartino said of the visit.
“What happened made me realize how much I cared about you,” Gregory said to him.
Exploring the model home offered by the developer, DiMartino was excited about the prospect of a breakfast bar, Gregory delighted in the bay windows and her son Noah, 5, was wowed by the idea of skateboards being used as shelves. Construction on the house will begin in mid-August and should finish by late November.
DiMartino hopes to relocate permanently when the home is completed. They’ll move in just in time for the holidays.
Eric Kayne / for NBC News
Gregory greets DiMartino at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston as he arrives from Rochester on July 24. Gregory's sister Allie, 11, stands at left.
But even in the excitement of the future-planning and reunion – Noah greeted DiMartino at the airport with a handmade sign – both bombing victims have had to confront the harshness of the other’s injuries. They’ve generally avoided talking about the darker corners of their realities when chatting long-distance on FaceTime or texting.
“It’s really hard to talk about it even still,” Gregory said of the bombing,which also left Noah and DiMartino’s sister wounded. “This is the first time I’ve really seen all of his injuries since then and vice versa, and it's really hard to look at the other person and just know that he has his struggles daily and the things that he has to deal with.… It’s different when the person you love is injured, too. It’s really tough.”
DiMartino, who walks with a slight limp and has difficulty standing for long periods, said it was the first time he had seen Gregory’s injuries, especially the severe ones to her left leg.
She has skin grafts along much of her leg to cover where she lost soft tissue. A large purple hump rises over the top of her foot where doctors placed live back muscle and skin grafts to heal a gaping wound; she still needs to elevate her foot to alleviate chronic pain and protect the area. Shrapnel dots her leg, as if it had been sprayed on.
After looking at Gregory’s wounds closely, DiMartino had to take a step back and collect his thoughts.
“I saw [them on this trip] for the first time, really the first time since it all happened, and it was really hard. ... It was kind of gut-wrenching. I didn’t know what to do,” DiMartino said. “I just had to get my head around the whole thing.”
“April 15 is every day for us. It’s an everyday struggle. It didn’t just go away after it happened,” said Gregory. “I struggle every night when I go to sleep: flashbacks, nightmares. I wake up in panics where I can’t breathe. The least favorite thing of my day is going to bed.”
Eric Kayne / for NBC News
Gregory winces in pain during a physical therapy session on July 25 in Katy, Tex., as her damaged leg, ankle and foot are massaged by physical therapist Andrew Hyde to help break up scar tissue and get the injured area moving again.
Since his recovery is much further along, DiMartino has helped Gregory adjust to crutches, which she has just taken up and he has left behind not too long ago. He showed her how to walk up and down stairs with them and how to push doors open without losing her balance.
She is also getting the in-person emotional support from DiMartino that she needed so much in the aftermath of the bombings. Technology couldn’t bridge that distance during their time apart.
“After this whole thing happened, it was a lot harder for me just because of the fact that that's when I really needed him to be close,” she said, later adding, “I’ve missed him so much. … It feels good for him to finally be here and us moving forward on our plans.”
The 'missing piece'
Gregory’s mother, Tina, became misty-eyed when she spoke about DiMartino’s arrival.
“Pete DiMartino has arrived, and all is right in our little world. ... He's kind of been the missing piece until now,” she said, adding that she had watched the pair lovingly care for one another during the visit.
In Texas, the couple have enjoyed moments others may take for granted: sitting together to watch TV, holding hands, riding in the car and listening to music, and just being silly.
DiMartino joked that visitors may find their young love “so gross,” but he was very serious about their relationship.
“We are stronger than we have ever been, definitely,” he said. “That’s the first person I talk to when I wake up, (the) last person I talk to really before I go to sleep.”
The couple still have a long way to go in terms of recovery: Gregory will continue with physical therapy three days a week and may still have more surgery, and DiMartino will keep up with his therapy in New York, where he hopes to start running again. They are making strong recoveries, according to their medical providers.
Adam Frank, owner and director of Lattimore of Webster Physical Therapy, where DiMartino is being treated, said the couple could aid in one another’s recovery even though they didn’t have the same injuries.
“The biggest part of physical therapy and rehabbing, too, is the mindset,” he said. “He can help her, she can help him. He was so excited and upbeat about going down (to Texas), and just to have that positive attitude and outlook definitely helps along the path to recovery. … It's the power of love, that's the strongest healing power.”
First published July 30 2013, 6:58 PM