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Jessica Kensky lost a leg in the Boston Marathon bombing. When she says, "Brr, I'm cold," Rescue the assistance dog knows to bring her the blanket. (Courtesy of Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes)

Service Dog Guides Marathon Bombing Victims Through A Grim Year

by Sacha Pfeiffer
Apr 20, 2014 (WBUR)

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Newlyweds Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes each lost a leg in the Boston Marathon bombing. Rescue the assistance dog helps fetch keys and push buttons, bringing warmth and joy as the couple recovers. Rescue helps Jessica Kensky with a door. Kensky's husband, Patrick Downes, says Rescue makes them laugh "10, 20, 50 times more a day."

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Sacha Pfeiffer

At Monday's Boston Marathon, many runners will be on the course to honor the 16 people who lost limbs in last year's bombing. One married couple was among them: Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes.

Among many dark stories of that day, theirs is among the darkest. They were newlyweds of just seven months when each had their left leg blown off. Their injuries were so severe that they were some of the last victims to leave the hospital.

But we want to tell you an encouraging part of their story. It involves an 80-pound black Labrador retriever named Rescue who is specially trained as an assistance dog.

To understand why Rescue came into their lives, you have to know how badly Kensky in particular was hurt. Her remaining leg, the one that wasn't amputated, was so mutilated in the bombing that one doctor thought it should be surgically removed, too.

"My whole Achilles tendon was blown off, a good part of my heel pad was blown off," Kensky says. "But when I woke up, my left leg was already gone, and I couldn't imagine losing my right. And I just — it's such a permanent decision. So I thought: You can always amputate it down the road, but once it's gone it's gone."

So surgeons reconstructed Kensky's right leg as well as they were able to. So far, her "good" leg really isn't so good.

Every Step Is Painful

Kensky wears a high-tech brace on her right leg, which greatly improves her mobility. When she removes the brace, she exposes her misshapen foot and ankle, and a heel no longer as round and padded. She sometimes needs a wheelchair, because walking on her remaining leg is difficult.

"I don't think I really appreciated what chronic pain means and how it just — it rules everything," she says. "When you have that level of pain with every single step — every single step — you don't want to take it."

Every day, that pain has her asking herself an excruciating question.

"I didn't know what it was going to be like to try to walk on something and live with a leg like that," Kensky says. "Now that I know, I'm always in the back of my mind wondering if I would be better off with an amputation."

That gets us back to Rescue.

Kensky got Rescue from a Massachusetts non-profit called NEADS, which trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities. NEADS is offering a free service dog to any marathon bombing victim with a permanent physical disability.

Kensky, because of her continuing mobility problems, is the first to accept that offer. Rescue steadies her when she walks on crutches or with her prosthetic. But that's not all he does.

"Come on — nudge!" she prompts him, and Rescue uses his paws to press an elevator button in Downes and Kensky's new, handicapped-accessible apartment building. "Good boy!" she says.

When Kensky drops her keys — "Rescue, fetch!" — the dog picks them up with his mouth and brings them to her.

Rescue can also open doors and retrieve a phone with his teeth — even if he drops it a few times and presses a few numbers in the process.

Having a dog also keeps Kensky and Downes physically active — a challenge for amputees.

"Here's this big animal who needs to be taken out, he needs exercise, he needs to go to the bathroom, he needs to be fed," Kensky says. "On the day you just don't want to get off the couch, you don't want to get in your wheelchair, you don't want to put your prosthetic on, he looks at you with those eyes and you've got to take him out."

A Value Beyond Assistance

Kensky and Downes have both had a pretty grim year. She's 33 and hasn't been able to return to her job as an oncology nurse. He's 30 and had to abandon his plan to do a pre-doctoral program in San Francisco, where they had been planning to relocate.

They also suffered shrapnel wounds and perforated eardrums. Since the bombing, they've had nearly 30 surgeries between them, with more operations ahead.

Amid all that, Downes says, Rescue has also had an intangible value just as important as his physical assistance.

"To have a dog like him around, you laugh 10, 20, 50 times more a day, and you can't help but have that lift the mood," Downes says. "And he's a huge cuddler ... he's just constantly giving us hugs and kisses and entertaining us, and he's a wonderful gift in that way."

"That week he came, for the first time, I started sleeping through the night," Kensky says. "We would be up, 3, 4 in the morning, sad, depressed, anxious. Not that I don't experience those feelings any more, but it was incredible to sleep through the night. And, I mean, I have to attribute it to him. He was the change."

Here's another command Rescue knows. Kensky admits she uses it mostly for "cuteness." It comes in handy when she's relaxing on the couch.

"So if I'm over here, and I have my leg off and I'm watching a movie," Kensky demonstrates, calling out to Rescue: "Brrr, I'm cold."

At that, Rescue heads for a blanket across the room. As he drags it back to her, getting it comically tangled in his paws, you realize how a smart, lovable dog who brings laughter to a house that hasn't heard much of it in the past year can be a transforming presence.

"Rescue, give me a hug," Kensky says. "Good boy!"

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Ahead of Easter Mass, a worshiper lights candles at St. Elie Armenian Catholic Church in downtown Beirut. (Susannah George)

'A Wound That Doesn't Close': Armenians Suffer Uncertainty Together

by Susannah George
Apr 20, 2014 (WBUR)

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Two worshipers say prayers. Even amid Easter celebrations, Armenians in the Middle East remain apprehensive about the future. Rescue helps Jessica Kensky with a door. Kensky's husband, Patrick Downes, says Rescue makes them laugh "10, 20, 50 times more a day."

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Susannah George

At St. Elie Armenian Catholic Church in downtown Beirut, Zarmig Hovsepian lit three candles and slowly mouthed silent prayers before Easter Mass. After reciting "Our Father," she added a prayer of her own: "For peace, for Lebanon and the region," she said, underscoring the deep sense of apprehension beneath the surface of otherwise festive Easter celebrations.

Next door in Syria, violence recently displaced thousands from the historic Armenian town of Kessab, which rests in northwestern Syria, along the Turkish border. Groups of Syrian rebels, including some with ties to al-Qaida, swept into the Latakia province last month, seizing a number of towns in the strategically important mountains.

The violence and mass displacement in Syria opened old wounds for Armenians across the region, stirring up memories of the massacre and deportation of ethnic Armenians at the hands of the Turks during World War I. Syria, once a refuge from that violence, is home to nearly 100,00 Armenians, but now the community feels under threat again.

That's making Armenians in Lebanon nervous.

"The future is not clear for the whole Christian community in the Middle East, not just the Armenians," says Shahan Kandaharian, the executive editor of an Armenian daily newspaper. He blames the rise of Islamic fundamentalism across the Middle East.

"We've seen what happens to Christians in Iraq," he says, referencing the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have fled as extremism has risen in the last decade.

As Islamist opposition groups in Syria grow in power, Christians increasingly find themselves caught up in the civil war. In December, a group of nuns was kidnapped from their convent in the ancient town of Maaloula and held for three months; they were released only in March. In the northern city of Raqqa in February, a Jihadist group imposed strict rules on Christians, outlawing public prayer and the ringing of church bells.

Part of the resentment toward Syrian Christians can be traced to their relationship with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Himself a member of the minority Allawite sect of Islam, Assad has long positioned his government as a protector of all minorities. In turn, he has gained the often-tacit support of many of the country's Christians.

In comments to mark the Easter holiday, John Yazigi, the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Syria, said Christians "will not submit and yield" to extremists. He called on all sides to end the practice of "intimidation, displacement [and] extremism."

But Krikor Geukjian, a member of St. Elie Church, says that for Armenians, the situation is different. He says that for his community, memories of genocide are not just a shared history; they're personal.

"It has affected every single Armenian. Every single Armenian knows a victim," Geukjian says. "It's a wound that doesn't close."

A man who asked not to be identified agrees. He says he was born in Beirut and has lived here all his life, but never feels completely relaxed. "I always have all my documents ready," he says, in case the political or security situation changes and he's forced to flee.

Now, standing in front of St. Elie Church as some of the last worshipers file into the Easter service, Geukjian says that despite all his worries, he's always hopeful about the future. When asked why, he laughs.

"Perhaps it's our Armenian-ness," he says. "We've learned from our history that after every bad thing comes a better thing. Otherwise, we couldn't have survived all those centuries."

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Kevin Costner warms up to pitch in the 1989 film Field Of Dreams. (The Kobal Collection)

From 'Field Of Dreams' To 'Draft Day': Who Cares About The Front Office?

Apr 20, 2014 (WBUR)

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Kevin Costner plays the general manager of the Cleveland Browns and Jennifer Garner his girlfriend and salary cap manager in Draft Day. Rescue helps Jessica Kensky with a door. Kensky's husband, Patrick Downes, says Rescue makes them laugh "10, 20, 50 times more a day."

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Linda Holmes

Sports movies were powerful once. In the '80s and '90s, there were hits about football, baseball, basketball, hockey, boxing, karate - and they were movies about teams and players and coaches, not scouts and executives.

Things seem to have taken a turn. Moneyball, which received a Best Picture nomination, is about the people who have jobs in sports more than the people who play sports. Draft Day, which will not receive a Best Picture nomination, is too. So is the upcoming Million Dollar Arm. So was Trouble With The Curve. We've still got stories about scouts and executives and agents, and there's the occasional biopic like 42. But where did the movies about sport itself, as it intersects with the lives of regular people who play and love and watch it, go?

It's a question provoked by remembrances of Field Of Dreams, 25 years old this week and as strange of a little piece of work as it ever was. We've had plenty of sports movies for kids with out-of-this-world elements like magical arms and ... well, Space Jam. But there haven't been a lot of adult-targeted dramas incorporating straight-up magical realism, which allows Field Of Dreams to transform the emotional subtext of a lot of these movies directly into text.

Instead of just being about the oft-repeated trope of men and their fathers bonding (or not) through sports, Field Of Dreams brings Ray Kinsella's father back to life, literally, for a long-deferred game of catch. Rather than just being about the connection of sports to childhood even for adults, it shows baseball bodily transforming the aging Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster) into a young man. And rather than simply seeing a tragic figure like Shoeless Joe Jackson as a symbol of lost opportunity, it brings him out of a cornfield - out of the very heart of Americana - for a second chance.

It's a deeply and unapologetically sentimental movie, despite the fact that it actually does contain impressive - and little-remembered - moments of restraint. The first scene in which Ray meets Shoeless Joe, in which Ray's curious and polite reaction is awed but very Midwestern, is a stunner, in part because of the faith the filmmakers had in the sound of crickets. Ironically, it loses its punch when the emotion-goosing piano begins tinkling away in the background.

Hollywood, unfairly or not, has always maintained an unofficial division between regular sentimentality and sentimentality designed to be palatable to men. This is probably one of the few places, in fact, where women are the default: a film simply described as a tear-jerker is usually marketed to women. When one is marketed to men, it's what Tim Grierson at Deadspin called the "male weepie" last year when somewhat ambivalently naming Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) the form's current champion.

In fact, back in 1989, Richard Corliss at Time called Field Of Dreams "the male weepie at its wussiest." There's no reason in the world men shouldn't cry at movies or women should, but the baggage of that assumption is heavy and ever-present.

Sports movies have long been central to male-marketed melodrama: Pride Of The Yankees, Brian's Song, The Champ, The Natural. But those movies - like westerns and war movies, the other most commonly marketed sentimental dude flicks - involved an awful lot of ... you know, death. Death made strong emotion permissible as a response, even if it was more intended to provoke a quiet tear in the eye than the blubbering in which women have always been frankly encouraged to indulge.

What the sports movies of the '80s and '90s - and in fact, sports movies going back at least as far as Rocky in 1976 - got to be good at was using sports, without the heavy baggage of death, to play, sometimes in a less weighty way and sometimes even in comedy, with three issues that resonated powerfully with audiences, including men and boys: camaraderie, fathers, and aging.

While Bull Durham, for instance, can play as a sexy romance between Crash (Kevin Costner) and Annie (Susan Sarandon), with comic relief from Nuke (Tim Robbins), its poignancy comes from its study of the end of Crash's long career as a not-quite-major-league-caliber catcher. Here's a man who will leave baseball largely unrecognized, both because he spent much of his career making pitchers better and because he's ambivalent about becoming, for instance, the all-time hit leader in the minor leagues.

Crash is positively tragic if you compare his accomplishments to his original goals, but not if you simply ask the question of whether he leads a good life. Costner's other film with writer-director Ron Shelton, the not as good but still underrated golf movie Tin Cup, covers a lot of the same ground.

While films about female athletes are far rarer, there's a similar bittersweet tang to A League Of Their Own, in which Dottie (Geena Davis) walks away from baseball to be with her husband, despite how much she loves it. She has other priorities; there is life outside the game, and it's time to attend to it. That's on top of the story's constant burbling undercurrent that these women are all destined to be mistreated, thrown over when the male players return from the war. Just like Crash, Dottie is evidence that athletes sometimes have to love the games they play enough to forgive them their profound injustices.

You even get some of this from The Replacements, a lightweight comedy that posits Keanu Reeves as a failed quarterback dragged off his boat to work as a replacement player during an NFL strike. Just like we do with Crash and Dottie and Tin Cup McAvoy, we find him suspended at the moment when he's moving from athlete to former athlete, coming to terms with life after competition.

That's not to even mention the heft of some of the better straight-up Big Game Movies like Hoosiers, which follows an underdog Indiana basketball team to a suitable underdog's ending, but not without certain suggestions of pain, both for the coach, played by Gene Hackman, and for an alcoholic team supporter played by Dennis Hopper.

There are almost always fathers in these stories, sometimes literally and sometimes in the simple fact that coaches in sports movies are effectively fathers, and the push-pull of wanting to please and wanting to pull away comes up with coaches that comes up with fathers and with, in films like An Officer And A Gentleman, superiors in the military. In Hollywood, when you want to sell sentimentality to men and encourage them to be unembarrassed by it, you background their romantic relationships and foreground their relationships with whatever men a generation older they are trying to understand and gain understanding from. (In Field Of Dreams, this is not only true with Ray's father, but also with Jackson and the reclusive writer Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones - who, in the novel Shoeless Joe, was actually an imagined version of J.D. Salinger, exactly the frustrating, unavailable mentor a novelist might come up with.)

In fairness, it's not all or nothing: Jerry Maguire in 1996 had a lot of the same themes of the teetering feeling of early middle age, despite being about an agent. And plenty of sports movies about teams have been soulless and cynical. But on the whole, it seems depressing to have moved from sports films mostly about athletes and coaches to sports films mostly about agents and the front office.

Draft Day falls so emotionally flat because it isn't really about sports; it's about business. It could just as easily be about a man negotiating shipping contracts as about the general manager of the Cleveland Browns negotiating draft picks.

What makes sports films work really is the connection to the sport itself. Costner's general-manager character in Draft Day gives no particular indication that he loves football. He seems to understand it pretty well, but he doesn't seem to love it, and he mostly seems beleaguered to have the job he does in the first place. In Draft Day, football is a product like shoes or computers - or movies - where, if you're going to follow the ins and outs of who wins and who loses, you mostly spend your time watching guys on the phone arguing about money. It's very, very difficult to write a good movie about guys on the phone arguing about money. Not impossible, perhaps, but very, very difficult.

Guys trying to outmaneuver each other on the telephone by hollering about millions of dollars will never match the scene in Bull Durham where the conference on the pitchers' mound incorporates discussions of wedding presents, visiting fathers (there's that theme again), and curses. Baseball is narratively rich; trading players is narratively thin unless you give it a lot of help.

Scouts, agents, managers, owners: that's fine, but it's different. It's a little hollow inside. It's a little sad.

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A map image shows the exterior of the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe, a church that serves tourists visiting Walt Disney World in Florida. (Google Maps)

The Florida Church Whose Worshipers Are All Tourists

Apr 20, 2014 (WBUR)

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In Orlando, Fla., the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe hosts about 35,000 Catholics on Easter Sunday. Rescue helps Jessica Kensky with a door. Kensky's husband, Patrick Downes, says Rescue makes them laugh "10, 20, 50 times more a day."

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Easter Sunday is a busy time for many Christian churches. And for one Florida church, "busy" only begins to describe it. The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe has no permanent members, but it will host tens of thousands of worshipers today.

That's because the church is across the street from Walt Disney World. The main basilica was built in the early 1990s, to give visitors to the resort complex a place to worship. As its website clarifies, Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine is not a parish church.

The shrine is holding eight Easter Masses today; the first began at 7:30 this morning, and the last will begin at 6 tonight. To handle the large crowds, the basilica is using an overflow tent that can hold 1,000 people.

From Orlando, Amy Kiley of member station WMFE reports:

"The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe hosts about 35,000 Catholics on Easter Sunday - and none are church members.

"Tourists started the ministry at Disney World before funding the basilica. Director of Operations Gina Schwiegerath says the shrine needs a tent for overflow crowds.

" 'People from all over the world, all over the nation, gather together in one place, and for that hour, you're not people from all over the world,' Schwiegerath says. 'We're a Catholic community sharing in the Body of Christ, which is amazing.'

"The church and tent have about 3,700 seats. Still, nearly 1,800 people stand during the busiest Easter Masses."

The shrine's complex has grown over the years; the property includes a gift shop, in addition to a museum and gardens.

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Amelia Nelson (right) and her friend Kristy were volunteers at the 2013 Boston Marathon when the bombings happened. (Courtesy of Amelia Nelson)

A Witness To The Bombing, A Nurse Returns To Boston As A Runner

Apr 20, 2014 (Weekend Edition Sunday / WBUR)

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In Orlando, Fla., the Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe hosts about 35,000 Catholics on Easter Sunday. Rescue helps Jessica Kensky with a door. Kensky's husband, Patrick Downes, says Rescue makes them laugh "10, 20, 50 times more a day."

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Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

As a volunteer for the 2013 Boston Marathon, nurse Amelia Nelson thought should would be there to help runners as they came across the finish line.

"Our whole mission was to make sure that we kinda talked to people as they came across the finish line, ask them how their time was, make sure that they were oriented, make sure they knew what was going on and if they needed an intervention, to take them into the medical tent," Nelson says.

Nelson ended up having to treat far more grievous wounds that day. Three people died and at least 260 were injured in the bombing that occurred near the finish line. On Monday, Amelia Nelson will return to the race course, this time as a runner.

And while the day will be a celebration, she tells NPR's Rachel Martin it will be hard not to conjure up thoughts of that day one year ago when she and her friend Kristy showed up to their duty station.

Just after 2 p.m., Nelson says she remarked how uneventful the day had been, with few runners needing assistance.

"It had been perfect," she says.

And that's when the first bomb went off. She said for a moment the whole world froze, and everyone was looking toward the smoke. It was a moment she says seemed to last forever.

"And all of a sudden that moment is broken by screaming and total chaos," she says.

As an emergency provider, Nelson's training sprang into action and she ran toward the site of the first bomb. After helping people on the scene, she hopped in an ambulance and went to the hospital to help patients there as well.

The recovery from that day has been a gradual process, Nelson says.

"The first time I went back was a couple weeks after ... and it scared me to no end," she says.

The idea to run in the 2014 marathon came from her volunteer team leader, who had run the race before.

"She looked at us and she was like, 'I'm gonna get your girls' numbers and we're gonna run this, and that's how we're gonna make this better," she says.

Nelson says it was hard to mix her training for the Boston Marathon in between her 12-hour shifts as a nurse.

"I'm not one of those people that runs every day; I'm not someone who wakes up wanting to run every day," she says. "But it has certainly been an escape ... [to] be out in the city and appreciate what it is."

The determination to train for and run this year's race, Nelson says, comes from doing it as a community and as a team, as well as doing it for those who can't run.

"I feel like there are a whole lot of people who need this, including myself," she says.

She's anxious the race, but more anxious about the anniversary of the bombing on April 15. She felt a huge sense of relief once she got past that day, and the race is the next step.

"By Monday night, I will be thrilled that it is over," she says. "I feel like I can get back to some sense of normalcy, where I don't need to get up and run every morning."

And, she says, she'll keep running, though probably not distances as long as a marathon.

Keep up with Nelson, one of eight runners NPR followed through their training for the Boston Marathon.

Join Our Conversation

To our listeners who are runners: Has lacing up helped you deal with pain or loss in your life? Tell us what you think on the Weekend Edition Facebook page, or in the comments section below.

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