For some Boston Marathon bombing victims, charity checks bring frustration


J.P. Norden has endured several surgeries, with more to come, after being injured in the Boston Marathon attack. His mother Liz Norden sits with him in the hospital. (Josh Reynolds /For The Washington Post)

When a close friend spent his money from the charity for Boston Marathon bombing survivors on a new house, J.P. Norden rejoiced along with him. When another used some of his six-figure payment to rent an apartment and pay off debts, Norden, who lost his right leg in the terrorist attack, knew the money had been put to good use.

But Norden’s own $1.2 million check still sits in a drawer in his mother’s apartment. The 33-year-old former truck driver lives there for now, along with his brother Paul, who also lost his right leg in the attack and received an identical payout. The brothers are reluctant to commit the money, aware that the cost of maintaining their expensive prostheses and replacing them every few years could chew up the generous contributions, and that their job prospects are uncertain at best.

“People will say stuff: ‘Oh, you guys got $1.2 million,’ ” J.P. Norden says from his bed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he is recuperating from yet another surgery. “Did we? Because I know I’ve got to buy a leg for the rest of my life. I can’t go out and buy a house.”

The $60.9 million distributed to survivors in late June by the One Fund charity, with the express purpose of speeding their recoveries, is only one factor in determining which of the 260 people injured in the attack have begun to move on. Experts say recovering from severe trauma depends on many other elements, including a victim’s strengths and vulnerabilities before the violence, his injuries and the extent of the carnage he witnessed, and the support he gets coping after an attack.

Not to mention luck. The second bomb that day went off near a group of friends from the area around Stoneham, Mass. — a small, mostly working-class town north of Boston — who were waiting near the finish line. Three, including the Norden brothers, lost legs and continue to struggle. Two escaped with their limbs and have begun to reassemble their lives, one saying he has found new purpose.


Boston bombing survivor Jarrod Clowery helps coach his son’s football team. “The little things don’t bother me anymore, like they did,” he says. (Josh Reynolds /For The Washington Post)

“There is no simple algorithm as to why some people recover and some people don’t,” said Patricia Watson, senior educational specialist at the National Center for PTSD, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Resources are a big positive protective factor for many people,” she added. “In the same way, ongoing adversity does make it difficult for people to recover.”

The Norden brothers’ lives are hamstrung by their severe, ongoing medical problems. Five months after the bombing, J.P. Norden has a new prosthesis but cannot walk without the aid of crutches. He has neither eardrum; his hearing will never fully return. He faces more surgery on his remaining leg’s thigh muscle, part of which has hardened like stone from calcium deposits. Over the next six months, there will be two more operations on his ears.

He has spent 24 hours a day for nearly the past two weeks in a hospital bed, recuperating from a grueling 10-hour procedure to graft skin from his back to the stump of his leg, a shocking patchwork of flesh and stitches above his bedcovers. It was at least his 13th operation, although the Nordens have lost count.

Paul Norden, 32, is walking on his own with the aid of a $112,000 high-tech prosthesis that extends nearly to his groin. But surgeons still must break his right hand and surgically repair it. A nail and a spring lodged in the skin under his chin recently began to cause him problems.

“People don’t even have a clue,” says their mother, Liz Norden, about the challenges her sons face. “They really don’t.”

A new perspective

When the bomb exploded just a few feet away on April 15, the Norden brothers, Jarrod Clowery, James Costello and Marc Fucarile were gathered with other friends outside Forum, a bar near the marathon’s finish line. They were awaiting the arrival of another childhood buddy, firefighter Mike Jefferson, who was finishing the race.

The two bombs, made from pressure cookers filled with gunpowder, nails, pellets and other bits of metal, killed three people. Authorities say a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer was killed later by the two alleged terrorists, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died in a subsequent shootout with police. His brother was indicted in connection with the violence, including the four deaths.

Upon hearing the first explosion, 100 yards away, Clowery began to vault the spectator barricade onto Boylston Street, where he believed he and his friends would be safer. His arms and legs were peppered with shrapnel and debris from the second bomb, but he escaped with all his limbs.

Clowery had tried for years to earn a living, first playing pool professionally, then doing residential carpentry, sometimes with the Nordens. He never grossed more than $22,000, on the books, playing pool and often had no place of his own. Sometimes he slept on J.P. Norden’s couch.

As dreams go, he admits, his were modest: Save enough money to open a pool hall and help coach his son’s Pop Warner football team, a way of staying close to the youngster, born 12 years ago after a short relationship.

Clowery’s early days as an inpatient were the darkest; besides his physical injuries, he was deeply depressed and heavily medicated.

Then letters began arriving from all over the world, many of them from schoolchildren. “They saved my ass,” he says. “I could’ve gone down a dark path.”

His perspective began to change. He spoke to the media about first responders who, he has said since the bombing, have not received enough credit for the lives they saved. Then he decided to create an anti-bullying foundation that would link kids in school with heroes who can talk to them via videoconferencing technology.

“I got to see in the hospital what we’re capable of in terms of love and compassion,” he says, sitting on the deck of his sister’s home in Marblehead, Mass. “The bomb is one second of pure evil, despicable, the worst. But it’s followed by endless seconds of the good people can do.”

Scott Farmelant, a principal at Mills Public Relations in Boston who is helping Clowery establish his foundation, said that the bombing “was an event that opened his eyes to the way most people are, the overwhelming majority of people are. They’re compassionate, they’re empathetic. They do have love in their hearts and want to do some good.

“The challenge for him is to make that epiphany into something tangible and ultimately sustainable.”

Clowery says he took his $735,000 from the One Fund and set a large chunk aside for his son, also named Jarrod. He gave some to friends and relatives who had stayed with him in the hospital and were short on cash. He paid off his truck, found an apartment and gave his son’s mother the next seven years of child support. While in the hospital, he persuaded his son’s football coach to let him help.

He stopped taking narcotic painkillers and began training again, bulking up and regaining his stamina, he says. He is trying to kick a heavy smoking habit.

Like the Nordens, he is still recuperating from injuries. His left eardrum is gone; he faces surgery on it. His legs contain metal from the bomb. Doctors have asked him to mark the pieces wherever he finds them. Clowery bought a magnet that he rolls up and down his legs. When it pauses or sticks, he marks the spot.

“That thing did a lot of damage,” he says. “. . . I don’t want any part of it in me. If I can get it all out, I will.”

The bombing brought Clowery in contact with the powerful, rich and famous, people he never would have met, people who can achieve change in the world, he says. Among them is first lady Michelle Obama, who has heard about his plan.

“The little things don’t bother me anymore, like they did,” he says. “They never will. And my goal is to show people the endless seconds of good.”

A mother’s worries

It is Labor Day in Liz Norden’s second-floor apartment in a modest section of Wakefield, a small town a few miles north of Boston. A heavy, gray sky presses down, alternately spitting drizzle on the windows and pelting them with hard rain.

Before the attack, this would have been a holiday for the Norden brothers, laborers in the truest sense of the word. Paul, a roofer, attached sheet metal to buildings. J.P. drove a truck for the roofing company. They are unsure how they will earn a living once their wounds heal.

Today Liz is doing what she has done nearly full time since her cellphone rang at 3:05 p.m. on April 15: worrying about the eldest two of her five children. It was Paul on the cellphone, calling from the marathon finish line area. “Ma, I’m hurt bad, and I can’t find J.P. or Jacqui,” he told her, referring to his longtime girlfriend, who was also injured by flying metal.

Liz is preoccupied with J.P.’s surgery, scheduled for the next day, but the reality of the family’s post-attack life is never far away. She shows a visitor a cellphone video of the moments immediately after the blast. J.P.’s leg is clearly severed. Paul, dazed, probably in shock, is sitting against a wall, looking around as first responders tend to him.

The brothers are living with her and a third son, Jonathan, 28, who would have been at the marathon if he had awakened in time. Liz also has two daughters and a granddaughter. She had J.P. at 17, she says, and raised her children in Stoneham’s “projects” with a largely absent father.

J.P. talks freely about his difficulties, she says. Paul is quieter, but she feels him seething. J.P. can’t yet negotiate the two flights of stairs up to his third-floor bedroom. Two donated chairlifts take him there. For Paul, a shower is a lengthy ordeal; his prosthesis must be kept dry. Above-the-knee amputations like his are much more difficult, according to experts.

“Paul doesn’t really talk about it. He doesn’t like the attention. . . . He just wants to be normal,” Liz says.

“They’re doing a hell of a lot better than I do,” she adds. “Because I think it’s really sad. Their lives have changed forever.”

The next week, at the hospital, the brothers agree about how much they have come to loathe the Question.

“We don’t think about it no more. It’s over,” J.P. says.

“It happened. We moved on,” says Paul, who also wishes he weren’t so recognizable in public. It was a mistake, he says, to appear on television so often in the aftermath of the attack.

‘A check they can’t cash’

The brothers are passionate about their gratitude for the contributions from 185,000 donors to the One Fund and others who gave to them separately. The public owed survivors nothing, J.P. says.

But the Nordens and their friends believe the plan for distributing the money was ill-conceived by lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who also set up the payment formula after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other disasters. Feinberg awarded nearly $2.2 million each to two double amputees and the families of the four people slain, and nearly $1.2 million to 14 single-limb amputees.

In the interest of speeding payments to victims, the rest of the money was divided according to the number of nights they spent in hospitals and rehab facilities. The 10 survivors who were inpatients for 32 nights or more, for example, were paid $948,000 each.

Costello, who was badly burned in the attack, was awarded $735,000. He put down some of the money on a house and bought each of the Norden brothers a Ford Explorer. “Jimmy’s my best friend. I’m happy for him,” J.P. Norden says. “But still, I don’t think it’s right.”

Costello agrees: “The amputees got a check they can’t cash, if you think about it.”

The payments are tax-free, but they will force the Norden brothers off the state health insurance program for the poor. At the end of the year, they must begin buying their own medical insurance.

Coverage for prosthetics varies from policy to policy, but doctors and prosthetists agree that the lifetime cost of a new limb — especially for Paul Norden — easily could be more than the Norden brothers were awarded. The devices, which wear out, must be replaced every few years and regularly maintained.

“The prosthesis will make all the difference in what their lives are going to look like,” says Christopher Carter, a psychologist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where all 16 amputees convalesced before going home. The cost isn’t “just the prosthesis, but it’s all the medical care that goes along with that.”

Mike Sheehan, treasurer of the One Fund, said the charity has taken in an additional $10 million since the original donations were handed out and expects more as the anniversary of the attack approaches next April. The charity will contact all the survivors to determine the services they need before spending the rest, he said.

“There’s no amount of money in the world that’s going to compensate people for losing a limb, for losing their hearing, and we never proposed that it would,” he said. “Money is not a cure-all.”

For now, the Nordens just want to get J.P. up and walking. They will address their medical costs when the time comes. J.P. has met with financial advisers and is sorting through conflicting advice over how to invest his money.

“We’re not wise to know what to do with it,” Liz Norden says. “So who do you trust? . . . It’s like we have money, but we don’t have money.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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