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Boston Marathon bombing survivor returns to Sacramento to share best-selling kids' book

Boston marathon bombing survivors create children's book

Boston marathon bombing survivors Jessica Kensky and her husband Patrick Downes share a children's book they wrote to patients and administration at Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento, California.
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Boston marathon bombing survivors Jessica Kensky and her husband Patrick Downes share a children's book they wrote to patients and administration at Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento, California.

Gold River native Jessica Kensky elicited lengthy, resounding applause at Sacramento's Shriners Hospital for Children after she told children that the days of despair do end, something that she said she doubted immediately after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Kensky, a double amputee, spoke after her husband Patrick Downes, who also lost half of his left leg in the blasts, read from the couple's New York Times best-seller, "Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship" (Candlewick Press, $16.99, 32 pages), a book they wrote to capture for children the experience of becoming and the struggle to manage life.

Asked how long it took her to walk again, Kensky said: "Because my second leg was hurt so bad, that held me back for a long time, so I didn't get mobile for about four years. I had lots and lots of surgeries. And, most importantly, there were lots of times when I thought this bad time would never pass. I had so many times given up that a better time in life would come. It took five years, and life is still not perfect and it's not easy, but it's so much better than before."

In the book, a young girl named Jessica has to have her left leg removed. The reason is never specified, but one thing is clear: Young Jessica is confronted by the big questions that any person of any age faces in such a situation: How will she do things on her own? Will she ever walk again? What will life hold for her now?

She will learn the way forward with the help of a service dog named Rescue, and he will play a crucial role when Jessica learns that her right leg also must be removed if she is to achieve the kind of mobility she wants.

The book resonated with 14-year-old Shriners patient Aleigha Barela, who said she loved how the book is organized with the tale of Rescue's uncertainty and Jessica's struggles, and then how they become the answer to what the other needed after their climactic meeting.

"She didn't know really what to do when it happened," Barela said. "But then I liked whenever Rescue met Jessica and Jessica met Rescue because after that it was like a really happy ending."

Barela said she also was happy to see how the real-life Jessica and her husband were moving forward with their lives. Kensky is working part-time in patient education in the oncology unit where she worked before the bombings, while Downes joked that he's perfecting his role as the voice of Rescue while considering his career options.

Both Kensky and Downes said they learned many valuable lessons from Rescue, but one of the big ones for Kensky was how important it is to just be with someone experiencing a difficult time.

"Sometimes there is nothing you can do, and there's nothing you can say and you can't change the circumstances, but just by being and not requiring anything of that person, can get them through some of their darkest hours," she said. "I think animals, and in particular dogs, are so skilled at doing that, and we as humans can be uncomfortable. We want to change it. We want to fix it. We want to say the right things, and that prevents us sometimes from just being there."

Kensky and Downes were scheduled to make a public appearance Monday evening at Barnes & Noble at Arden Fair, but Kensky's father, longtime Sacramento-area radiologist Dr. Herman Kensky, had wanted the couple to share their story with the children at Shriners. He was in the audience, along with U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui.

The couple met and fell in love in 2012 when Downes, a Boston-area native, was working in Matsui's office and Kensky was also working on Capitol Hill. Matsui reached out to the couple and their families soon after learning they were among those injured in the blasts. She visited them twice while they were undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and has been working with them on legislation that would allow civilians injured in terrorist attacks to access military hospitals with expertise in blast trauma.

Matsui recalled her visit with the couple at Walter Reed: "I got introduced to Rescue at the time, and you could tell the difference in her (Kensky) when Rescue was with her. ... Dogs are very nonjudgmental. They love you, and Rescue was such a smart dog, so well-trained, and that was what she needed."