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Photo courtesy of John Tlumacki  / Boston Globe

The Ignatian Society Hosts Patrick Downes: A True Man for Others

During his Boston College days, Patrick Downes lived his life like most other students. He studied psychology, was an orientation and Kairos leader, and frequented the Mods. Patrick also, like many other BC students, spent Marathon Monday lined up on Commonwealth Ave, cheering on runners at Mile 21. After watching incredible people run by him freshman, sophomore, and junior year, enough was enough, and his senior year he finally said, “damn [I] gotta do it,” and completed the marathon in 2005. Little did he know, his future wife, unknown to him at the time, would be running that same marathon. Patrick put great emphasis on the tradition of the marathon. “Marathon Monday is special,” he said, “it is a day about community and cheering for others.” This energy and spirit can be felt by all BC students on Patriot’s Day.

Patrick became a double eagle after graduating BC High in 2001 and graduating BC in 2005. The Jesuit tradition and phrase, “men and women for others,” really resonated with him, and that is the spirit that he brought to students and staff in the Murray function room on the cold evening of March 19. Patrick was the speaker for the Ignatian Society’s inaugural AMDG lecture. He came to speak about the day that changed the life of his wife, Jessica Kensky, and his own life forever.

During the 2013 Boston Marathon, only several months since the two exchanged wedding vows, Jessica and Patrick became two of the hundreds injured during the Boston bombings. Although Patrick does not remember much from the attack, during his lecture he talked about his wife, an oncology nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital, who jumped into action and used her purse strap to make a tourniquet for Patrick. “[She’s] always a nurse,” he said laughing.

As Patrick flipped through photographs on a slide show accompanying his lecture, he showed a picture of him and his wife lying next to each other in hospital beds, sharing a kiss, having spent two weeks apart after receiving treatment at different hospitals. The photo differed drastically from a photo he had displayed at the beginning of the presentation. It was of him and Jessica holding hands, laughing in Harvard Square during their engagement photo shoot. Jessica was in a red dress and high heels, and had a smile from ear to ear. Patrick described how “free they felt” and acknowledged how so much could change from that engagement moment to the moment when they were lying next to each other in hospital beds.

Change was a central theme of Patrick’s lecture. He focused on how to accept change, whether good or bad, and how to continue on with living after a traumatic event. For Patrick and Jessica, the change they experienced was the furthest from easy. Due to the severity of their injuries, they both required the amputation of one leg and after a grueling 18 months of surgeries and treatment, Jessica went to Walter Reed Hospital in D.C. to get her other leg amputated. Patrick tried his best to stay positive during these times, but he did note that “not being there for Jess was hard.” The events of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings changed their lives in ways beyond their physical amputations. During the lecture, Patrick talked about the difficulties of simply getting out of bed in the morning. He emphasized that sometimes on the hardest days, you just have to “decide to wake up and give it a go.” Through all of this change, however, he has learned how to appreciate what his body can still do.

Throughout all of this change, Patrick has also gained an appreciation for the incredible support system around him and his wife, and he learned about the difficulties that people with disabilities have to face in this country.  

The support that Patrick and Jessica have received stretches beyond their immediate family. From the moment the bombs went off, strangers rushed toward them, endangering themselves in order to help a fellow citizen. Patrick talked about the amazing doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and other hospital personnel who aided them. He also emphasized the importance of having the support of other people who were injured during the bombings – Jessica calls them their 'Boylston family.' “We have this amazing city around us,” Patrick said, and those people “help make life out of trauma.” He focused on conveying the importance of both receiving support and giving support– that is what it means to be a man and woman for others.

Patrick expressed to the audience the significance of giving support for those with disabilities. He described some of the people he met during rehabilitation – many of them were war veterans who had lost multiple limbs. “I love those guys, I just love them,” said Patrick. Through meeting them, he realized the difference between war and the military. He learned that you can despise the war and the political situation, but you still have to have honor and respect those who are willing to fight. He calls them “living patriots” and believes that there is no better day to celebrate them than on Patriot’s Day. Now, every year during Marathon Monday, veterans being rehabilitated get to come to Boston and see the runners cross the marathon finish line. In addition to the celebration of these veterans, Patrick and Jessica want to also raise awareness about disabilities through their new children’s book Rescue and Jessica. The book is about the “joy of a girl and her dog” and that someone with prosthetics can still have fun and be athletic – it is based off of Jessica and her beloved service dog Rescue, who has helped Jessica immensely through her healing process.

What happened to Jessica and Patrick during the Boston bombings in 2013 is almost unimaginable, but because of their spirit and love for each other, they have been able to turn the damage into healing. Since the attack, Patrick has become a motivational speaker; it is “unique and very humbling,” Patrick said. Through the support of workers at Mass General, who have collected and donated paid work hours, Jessica has been able to return to work as a nurse two days a week, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in nursing by means of a scholarship from Mass General. The two of them completed the marathon, side by side, on hand cycles in 2014 and Patrick ran the marathon on a prosthetic in 2016.

Through the difficulties that faced him and his wife, Patrick developed an even deeper appreciation for his Jesuit education. His life experiences after the bombings put into perspective what it means to be a man or woman for others. It helped him with relationships, making connections, and giving and receiving support from those around him. And in a world filled with so much darkness sometimes, he feels that “love and belonging has a sense of power and that is more than hate.”

After an incredible and emotional lecture, Patrick received a standing ovation.

Patrick said that his plans in the future are to work on and promote his and Jessica’s new book, work with veterans and children, and continue to be a motivational speaker. “I don’t want to just stick with one thing,” he laughed.

Patrick left BC not knowing what to expect in the year following graduation, but he took what he learned through his Jesuit education and truly became a person for others.

Couldn't go to school down south because I love the snow too much. I have so many plants in my dorm I'm basically living in a garden. And if you spot me on campus I'm probably in an oversized sweatshirt.