In her 20 years, Sydney Corcoran has had more health issues than most people will face in a lifetime.
It has been a long journey to recovery since the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, when Corcoran's femoral artery was severed, and a hole was blown through her foot. The Lowell native had survived being hit by a car in 2010, which left her with a skull fracture and a brain bleed. After the bombings, she battled an eating disorder, exacerbated by the trauma of that day.
Still, while the past 2½ years have been unimaginably difficult, Corcoran found a way to survive and thrive. In so doing, she has discovered a new career path along the way.
Sydney's mother, Celeste Corcoran, was gravely injured in the bombings, losing both her legs. Celeste began rehabilitating with Julie Erickson, owner of Endurance Pilates and Yoga Studio in the South End. Erickson had extensive experience working with amputees; her own mother was a diabetic who lost a leg as a result of the disease. One day, Sydney tagged along with her mother, and found the practice to be extremely beneficial for her body, which was left rigid and lacking mobility due to scar tissue. (Sydney says she has lost count of how many surgeries she's been through, but estimates the number to be around 10.)
"It was very restrictive, and certain movements hurt," said Sydney, who could only go up and down the stairs on her rear after the bombing. "Just walking my service dog, that would take its toll on my leg.
"Once I started working out with Jules, it just got so much easier and became more of a habit," she continued. "It really broke down that tissue."
Erickson says pilates, a series of exercises that focuses on flexibility and fortitude, is beneficial for most everyone because it strengthens the body and "builds a suit of armor from within." But she believes the practice is particularly successful for those recovering from injuries.
"You are the machine. These are pieces of apparatus to make your machine more efficient," Erickson said. "You're learning how to use the muscles to support you and move you."
In addition to the injuries she sustained in the explosions, Sydney received treatment for anorexia. Though she says she had struggled with anorexic behaviors since the age of 5, the car accident in 2010 and the 2013 bombings only fanned the flames.
After those traumas, "the eating disorder really reared its head," said Sydney, who refers to anorexia as her "security blanket." "It was that control. I can't really control what happens to me. I can't control someone putting a backpack down, and leaving it, and having it explode. I can't control that person's actions.
"But I could control what I ate, or how my body looked — or I could try. It was like that friend you know is not healthy for you, but you feel like, 'No, I need them though.' They're whispering in your ear, 'What would you do without me?' It was very hard to kick that, and I'm still trying to get rid of that friend. That part of my brain is slowly getting quieter and quieter."
Sydney found a mentor in Erickson, who dealt with food issues of her own when she was a college student. Pilates was a saving grace she needed, improving her confidence, strength, and overall demeanor.
"When I started pilates, that was where my control was. It wasn't over food anymore," Erickson said. "I'm helping Syd get to that point. Physically and mentally, I feel like it's a gift."
Very soon, Erickson saw something special in Sydney that could be put to use as an instructor.
"I kinda had intuition from the get-go that Sydney was very talented," Erickson said. "She got it. I feel like it's kind of a natural progression, and she's kind of a natural giver and a teacher."
Celeste Corcoran has noticed the change in her daughter, as well.
"She's strengthening her body, seeing the good results," she said. "It's giving her a reason to eat and eat properly and regularly — that's something that she will always struggle with. On so many levels, this is helping her mentally and physically."
Sydney has embraced the opportunity. She has since earned her certification as a barre instructor, and will continue her work to become certified in pilates by early spring. But achieving that certification is no easy task. Sydney must undergo a thousand hours of training — observing, doing her own workouts, and teaching classes.
"My confidence has definitely boosted a lot. I'm taking control of my body and saying, we're gonna do this the healthy way," she said. "It feels so elegant and powerful, and just to have that back you feel really empowered. I feel like I lost that, and now I found that again."
Before the Marathon, the Corcoran family thought Sydney's 2010 car accident would be the worst struggle they'd ever go through. Today they're cultivating an unwavering resilience.
"It really just, kind of, opened up all of our eyes and taught us that we can pretty much go through anything," said Sydney. "I definitely feel like I am stronger than before."
The family has since moved into their new, handicapped-accessible home in Dracut. Celeste is back to work part time as a hairdresser on Newbury Street, and Sydney will occasionally head into the city alongside her. Soon, Sydney expects to begin teaching alongside Erickson at Endurance. That's quite a shift from two years ago, when heading into the city to see her doctors at Boston Medical Center would give Sydney crushing panic attacks in the car on the way.
Now, she'll walk over to Boylston Street, the site of the bombings, on her own, and survey the scene.
"I've just stood there, and said, 'I was right here, this is the spot where I was,' " she said. "And maybe, it depends on the day, I might have shed a few tears, and other times, it's acceptance.
"This happened. This is my life now, and that's OK now, or it's starting to be OK."
Megan Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.