"There's a lot of things to think about that I never had to think about before," Heather Abbott tells PEOPLE
Credit: Courtesy Natasha Dickenson

Heather Abbott is a self-described “professional heel wearer.” The higher the better.

But if you lost your left leg below the knee in the Boston Marathon bombing, as Abbott did in 2013, wearing four-inch stilettos can be a real problem.

Thanks, however, to a combination of good insurance from her human resources job and a gofundme.com page that raised almost $200,000, Abbott, 41, is able to wear her favorite Michael Kors or Nine West shoes whenever she wants now (she owns close to 50 pairs of pumps). Her $70,000 “high-heel leg” – one of six prosthetics she owns – looks just like her other leg right down to the skin tone, freckles, and crease marks on the heel.

“If I didn’t have a leg that looked like mine own,” she says, “I don’t know if I would have recovered as well.”

But most amputees aren’t so lucky. Even basic prosthetic limbs can cost tens of thousands of dollars and most insurance companies will only pay for one, if that, so Abbott is paying it forward.

“It’s upsetting to me that there are other men and women out there that don’t have a leg that looks like their own leg or are limited with what they can do,” says the founder of the Heather Abbott Foundation, nothing that her own legs have cost more than $200,000 and they have to be replaced every four years or so.

On the eve of last year’s marathon, Abbott started a fundraising foundation to help others who’d lost limbs to lead full and active lives. This year, in addition to another fundraiser Sunday night, she’ll be cheering on her team of runners with their “Limb-It-Less” t-shirts from the first floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel right at the finish line of the marathon on Monday.

Including the $60,000 from her marathoners’ efforts, the foundation has raised more than $250,000 to date and provided special prosthetics to two people – a 26-year-old Boston woman who’s never been able to wear high heels in her life until now, and an 8-year-old girl from Somerset, Massachusetts, who received a high-impact prosthetic for soccer after losing her leg in a lawnmower accident at age 2. Another four people are waiting to receive their prosthetics.

“The foundation is a testament to Heather and her perseverance,” says one of her closest friends, Michelle Dalrymple. “She took something that most people would look at as an obstacle and turned it into something positive by creating the foundation. Her story and what she went through resonated with a lot of people across the country.”

A resident of Newport, Rhode Island, Abbott was with Dalrymple and another friend trying to get into the Forum Restaurant to watch the runners finish the marathon when the first bomb went off. Before she even had time to make sense of the situation, the second blast blew her through the front entrance and ripped apart her left foot.

Three surgeries followed in four days to try to save her leg, but they were unsuccessful and she had to make the decision she feared most.

“There almost wasn’t a choice because of the way the doctors described my life if I kept the foot,” says Abbott, who still is able to run and paddleboard thanks to two special prosthetics. “I couldn’t imagine having a life where I really couldn’t do anything. I really never doubted the decision.”

Not that she didn’t have her struggles afterward, like the time the doorbell rang and she hopped up out of bed to answer it and fell flat on her face, forgetting she was missing part of her left leg.

“The ease of life is kind of gone in a lot of respects to have to rely on a prosthetic device to do everything,” she says. “There’s a lot of things to think about that I never had to think about before.”

Through it all, Abbott has gained a new appreciation for what people with disabilities have to go through.

“The best part has been creating the foundation and helping a community of people I never thought about before,” she says. “I never considered what some of the challenges might be for amputees.”