A thumbs up. A hug. A toothy grin. A visit from first lady Michelle Obama.

Aaron Hern, the 11-year-old Martinez boy, who was severely injured when a bomb exploded as he watched his mom finish the Boston Marathon three days earlier, could finally do all those things and more Thursday.

A day after a lengthy surgery to seal a shrapnel wound so deep that a bone in his left leg was exposed, Aaron and his sister chatted with the first lady and cuddled stuffed toy dogs she gave them that resemble Bo, the Obama family's Portuguese water dog.

Thursday brought remarkable signs of improvement, with Aaron smiling, talking and even posing for a few pictures with the first lady, who visited Boston Children's Hospital and met privately with several children injured in Monday's explosions.

For the first time since the explosions, Katherine Hern, Aaron's mother, sent a message to family and friends that was mostly positive.

No more breathing tube, no more machines monitoring every breath and every heartbeat. Just an IV.

"Huge step forward," she wrote in a Facebook message that Martinez resident Gay Gerlack sent out to friends and the media. "He may be out of the ICU as early as (Friday). Physical therapy folks came in and started talking about what we have to do there."

Aaron still can't eat and feels nauseous most of the time, but doctors have told the family that will cease in the coming days. He never complains about his leg, which was ripped apart and burned by shrapnel and fire that hit him in the second of two blasts that rocked the marathon.


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But he is asking questions, the first of which was, "Is everyone OK?" He's also starting to piece together the events of a day that was meant to be joyous as he stood near his dad and 10-year-old sister, Abby, to watch his mom cross the finish line.

Katherine Hern was in the final mile of the race when she saw the sidewalk where her family told her they would be light up in smoke and flames, recounted family spokeswoman Sandra Hall, who traveled with the Herns to cheer on Katherine as she ran in Monday's race.

The goal of finishing was immediately replaced by instinct to find her family. So she ran toward the sideline barriers. Her family, she knew, was right there.

As she ran to the mangled and twisted barriers, a police officer yelled at her to "Stop!" She couldn't go through the sea of emergency personnel. Runners were directed to stay on the course, to keep moving forward. Hern told Hall that she was frantic when she crossed the finish line.

Despite having just run 26.2 miles, she bolted to a bus area where Hall and other friends were waiting. Hern grabbed her phone to call her husband, who told her what she feared -- Aaron was hurt.

Hern and Hall ran five blocks to the blast zone. Somehow, they found Hern's husband, Alhambra High School football coach Alan Hern, and Abby amid the chaos.

"How bad is it?" Katherine Hern asked as they hugged.

"It doesn't really hit you, what it's like, when you are there," Hall said of the bombings. "Those kind of things just don't happen in Boston."

The streets were littered with discarded paper, camping chairs and bits of clothing. Only police and those trying to help remained. No car was in sight.

But the Herns had to get to Tufts Medical Center, where they thought emergency responders had taken Aaron. They flagged down a limo driver.

But Aaron wasn't there. He was at Children's Hospital instead.

It was three miles away and the effects of running the race were hitting Katherine Hern. Her legs were cramping and wobbly. Finally, someone offered to drive them to the hospital.

"Aaron was in surgery at that point," Hall said. "And we waited."

Aaron did not wake up that night, and his mom didn't sleep, instead keeping vigil at his bedside. She sent a quick note on Facebook telling family and friends in the Bay Area that Aaron was in intensive care but alive.

Aaron hardly woke the next day. Hern didn't leave his side and barely slept herself. When Aaron occasionally came out of sedation, he had a question for his mom, one that in hindsight seemed appropriate coming from a boy who loves playing sports: Did she finish the race?