“Man is so made that when anything fires his soul, impossibilities vanish.” – Jean de la Fontaine
It was the perfect autumn day: Sunshine, the smell of eucalypt and a dream. Janine Shepherd, a cross-country skier and a member of Australian ski team, had been at the Blue Mountains, Sydney for training bike ride for the upcoming 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. It was a perfect day with an envisioned dream. The success wasn’t far enough, she was happy as everything was going perfectly… and then it happened. The life upturned and changed everything. She was hit by a speeding utility truck. It wasn’t one of those minor accidents, it was an incident which paralysed her body, her life and most importantly her dream. Her nerves broken down, the malfunctioning body was trying hard to contain her soul. She was airlifted from the scene to a large spinal unit in Sydney. Injuries were uncountable, entire right side of the body was ripped off, rib bone, collarbone, right arm bones, bones in her feet, alas!
In her own words:
For over 10 days, I drifted between two dimensions. I had an awareness of being in my body, but also being out of my body, somewhere else, watching from above as if it was happening to someone else. Why would I want to go back to a body that was so broken?
But this voice kept calling me: “Come on, stay with me.”
“No. It’s too hard.”
“Come on. This is our opportunity.”
“No. That body is broken. It can no longer serve me.”
“Come on. Stay with me. We can do it. We can do it together.”
After 10 days the bleeding stopped. She was paralysed from the waist down. They said to her parents, the neck break was a stable fracture, but the back was completely crushed. She was operated. They literally stitched her up, like you stitch a broken doll, cut in half, her parts collected and fused together. The operation had been a success because she could feel her toes! She was happy, because her dreams could finally be considered into, until
“Janine, the operation was a success, and we’ve picked as much bone out of your spinal cord as we could, but the damage is permanent. The central nervous system nerves, there is no cure. You’re what we call a partial paraplegic, and you’ll have all of the injuries that go along with that. You have no feeling from the waist down, and at most, you might get 10- or 20-percent return. You’ll have internal injuries for the rest of your life. You’ll have to use a catheter for the rest of your life. And if you walk again, it will be with callipers and a walking frame.” And then she said, “Janine, you’ll have to rethink everything you do in your life because you’re never going to be able to do the things you did before.”
It was over… The dream was over, the only good thing was the life wasn’t over yet. She still had her greatest weapons, determination, intrepidity and will power which kept her going. She had two choices left, either keep fighting or let go and accept the circumstances. She was then told that she would be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, and would never bear children. Her question “Why me? Why me?” soon changed into “Why not me? Maybe being at rock bottom is the perfect place to start all over again.”
What followed was the “rebuilding life project”. She decided if she couldn’t walk, why not fly? With hopes, courage and will, she started exploring life’s infinite possibilities and later she literally started flying. With the stages of walking with two people holding her up, then one person supporting her, to walking with furniture support, she started growing from square one and made great progress. Eventually, she learnt walking again and in no time she started flying aeroplanes.
She was determined to defy the predictions set by her doctors and succeeded in doing so. While still remaining a partial paraplegic, she was ultimately able to walk again and has three children. She gained her pilot’s license within a year of the accident and went on to gain a Commercial pilot’s licence, an instructor’s license. She also became the first female director of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
“And then I thought, “Why stop there? Why not learn to fly upside down?” And I did, and I learned to fly upside down and became an aerobatics flying instructor. And Mom and Dad? Never been up. But then I knew for certain that although my body might be limited, it was my spirit that was unstoppable.”
Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Informer
“I know that I’m not my body, and I also know that you’re not yours. And then it no longer matters what you look like, where you come from, or what you do for a living. All that matters is that we continue to fan the flame of humanity by living our lives as the ultimate creative expression of who we really are.”
Newspapers read ”Janine Shepherd should have died 28 years ago…”
Janine Shepherd has written five books about her experiences. The first, Never Tell Me Never was made into a successful telemovie. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Human Movement/Education.
She was a torchbearer at the 2000 Summer Paralympics in Sydney.
Shepherd is an ambassador for Spinal Cure Australia and has been awarded her country’s highest civilian honour, The Order of Australia, for her service to the community, her inspiration and her work in raising awareness of spinal cord research.
In 1998, Shepherd was also awarded the title of an Outstanding Young Persons of the World, one of ten young people recognised annually by the Junior Chamber International. Her story has appeared on Australian ’60 minutes’, This is Your Life and ABC’s ‘Talking Heads’.
Shepherd’s TEDx talk in Kansas City, ‘A Broken Body isn’t a Broken Person‘, has been viewed millions of times.
She runs her own website “Janine Shepherd” and newsletter now, publishing many books on her life experience. A speaker, an author, a change agent is on the motivational speaking circuit and currently, resides in Wyoming USA.