JANINE Shepherd should have died 28 years ago.
Her body was broken and paralysed from the waist down. Doctors told her parents to prepare for the worst. Even when she rolled out of hospital in a wheelchair six months later, lucky to be alive, they said she’d never walk again or have children.
“I thought about giving up,” Janine tells news.com.au. “But there was something inside of me that thought, ‘I’ve come back for a reason … I’d better bloody find out what it is.’
“I’m still a partial paraplegic. I still use a catheter. I still have no feeling in my legs. I’ve lost a lot of use of the muscles in my lower extremities,” she says.
But today Janine has three children. She walks, albeit with a distinctive limp. In short, she’s living a life that should have been impossible.
Back in 1986, Janine was one of the world’s best cross country skiers. She was training for the Calgary Winter Olympics, where she hoped to claim Australia’s first ever winter medal.
That dream vanished when Janine was hit by a truck while cycling near the Blue Mountains in NSW.
“I was on a training bike ride with my fellow teammates,” she says. “I was run over by a speeding utility truck.”
Janine’s neck and back were broken in six places. Her right arm and collarbone were fractured, along with five ribs, and her right leg was torn open. She suffered severe internal injuries and lost five litres of blood – the average human body contains less than six.
“I tell people I didn’t have a near-death experience, I had a death experience,” Janine says.
“They told my parents to prepare for the worst,” she says. “I had major spinal surgery, I had an anterior decompression laminectomy. They had to go in, they took out two of my broken ribs, they rebuilt my back and fused it together.”
Janine spent 10 days in intensive care and six months in the hospital’s spinal ward.
“I left hospital six months later in a wheelchair, and nobody knew what the future held for me,” she says. “I had no feeling from the waist down … They told me I had to rethink everything in my life.”
At first, Janine had no idea what to do. Her skiing career was obviously over, but it was all she had ever known.
“I’d been an athlete all my life. My body was my life,” she says.
“I didn’t want anything to do with sport in the area I was in because it was just too painful. I had to create an entirely new life.
“I saw a plane flying above and thought to myself, ‘I can’t walk, so I might was well fly.'”
Janine was lifted into an aircraft for her first flight while still covered in a full body plaster cast. She earned her pilot’s license within a year of the accident. And while her new career took off, so to speak, she forced herself to start walking.
“One thing led to another. I decided I would have to learn to walk again,” she says. “I used to walk around the house holding onto the furniture.
“There are books written about this thing called neuroplasticity. Retraining the brain, retraining muscles.”
Janine became a walking example of neuroplasticity, as her muscles learned to do jobs for which they weren’t originally designed.
A husband, three children and a swag of best-selling books later, Janine is trying harder than ever to help others who have suffered spinal injuries.
“Any of us are vulnerable to this happening,” she says. “It really does take a split second.
“It’s such a devastating injury. Walking is actually a very small part of it. It goes on and on, it’s debilitating,” she says. “It’s not only the physical cost but the emotional cost as a person and an extended family.”
Janine is currently promoting the Wings for Life World Run, a race which has been organised by Red Bull to raise money for research into curing spinal cord injuries.
“It’s a race without a finish line,” she says. On May 4, at 8pm (AEST), participants will start to run simultaneously on up to 40 courses around the world.
“People don’t like to think about spinal cord injury because it’s confronting. It’s also their worst nightmare,” Janine says.
“It’s a matter of raising awareness and getting people thinking about it even though it’s confronting.
“We are so close to finding a cure. All around the world … We just need to keep the awareness up there.”
By SAM CLENCH