Janine Shepherd: The Power of Defiance
Janine Shepherd – Build A Better You
Janine Shepherd’s story is nothing short of incredible. While training for the Olympics, Janine was struck by a massive truck and sustained life-threatening injuries to her neck, back and head. Here she delivers a powerful speech on how she rehabilitated her broken body and broken spirit to defy the odds and achieve the impossible. Janine’s story reminds us that we are not limited by our bodies but by our spirit to overcome the odds and win.
I lived in death for 10 days. I was on a training bike ride with my fellow teammates, headed for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. As we made our way up to the beautiful, blue mountains West of Sidney, it was the perfect Autumn day. We’d been on our bikes for around five and a half hours, and we got to the part of the ride that I loved, and that was the hills because I loved the hills.
I looked up to see the sun shining in my face. And then everything went black. Where was I? What was happening? My body was consumed by pain. I’d been hit by a speeding truck, with only 10 minutes to go on the bike ride. I was airlifted from the scene of the accident. I’d broken my neck, and my back in six places. My whole right side was ripped open and filled with gravel. My head was cut open across the front, lifted back, exposing the skull underneath.
I had head injuries. I had internal injuries, and I had massive blood loss. For 10 days, I drifted between two dimensions. I was in the fight of my life. After 10 days, I made the choice to return to my body. And when I did, the massive internal bleeding miraculously stopped. The next question was whether I would walk again, because I was paralyzed from the waist down.
I woke up in Intensive Care to the news that the operation had been a success. Because at that point, I had a little bit of movement in one of my big toes. And I thought, great, ’cause I’m going to the Olympics. But then the doctor came over and said to me matter of factly, Janine, the operation was a success, but the damage is permanent. The central nervous system nerves and there is no cure.
So although we think you may get some feeling back from the waist down, you’ll have internal injuries for the rest of your life. You will have to use a catheter. And if you walk again, it will be with calipers, and a walking frame. You’re going to have to rethink everything you do in your life because you are never going to be able to do the things you did before.
I was an athlete. My body was everything. If I couldn’t do that, if I wasn’t that then, who was I? After almost six months, it was time to leave the spinal ward. I was in a wheel chair, and a plaster body cast, and all i wanted to do was to go home and get my life back and learn how to walk. But the head nurse at the hospital had said Janine, I want you to be ready because when you get home, something is going to happen.
And she said, you’re going to get depressed. I said not me. Not Janine the machine. She said it happens to everybody. I was in a wheel chair. A plaster body cast, attached to a catheter bottle. I had no feeling from the waist down. I wanted my life back, I wanted to put my running shoes on and run out the door, but I couldn’t. And I got depressed. And there were days when I didn’t want to get out of bed, and days when I didn’t get out of bed.
And I can remember my mom sitting on bed and we were both crying, and she said I wonder if life will ever be good again, and I thought how could it, because I’ve lost everything that I valued. And I realized that this wasn’t just my accident. This wasn’t just my pain, this was our pain. And when I did that, I stopped asking why me, and I began to ask why not me. And when I did that, I let go, and my whole world changed.
At home, sitting outside in my plaster body cast, an airplane flew over my house. And in that moment, my eyes and my mind were open. And I looked up, and I thought well that’s it. If I can’t walk, then I might as well fly. So, weeks later my mom and my friend Chris, they bought me a pair of baggy overalls, and they drove me to the local airport. Banks town Airport, and they carried me in, and I held on to the counter, because I couldn’t even stand on my own.
I said I’m here for my flying lesson, and they ran out the back to draw short straws. Oh my God! And this guy came out, Andrew, and he said hi, I’m gonna take you flying. I said great. So they put me in the car and they drove me down to the tarmac. And there on the tarmac was a red, white, and blue airplane. I’d never seen anything so beautiful before. They lifted me up into the aircraft. They put me in the front seat.
Andrew got in the front, Chris got in the back. They did my seatbelt up. He got a clearance from the tower, and he took off down the runway. And as the wheels lifted off the runway, I felt the most incredible sense of freedom. And then, as we flew over the training area of Banks town Airport, Andrew said to me, he said right. You see those mountains over there? And I said yes, as I looked towards the blue mountains West of Sidney, where my journey had begun.
And he said, you take the controls, and you head towards those mountains, and I did. And I was flying. And I knew right then that I was gonna be a pilot. I didn’t know how though that I’d ever pass a medical, but that didn’t matter because I had a dream and nothing was going to stop me. All I could do in the beginning was lie on the ground and lift my legs this far. Maybe an inch, but it was better than nothing. And I practiced my walking as much as I could.
And I went from the point of two people holding me up, to one person holding me up. To the point where I could walk around the house holding onto the furniture as long as it wasn’t too far apart. To the point where I could walk around the house holding onto the walls, like this. And mom said she was forever following me, wiping off my fingerprints. So while the doctors continued to put my body back together again, I went on with my theory study.
And then amazingly, eventually, I passed my pilot’s medical. And I spent … Yeah. And I spent every moment I could out of the flying school, where all these young guys wanted to be Quanta’s pilot. And then there was little old hop along me, and I had my bag of medication, and catheters, and my funny walk and they would look at me and think, who is she kidding. She’s never going to be able to do this, and sometimes I thought that too, but there was something inside of me that was burning so bright that said don’t stop. And eventually, I learned to fly.
I went for my first solo, and I got my private pilots license. And then, I learned to navigate. I flew around Australia, and I got my unrestricted private pilots license. And then, I learned to fly in bad weather as well as fine weather and I got my instrument rating. And then, I got my commercial pilot’s license. And then, I got my instructor rating. And then, I found myself at that same school, where I’d gone for that very first flight, teaching other people how to fly.
In just over 12 months, after I’d left the spinal ward. I wasn’t meant to live, I wasn’t meant to walk, and I wasn’t meant to fly. Our bodies may be limited, but it’s our spirit that’s unstoppable. I now know that it wasn’t ’til I let go of who I thought I was, that I had the freedom to create something completely new for my life. It wasn’t ’til I let go of the life I though I was supposed to have, that I’d worked so hard for that I was able to embrace the possibilities that waited for me.
I now know that my real strength never came from my body. Unlike anything I could lose in life, the defiant human spirit remains steadfast. And of this I’m certain. I am not my body. And you, my dear friends, are not yours. When you choose courage in the face of fear, you defy the things that hold you back from greatness. It’s a daunting task. And you might well ask where do I begin? Where do I start? Well perhaps the simple words of this poem might offer a clue.
He said to build a better world. I said I would, but how? The world is such a cold, dark place and complicated now. For I am small and helpless, there’s nothing I can do. He said, of course there is, just build a better you.