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Janine Shepherd: “A Broken Body Is Not a Broken Person”

“The truth is that our strength to overcome physical and emotional challenges has nothing to do with our bodies.”

Every week at The Sunday Paper, we honor an individual who is using their voice, their heart and their mind to Move Humanity Forward. This week, we honor Janine Shepherd as our Architect of Change of the Week.

Janine Shepherd’s lifelong dream of becoming an Olympian was cut short in 1988 when she was hit by a truck while out training with her teammates. Doctors told her she would never walk again, but Janine refused to accept that. She not only learned to walk again, but she also learned to fly — earning her pilot’s license while still in a full body cast. Today, Janine is a best-selling author and speaker who is using her story to raise money for spinal cord research. and remind everyone that a “broken body is not a broken person.”

She shares her story below.

“A Broken Body Is Not a Broken Person”
By Janine Shepherd

Ours is a culture that defines itself by the externals in life. But what would it mean to have one’s life dramatically altered in a moment, and our body irrevocably damaged? If we are forced to learn we are not our bodies, who are we, then?

I’d been an elite skier in training for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. My future as a competitive athlete ended instantly when, on a training bike ride with my teammates, I was run over by a speeding truck, resulting in life-threatening injuries as well as paraplegia.

On the day of the accident, my parents arrived at hospital to the news I would likely not survive the massive bleeding, let alone the extensive trauma. While doctors fought to keep me alive, I watched on from another dimension, uncertain of my desire to return to such a broken body. For reasons I was unsure of at the time, I chose to live.

Around six months after my accident, sitting in my wheelchair, I was immediately uncomfortable with the ‘new’ doctor I was scheduled to see to discuss my rehabilitation as a spinal patient.

“Janine, you seem to be doing well with your recovery so I think this would be a good a time as any to discuss the impact your disability will have on future sexual function.”

To say I was caught off-guard would be an understatement. I was a 24-year-old woman and he a 50-something year-old man. Such a sensitive subject was not part of rehab I was willing to discuss under these circumstances.

“Isn’t there a female doctor I can talk to?” I asked. Unfortunately, there was not.

“I am not suggesting you won’t have a sex life, indeed sexual gratification can take many forms, emotional as well as physical.   But with your level of spinal cord injury…well, it will be unlikely that you will be able to have the…er…the ‘Big O’ again.”

Humiliated and embarrassed, I fought back both outrage and tears.  How much more loss could I handle?

That night, as I lay in bed, I replayed the doctor’s conversation over and over and began to question the decision to come back to my body. I had lost everything I valued in life; now it seemed, my sense of womanhood was in question, too.

My once strong and capable body was gone forever and in its place, I was left with a body that I hated. Encased in a plaster body cast, I repeatedly tormented myself with the unanswerable question of “Why?”

I pulled myself to the edge of my bed and allowed my body to fall to the ground. Sobbing, I clasped my hands together in prayer and spoke aloud to the darkness.

“Please God,” I begged, ‘show me a way through this, or show me a way out.”

And then I let go.

Today, as I reflect on my ten days in ‘death,’ I see it as a gift. For it gave me a profound understanding of who I am, and my purpose in life.

This is what I know for sure: When we are stripped of everything we believe defines who we are, there is nowhere to hide. Naturally, we ask the question, ‘Ok, if I am not those things, then who am I?”

For me, the answer to that question was clear: I was not my body and no amount of happiness and contentment could ever come from attaching my sense of worth to something that could be taken from me.

This insight, and knowing that it had been my choice alone to return to my physical body, gave me a sense of purpose for my future. This might not be the life I had planned, but I was not going to squander the precious second chance I had been given.

Loosening my grip on the future I was ‘supposed’ to have was an invitation to embark on the most creative undertaking, that of recreating a life. And for me, it happened in a quite remarkable way.

Recovering at home, and sitting outside in my wheelchair, I watched a small plane fly overhead. In that moment, I thought, If I can’t walkthen maybe I can fly!

Just days later, I smiled to myself as I was lifted into a small aircraft— still encased in a full body cast. Once airborne, I was overcome with such joy that it was impossible to contain my excitement. I was going to learn to fly!

While to this day I’m a “walking paraplegic,” I defied the odds and became a commercial pilot and aerobatics-flying instructor. I launched a career as an author and speaker, and despite being told I would probably never have children, I am the proud mother of three.

I know now that it wasn’t until I was willing to let go of my old life that I could even envision the extraordinary possibilities of a new one. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu would say, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be”

Letting go of our attachment to how we think our lives should unfold is the first step through loss and disappointment and into healing.

The truth is that our strength to overcome physical and emotional challenges has nothing to do with our bodies. For you can lose anything in life—jobs, relationships, body function— but the defiant human spirit remains steadfast. All you have to do is recognize and embrace it, and then you see it in everyone.

That is how we become unstoppable.  That is the essence of Defiance.

‘When the heart mourns for what it has lost, the spirit rejoices for what it has left.’ – Sufi epigram

Janine Shepherd is the author of the new book “Defiant: A Broken Body Is Not a Broken Person.”