Blue Skies & Tailwinds

Posted on in Healthy Living by Janine Shepherd

If I Can’t Walk, I’ll Fly


Acountry road, a lone cyclist, and a reckless driver combined to create a moment in time on May 31, 1986, that changed a life forever. I always pushed myself to the limit, both physically and mentally. As the top performer in the Australian National Cross-Country Ski Team, I had found my sport. It was as if I’d been born for it. I was confident in my ability and excited at the prospect of representing Australia in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Training events like that day’s bike ride would help me start the upcoming season in top physical shape.

Committed to making each training day count until then, I dug deep and pushed fatigue aside to tackle the challenging grades of the ride. I stood in the pedals and pumped my legs, determined to lead the group. I sucked in the cold air, lifted my head, and relished the sun shining on my face.

Then, everything went black.

The initial medical finding was a broken back and neck. X-rays revealed I had six broken vertebrae, the most severe fracture being L1, in my lower back. There were fractures in my right arm and collarbone. I had five broken ribs on my left side and several broken bones in my feet. I had also sustained serious head injuries. Contusions to my kidneys. Extensive lacerations to my abdominal area and my right leg. The focal point of impact—where the truck struck my lower back and buttocks—was covered with a massive hematoma. Hip and leg muscles had been torn away.

Because my spinal cord had been partially severed as well as crushed, certain key nerves were damaged beyond repair. The resulting loss of both neurological function in my muscles and sensation in the lower half of my body had rendered me—in medical parlance—a partial paraplegic.

Uncertain about the prognosis, the doctors couldn’t yet predict the extent of expected recovery. They were careful not to get my hopes up. But on one point they were clear: whatever recovery I achieved within the next two years would be the ultimate extent of nerve function and improvement in mobility. Given this sliver of hope, I was convinced that with enough hard work, I could retrain my nerves and muscles to function as they had before.

Before my accident I had never thought of myself as an inventive person, but now I was about to embark on the most creative project any of us could ever undertake—rebuilding my life. Even though I had no idea what to do next, I was certain of one thing: I had hit rock bottom, and the pain of holding on to my former incarnation as a competitive athlete was too much to bear. Young and with my whole adult life ahead of me, I had to find something to replace what I had lost in my accident.

woman is flying

One afternoon while sitting outside, I heard the sound of a small plane and stopped midsentence to watch it pass overhead. As it disappeared into the distance, I was struck with the most unlikely idea. “I can’t walk properly, so why not fly?” I hadn’t the faintest idea what I might be getting myself into, but the vision of flying intrigued me.

Up to and including the day of my accident, I had built my entire world—and importantly, my circle of friends—around sports, defining myself through my excellence as a competitive athlete. Once I surrendered to accepting the extent of my injuries, there could be no return to the athletic world. While I didn’t know if aviation would provide the foundation for beginning my life anew, one thing was certain: for someone with my physical limitations, training as a pilot certainly would be far removed from my present state.

We reached 3,000 feet as we arrived over an area designated for student training. The sky was dazzlingly clear, and I could see all the way to the distant horizon. As I focused on keeping the plane “straight and level,” I was struck by the plane’s sensitivity to any movement in response to my control input. More than that, though, I was absolutely giddy about piloting an airplane for the first time. What a thrill!

I continued to fly toward the mountain as my flight teacher instructed. I was so intent that it took me a bit before I recognized the irony of my aim point. I’d been directed to steer the aircraft toward the Blue Mountain Range, the very place where I’d had my accident! It dawned on me how incredible this moment was and the special significance of what was intended to be a simple introductory flight lesson. I was elated, nearly to the point of tears, and for the time being, any concerns for my recovery seemed as far away as that mountain.

After months of hearing so many medical experts, well-meaning friends, and counselors tell me what I could and couldn’t do, I had discovered the one thing that I wanted to do. I put my head back, took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. “Thank you,” I whispered. Relief and gratitude washed over me.

Janine Shepherd is an inspirational speaker and writer whose books have become classics in the survivor genre. Her TED Talk, “A Broken Body Isn’t a Broken Person,” has received more than a million views. Adapted from the Defiant: A Broken Body Is Not a Broken Person © 2016 by Janine Shepherd, coming November 2016 from Sounds True.

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