You are not your body: Janine Shepherd at TEDxKC

Translator: Amira Moreno
Reviewer: Diba Szamosi Life is about opportunities,
creating them, and embracing them and for me that was the Olympic dream, that’s what defined me, that was my bliss. As a cross-country skier and a member
of the Australian ski team headed toward the Winter Olympics, I was on a training bike ride
with my fellow teammates. As we made our way up
towards the spectacular Blue Mountains west of Sydney it was the perfect autumn day: sunshine, the smell of eucalypt,
and a dream. Life was good. We’d been on our bikes
around five and a half hours when we got to the part
of the ride that I loved, and that was the hills,
because I loved the hills. And I got up off the seat of my bike and I started pumping my legs
and as I sucked in the cold mountain air, I could feel it burning my lungs and 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 utility truck with only 10 minutes
to go on the bike ride. I was airlifted from the scene
of the accident by a rescue helicopter
to a large spinal unit in Sydney. I had extensive
and life threatening injuries. I’d broken my neck
and my back in six places. I broke five ribs on my left side,
I broke my right arm, I broke my collarbone,
I broke some bones in my feet. My whole right side
was ripped open filled with gravel. My head was cut open across the front, lifted back,
exposing the skull underneath. I had head injuries, internal injuries,
I had massive blood loss. In fact, I lost about 5 liters of blood which is all someone my size
would actually hold. By the time the helicopter arrived
to Prince Henry Hospital in Sydney, my blood pressure was forty over nothing. I was having a really bad day. (Laughter) 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.” I was at a crossroads. I knew if I didn’t return to my body,
I’d have to leave this world forever. It was the fight of my life. After 10 days, I made the decision
to return to my body, and the internal bleeding stopped. The next concern
was weather I would walk again because I was paralyzed
from the waist down. They said to my parents,
the neck break was a stable fracture, but the back was completely crushed. The vertebra at L1 was like
you’d dropped a peanut, stepped on it, and smashed it
into thousands of pieces. They’d have to operate. They went in, they put me on a bean bag, they cut me, literally cut me in half. I have a scar that wraps around
my entire body. They picked as much broken bone
as they could that had lodged in my spinal cord. They took out two of my broken ribs,
and they rebuilt my back, L1. They rebuilt it. They took out another broken rib. They fused T12, L1, and L2 together,
then they stitched me up. They took an entire hour to stitch me up. I woke up in intensive care and the doctors were really excited
that the operation had been a success because at that stage, I had a little bit
of movement in one of my big toes and I thought, “Great!
Because I’m going to the Olympics!” (Laughter) I had no idea. That’s the sort of thing
that happens to someone else! Not me, surely. But then the doctor came over
to me and she said, “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% return. You’ll have internal injures
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 calipers 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.” I tried to grasp what she was saying. I was an athlete.
That’s all I knew, that’s all I’d done, if I couldn’t do that,
then what could I do? And the question I asked myself is:
if I couldn’t do that, then who was I? They moved me from intensive care
to acute spinal. I was lying on a thin, hard spinal bed.
I had no movement in my legs. I had tight stocking on
to protect from blood clots. I had one arm in plaster,
one arm tied down by drips. I had a neck brace and sand bags
on either side of my head, and I saw my world through a mirror that was suspended above my head. I shared the ward with five other people and the amazing thing is that because we were all lying paralyzed
in the spinal ward we didn’t know
what each other looked like. How amazing is that? How often in life do you get to make
friendships judgement free, purely based on spirit? And there no superficial conversations, as we shared our innermost thoughts,
our fears, and our hopes for life
after the spinal ward. I remember one night,
one of the nurses came in, Jonathan, with a whole lot of plastic straws. He put a pile on top of each of us,
and he said, “Start threading them together.” Well, there wasn’t much else to do
in the spinal ward, so we did. And when we’d finished,
he went around silently and he joined all of the straws up till it looped around the whole ward and then he said,
“Okay everybody, hold on to your straws.” And we did. And he said, “Right.
Now we are all connected.” And as we held on and we breathed as one, we knew we weren’t on this journey alone. And even lying paralyzed
in the spinal ward, there were moments of incredible depth and richness,
of authenticity and connection, that I had never experienced before. And each of us knew
that when we left the spinal ward, we would never be the same. After six months, it was time to go home. I remember dad pushing me outside
in my wheelchair wrapped in a plaster body cast and feeling the sun on my face
for the first time. I soaked it up and I thought, “How could I ever have taken this
for granted?” I felt so incredibly grateful for my life. But before I left hospital,
the head nurse had said to me, “Janine, I want you to be ready
because when you get home something is going to happen.” And I said, “What?” She said, “You’re going to get depressed.” And I said, “Not me, not
‘Janine the machine'” which was my nickname. She said “You are. Because, see,
it happens to everyone. In the spinal ward, that’s normal. You’re in a wheelchair, that’s normal. But you’re going to get home
and realize how different life is.” And I got home, and something happened. I realized Sister Sam was right. I did get depressed. I was in my wheelchair,
I had no feeling from the waist down, attached to a catheter bottle,
I couldn’t walk. I’d lost so much weight in hospital,
I now weighed about 80 pounds. And I wanted to give up. All I wanted to do was
put my running shoes on and run out the door. I wanted my old life back.
I wanted my body back. And I could remember mum
sitting on the end of my bed and saying, “I wonder if life
will ever be good again?” And I thought, “How could it? Because I’ve lost everything
that I valued, everything that I’d worked towards…
gone.” And the question I asked was:
Why me? Why me? And then I remembered
my friends that were still in the spinal ward. Particularly Maria. Maria was in a car accident
and she woke up on her 16th birthday to the news
that she was a complete quadriplegic, had no movement from the neck down, had damage to her vocal cords
and she couldn’t talk. They told me, “We are going to move you
next to her because we think it will be good to her.” I was worried. I didn’t know
how I’d react being next to her. I knew it would be challenging,
but it was actually a blessing because Maria always smiled. She was always happy,
and even when she began to talk again, albeit difficult to understand, she never complained. Not once. And I wondered how had she ever
found that level of acceptance? And I realized
that this wasn’t just my life. It was life itself. I realized that this wasn’t just my pain,
it was everybody’s pain. And then I knew, just like before,
that I had a choice. I could keep fighting this
or I could let go and accept not only my body,
but the circumstances of my life. And then I stopped asking, “Why me?” and I started to ask, “Why not me?” And then I thought to myself
maybe being at rock bottom is actually the perfect place to start. I had never before thought
of myself as a creative person. I was an athlete, my body was a machine. But now, I was about to embark
on the most creative project any of us could ever do. That of rebuilding a life. And even though I had absolutely
no idea what I was going to do, in that uncertainty,
came a sense of freedom. I was no longer tied to a set path. I was free to explore
life’s infinite possibilities. And that realization
was about to change my life. Sitting at home, in my wheelchair
and my plaster body cast, an airplane flew overhead and I looked up and I thought to myself, “That’s it! If I can’t walk,
then I might as well fly!” I said, “Mum, I’m going to learn
how to fly!” She said, “That’s nice, dear.” (Laughter) I said, “Pass me the yellow pages.” She passed me the phone book,
I rang up the flying school, I made a booking, said, “I’d like to make
a booking to come out for a flight.” They said, “When do you want to come out?” I said, “Well I have to get
a friend to drive me out because I can’t drive, haha,
sort of can’t walk either, ha. Is that a problem?” I made a booking,
and weeks later my friend Chris and my mom drove me out to the airport. All 80 pounds of me, covered in a plaster body cast
and a baggy pair of overalls. I can tell you I did not look
like the ideal candidate to get a pilot’s license. (Laughter) I’m holding onto the counter
because I can’t stand. I said, “Hi!
I’m here for a flying lesson.” And they took one look and ran out
the back to draw short straws. “You get her!” “No, no! You take her!” Finally this guy comes out, “Hi! I’m Andrew
and I’m going to take you flying.” I go, “Great!” So they drive me down. They get me out on the tarmac, and there was this red,
white, and blue airplane. It was beautiful! They lifted me into the cockpit. They had to slide me up
on the wing, put me in the cockpit. They sat me down. There were buttons and dials everywhere. I’m going, “Wow! How do you ever know
what all these buttons and dials do?” Andrew the instructor got in the front;
started the airplane up, he said, “Would you like
to have a go at taxiing?” That’s when you use your feet
to control the rudder pedals to control the airplane on the ground. I said, “No. Ha ha, I can’t use my legs.” He went, “Oh.” I said,
“But I can use my hands.” And he said, “Okay.” So he got over to the runway,
and he applied the power. And as we took off down the runway, and the wheels lifted up off the tarmac,
and we became airborne I had the most incredible
sense of freedom. And Andrew said to me,
as we got over the training area, “You see that mountain over there?” And I said, “Yeah?” And he said, “Well you take the controls,
and you fly towards that mountain.” And as I looked up,
I realized that he was pointing towards the Blue Mountains, where the journey had begun. And I took the controls, and I was flying, and I was a long,
long way from that spinal ward. And I knew right then
that I was going to be a pilot. Didn’t know how I’d ever pass
a medical, puff, but I’d worry about that later
because right now I had a dream! So I went home, I got a training
diary out, and I had a plan. And I practiced my walking
as much as I could. And I went from the point
of like two people holding me up, to one person holding me up, to the point where I could walk
around the furniture, as long as it wasn’t too far apart, and then I made great progression
to the point where I could walk around the house
holding onto the walls like this, and mum said
she was forever following me wiping off my fingerprints. (Laughter) But at least she always knew where I was. (Laughter) So while the doctors continued to operate, and put my body back together again, I went on with my theory study, and then eventually and amazingly,
I passed my pilot’s medical. And that was my green light to fly. And I spend every moment I could out of that flying school
way out of my comfort zone, all these young guys that wanted to be Qantas pilots and, you know,
little, old hop-along me in first my plaster cast,
and then my steel brace, my baggy overalls, my bag of medication
and catheters, and my limp. And they used to look at me and think, “Oh! Who is she kidding?
She is never going to be able to do this!” And sometimes I thought that too. But that didn’t matter because now there was something
inside that burned that far outweighed my injuries. And little goals
kept me going along the way. And eventually I got
my private pilot’s license, and then I learned to navigate, and I flew my friends around Australia. And then I learned to fly
an airplane with two engines, and I got my twin engine rating. And then I learned to fly
in bad weather as well as fine weather and 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
back at that same school where I’d gone for that very first flight teaching other people how to fly, just under 18 months
after I’d left the spinal ward. (Applause) 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 and aerobatics
flying instructor. And mum and dad, never been up. (Laughter) But then I knew for certain,
that although my body might be limited, it was my spirit
that was unstoppable. The philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be.” I now know that it wasn’t till
I let go of who I thought I was that I was able to create
a completely new life. It wasn’t till I let go of the life
I thought I should have, that I was able to embrace the life that was waiting for me. I now know that my real strength
never came from my body. And although my physical capabilities have changed dramatically,
who I am is unchanged. The pillar light inside of me
was still alight just as it is in each and every one of us. I know that I am not my body, and I also know that you are 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. Because we are all connected
by millions and millions of straws. And it’s time to join those up,
and to hang on, and if we are to move towards
our collective bliss, it’s time we shed our focus
on the physical, and instead embrace
the virtues of the heart. So raise your straws if you’ll join me! (Applause) Thank you! (Applause) Thank you. (Applause)


Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *