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16th October 2019

Flying high after spinal cord injury

As an elite skier training for the Olympics, Janine Shepherd had built her entire world around sports…until the day she woke up in hospital paralysed from the waist down due to a spinal cord injury.

While out cycling on a sunny day in 1986, Australia’s top female skier had been hit by a speeding truck which left her fighting for her life at age 24. “I had six broken vertebrae in my back, a broken neck, arm and collarbone, five broken ribs, broken bones in my feet, and extensive internal and head injuries,” she says.

Doctors didn’t expect her to survive, let alone walk again or have children.

“I couldn’t move my legs and had no sensation in the lower half of my body. In medical terms, I was a paraplegic,” the author, international speaker and resiliency coach tells This Is MedTech. “It was an athlete’s worst nightmare – my body was how I defined myself.”

According to the World Health Organization, between 250,000 and 500,000 people around the world suffer a spinal cord injury (SCI) each year. Up to 90% of cases are due to traumatic causes such as road traffic accidents or falls. Symptoms depend on the severity of injury and its location on the spinal cord. In Janine’s case, her spinal cord had been partially severed as well as crushed, and certain key nerves were damaged beyond repair.

Medical technology would continue to play a critical role in her treatment and recovery. A test called a myelogram helped doctors determine nerve signal continuity by injecting dye into Janine’s spinal cavity and viewing it via a special type of x-ray. It revealed that bone fragments were compressing her spine where a vertebra had been shattered.

Without surgery, she had virtually no chance of walking again. “I had an anterior decompressive laminectomy to painstakingly remove all the fragments. Then surgeons carried out a bone graft, using my ribs and larger bone fragments to build a replacement vertebra by fusing them to the adjoining ones,” she explains.

The operation was deemed a success, but the spinal cord damage was permanent. Despite feeling demoralised by her new reality, Janine gradually taught herself how to walk without any feeling in the lower half of her body. Six months after her accident, she was fit enough to go home – albeit in a body cast that wrapped around her torso. She recalls in her TED Talk the moment she decided to take control of her future after accepting that she’d not be returning to competitive sports: “If I can’t walk, I’ll fly,” she told her mum one day while sitting outside in her wheelchair watching an airplane fly overhead.

A few weeks later, she was taking her first flying lesson, body cast and all. Within a year, not only had she earned her commercial pilot’s licence, she’d become a flying instructor. She went on to get her aerobatics pilot licence and became an instructor for that, too.

“When I decided to fly, it was a seminal moment. It was about recreating my life. I learned that my body might be limited, but my spirit is unstoppable,” says the mother of three, who has since written six books including her memoir, Defiant.

World Spine Day falls on 16th October every year and aims to raise awareness of back pain and other spinal issues.