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. 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!” 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.