As part of our journey in 2021 and in celebration and partnership with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race, we are sharing the stories of six local heroes who are impacting positive change in their communities. In addition to bringing awareness and education to each of their respective organizations, we will also be donating $10 of every top sold in the Run As One™ Collection at The Peachtree Health & Fitness Expo presented by Publix to support the Atlanta community.
It was 1995, and three-sport college athlete Jen Speer was in her junior year, on track to graduate and with her life going exactly as planned. Then, while traveling to a basketball tournament early on the morning of January 5, the van carrying her and her teammates pulled into the path of an oncoming truck.
Jen recalls, “I woke up in a hospital bed, and doctors told me I had broken my back. Along with that came the news that I would never walk again. It’s hard to explain the cascade of thoughts that rush through your head when you hear those words, but I never doubted that I would conquer this unwanted challenge. Even if my legs no longer worked, I was going back to school, and I was getting my life back. With the unwavering support of my family and the skills I learned playing organized sports, I faced the next phase of my life head-on.”
But even with her goals set and her determination high, Jen still had to overcome all the ups and downs that come with rehabilitation. “The first few days in rehab were a confusing mix of emotions. It was scary because I had no idea what to expect, and I was surrounded by strangers using terms that I didn’t understand. Not only could I not walk, but I suddenly couldn’t sit upright without toppling over. When I sat up too quickly, I would pass out. Things that I had been doing since I was a toddler were no longer easy.
“During my two months in rehab, there were many things that were frustrating. Struggling to complete ‘simple’ tasks like putting my clothes on or using the bathroom in a new way caused tears. I wanted to be good at these things, but it was a process and not something I felt like should be struggling with. That being said, when I was finally able to have success, it was the most amazing feeling. Like I had won a battle in the larger war. The longer I went through rehab, the more autonomy I gained, and the more I felt like myself. You enter rehab feeling strictly like a patient, constantly poked and prodded. And you leave rehab feeling like a person again.”
After rehab, Jen charged ahead. She returned to school, received her bachelor’s degree, went to grad school, and then completed her master’s in speech-language pathology. After working in Washington D.C. area hospitals, she started to think that something was still missing. “I was good at my job, and I had plenty of friends, but I was the only wheelchair user I knew. At the time, I didn’t think it mattered, but knowing what I know now, it was huge. I needed peers who understood my unique circumstances.”
Seeking a warmer climate and new opportunities, she moved to Atlanta in 2012. It was there that she began working as a speech-language pathologist at the Shepherd Center. She had no idea the impact it would have on her both professionally and personally. “This opportunity not only offered me an amazing job working at one of the top-ranked rehabilitation hospitals in the country, but it also exposed me to a world where wheelchairs are the norm. It felt like my entire world opened up. I was no longer THE girl in a wheelchair, and for the first time in years, I was able to blend in. There were people like me in every hallway.”
It also allowed sports to once again become a large part of her life. As she sees it, “During rehab, sports were not a priority. I spent all of my time relearning the basics and focusing on returning to school. Following rehab and the initiation of my career, sports became more of a factor in my life.
“I’ve played multiple sports, but tennis has become my passion. Not only is it an enjoyable way to stay fit, but the environment is unlike any other. It took me a while, but I finally found my place in the world again. There will always be frustrations and challenges that accompany a spinal cord injury, but for me, going outside and playing tennis with friends allows me time to feel normal. It’s a world where people pass by and tell you how impressed they are, instead of how sorry they feel for you.”
As for her advice to others facing those same fears she had after her accident, Jen has this to say: “I hope that everyone living with a disability would find something that brings them joy – something that gives them a safe space and offers a place where they can feel comfortable around people who understand. It’s different for everyone, but it’s out there, you just have to be willing to explore.”
While Jen has never personally competed in the AJC Peachtree Road Race, it plays a huge role in her Independence Day. “Every 4th of July, I arrive to work at 5:30 AM. I help get all my patients out of bed, and we take them outside. We sit as a group and enthusiastically cheer on the wheelchair racers as they work to get up the hill in front of the hospital. The patients are always so impressed with how strong the racers are. As the racers transition to runners, the atmosphere shifts. While the patients cheer for the runners, the runners in turn cheer for the patients. To see runners acknowledge the perseverance and will of our patients is touching, and I’ve had so many people tell me that our patients get them up that hill. That they’re ready to stop running, and when they look over and see our patients urging them on, they simply cannot give up. It’s a flood of emotions for everyone involved, and it’s always my favorite day of the year.”
Unique Stories. Similar Goals. United In Our Desire To Turn Potential Into Positive Change. #RunAsOne #AJCPRR
Published: May 2021