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Jen Penko is about as active as a person can get. Long a daily jogger, she rises early to get an hour-long work out each day. But Jen does not run anymore- not since the 1998 snowboarding accident that left her paralyzed.

"Friday. March thirteenth under a full moon," says Jen. "Eerie, eh?"

Today, twenty-nine year-old Jen exercises thanks to the eight electrodes doctors implanted in her muscles soon after her accident.

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Initial Progress


"I thought to myself, 'Okay, if there's not a cure, how do I keep myself healthy?'"

Jen's injury was to the back of her neck, at the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae. Initially, she could not move from the neck down, as is usual with injuries so high up on the spinal cord. But Jen's injury, like Christopher Reeve's, was an incomplete one; her spinal cord was damaged but not severed. Such injuries leave much more room for improvement than complete ones; so, two weeks after her accident, Jen transferred to the hospital in Concord, NH for daily therapeutic rehabilitation.

"That initial recovery process truly revealed my stubborn determination," says Jen. "Within the first few months, I regained movement in my upper body down to my navel."

Remarkably, Jen recovered the use of her hands as well as sensation to her lower body.

Photo of Jen on a bike
Jen uses this handcycle as part of her daily exercise routine.  

"I have the ability to feel touch, temperature and spatial orientation," Jen says. "There are a few exceptions in my lower right side where I have 'blind' spots."

But even this amazing comeback wasn't quite enough for the once and future athlete. Jen decided to find a way out of her wheelchair.

"I thought to myself, 'Okay, if there's not a cure, how do I keep myself healthy?" says Jen.

Life in a wheelchair has serious drawbacks, both physical and psychological. Being sedentary increases the risk of osteoporosis, muscle atrophy and loss of cardiovascular fitness. There's a greater chance of developing pressure sores, hard-to-heal skin ulcers which are vulnerable to bacterial infections. Of course, it's difficult to reach objects on higher shelves from a wheelchair, or to maneuver through close quarters. And, there's another major drawback.

"Life at sitting level means you're always looking up at people," adds Jen. "It can be very frustrating."


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