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,
Today, twenty-nine year-old Jen exercises thanks to the eight
electrodes doctors implanted in her muscles soon after her
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"I thought to myself, 'Okay, if there's not a cure,
how do I keep myself healthy?'"
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
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.
uses this handcycle as part of her daily exercise routine.
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."
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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