Jennifer Smyth’s journey began on September 24th last year - at 5:30pm to be precise.
On that day, as a 16-year-old gymnast at her local club, Jennifer suffered a fall which broke her neck and left her quadriplegic.
Jennifer smiles as she recalls the fateful moment when her life changed dramatically.
“I remember the time exactly,” she says.
But then anyone who knows the Eglinton teenager will know that Jennifer smiles constantly. Her resilience and determination in the face of huge life challenges have amazed and inspired everyone around her.
After her accident there was a period where Jennifer could only communicate by blinking.
She’d lost the power in her entire body which was left devastated by her injury.
“Altnagelvin did an MRI and an X-ray and we were told we needed a blue light to Belfast,” her mother Pamela recalls.
In the days after her accident, Jennifer remained in the Royal Victoria Hospital in the intensive care and high dependency units. She underwent her first major surgery the very night she sustained her injury.
In the days after her surgery Jennifer regained slight movement, although it soon became clear what the long term expectations were from a medical point of view, as Pamela explained:
“Jennifer was able to hold her hands up, bought one of the first things her consultant said was that he needed her to be able to move them down. When he did that motion, it was obvious that he knew Jennifer was going to need to use a wheelchair. That was tough.”
In the days and weeks which lay ahead, Jennifer and her parents had their lives put on hold. While her family and friends considered Jennifer an inspiration because of her strength, Jennifer says it was them who gave her the will to keep going.
“My brother Christopher was amazing,” she says. “For six weeks, he was up and down to Belfast every day. He was constantly by my side. In the end I had to tell him to go back to his own life and his friends. My friends were the same throughout it all. They couldn’t have been better. My friend Erin Mulligan was with me every step of the way.”
After her time in the Royal Victoria, Jennifer was sent to the long stay facility at Musgrave Park Hospital where she remained until the day before her seventeenth birthday in April past.
Her time at Musgrave Park came with its own challenges. While Jennifer says staff there were amazing, she says it was tough being one of the youngest people there. Her motivation levels were often considerably higher than many elderly people at the unit who had sustained injuries.
One of the toughest blows for Jennifer and her family came last November when Jennifer had been due to attend her school formal with her friends from Limavady Grammar School.
While it had been hoped she would be discharged from the hospital temporarily to attend the formal celebrations at the Everglades Hotel, consultants ruled the trip out.
The week before the formal, the Smyth family had met with the medical team responsible for monitoring Jennifer’s condition and were given the devastating news that there was nothing to indicate Jennifer would make any further physical progress.
“That was an awful time because I was so upset about not being able to make the formal, and then we had that news too,” says Jennifer.
Jennifer didn’t get too much time to dwell on the bad news however as staff at Musgrave Park conspired with her family and friends to bring the formal to her. Hospital screens were draped with fairy lights, hairdressing and make up experts were brought in and Jennifer’s closest friends were transported from the North West to celebrate a formal with a difference in her hospital ward.
“It was absolutely amazing. They all said it was better than the actual formal!” says Jennifer.
Jennifer was discharged from Musgrave Park in April. “I was scared about coming home because I didn’t know what to expect,” she says.
“I thought I’d be bored but there’s always been plenty to do. It’s actually been really busy and I’ve been kept occupied.”
Amazingly, although she’d missed months of school, Jennifer took her AS level physics and passed the exam while attending a tutor in Musgrave Park. Although when returning to her Eglinton home in April, she knew it would be some months before she’d return to school as full time pupil at Limavady Grammar.
During that time, while she’d been prepared by specialists not to expect any significant change in her condition, Jennifer only had one thing on her mind.
“I wanted to get back to the gym. I wanted that from the very beginning,” she says.
Despite the trauma of what had happened, Jennifer had no fear about returning to the gymnastics environment.
“It was all I wanted and I thought about it the whole time I was in hospital.”
Jennifer says her coach Ann Hebor, from Shooting Starz, has been a major source of strength and practical support over the past year.
“She’s been brilliant and the feeling I got from going back to the gym was unbelievable. Everyone just screamed when I came in. I just love being there.”
Determined never to give up, this summer, Jennifer spent time at Stoke Mandeville’s internationally acclaimed spinal injuries unit in Buckinghamshire.
Her time there, she says, has changed her life immeasurably.
“They are all about getting you independent which was what I wanted to hear,” says Jennifer.
Initially funded to go for a period of a week, staff at the specialist unit said they believed Jennifer could make progress staying for longer.
“That was amazing news for us,” says Pamela. “We’d come from a point where we were told not to expect any further progress and then all of a sudden we were told there could be progress. That was so heartening.”
The weeks that followed at the English spinal injuries unit gave Jennifer the physical and mental boosts she needed. With a tailored exercise regime and using innovative functional electrical stimulation to encourage movement in her legs and hands by using electrical impulses to work her muscles.
Amazingly, Jennifer was taking part in activities that would never have been deemed possible in the days after her injury. She was also regularly using a standing frame to help prevent osteoporosis.
Jennifer is hopeful that in the coming weeks she will have her own standing frame to use at home.
“Standing up is amazing. It just makes me feel so tall! I always feel better after using the standing frame,” she says.
Earlier this year, Jennifer also took part in the Spinal Games at Stoke Mandeville, the place where many paralympians launched their careers.
“Sport is my life and I want to keep it up,” smiles Jennifer.
A lot lies ahead for Jennifer, who’s now 17. Her mother Pamela says she’s continued to show nothing but strength throughout it all.
“We take our strength, as a family from Jennifer. She is absolutely amazing. If Jennifer hadn’t been as upbeat as she has it would have been so difficult. We’re incredibly proud of our daughter.”
Like most teenagers, praise embarrasses Jennifer. She sums up her journey with nothing but modesty.
“It’s amazing the difference that a year can make,” she smiles.