Despite spinal cord injury, a life of accomplishments and joy
On March 26, 1996, Jenny Kreutzer was on a youth group ski trip when her life changed forever. The high-school-age girl slammed into a tree, snapping her spinal cord with an incomplete break at the L-2 and L-3 level.
Over the past 15 years, Jenny has refused to let her disability hinder her energy and passion for living as normally as possible.
Today, Jenny is a wife and mother of two, a human resources professional, an active volunteer with Wheelchair Sports, Inc. , and a Girl Scout troop leader.
The latest in her long list of accomplishments was being crowned Ms. Wheelchair Kansas 2011, an honor Jenny earned for her resilience and determination while living with her spinal cord injury.
We chatted with Jenny about her accomplishments and her daily outlook.
Keeping a positive attitude through a trying time
What made you decide your injury was going to be a part of your life rather than the definition of your life?
“I had a lot of support and I had a lot of things going for me before the injury – high school, the newspaper and work at McDonald’s,” Jenny says.
“I never really thought twice about the chair. I figured I had my arms and my mind, and as long as I had those things, I could still do everything I wanted to do. I guess what kept me going was that it’s just how I’ve always been.”
Setting and accomplishing goals
The office wasn’t wheelchair accessible, so she often had to put in a huge amount of effort to get to the office in her long-legged braces and wanted to try short-legged braces instead.
Her therapists weren’t encouraging when she set this goal, so she took matters into her own hands.
What were some of the goals you set for your physical rehabilitation and how did you accomplish them?
“My first goal was to be able to walk across the stage at my high school graduation,” says Jenny.
“I did that with the long-legged straight braces, which was really strenuous and challenging. After that, I decided I didn’t really need to go to therapy anymore. I was tired of living my life around it.
But one day I thought that maybe if I did put a little bit of effort into it, maybe I would be able to get short-legged braces and then walking could be my primary way of getting around.
So it was just a goal I set for myself at a certain point in college, and I did it!”
Why did you decide to leave your physical therapist and continue on your own? What exercises did you do and did anyone help you?
“I had a bike I had been using for exercise. They had one [at the office] too that they would always have me on for the first 15 minutes or so,” Jenny says.
“I would tell them, ‘I have this at home, I want to do things to help me with my balance and things like that.’ But it seemed like every time I went in, they would just put me on the bike and never get me up.
I went for I think four or five sessions, and I just thought, ‘Why am I wasting my time doing this around their schedule?’
So I started on my own. My mom and I went out and walked around the track and just did it that way.”
Facing her fears by returning to the slopes
Nine years after her accident, Jenny took a huge step in her recovery. She joined the program called Challenge Aspen, an organization in Colorado designed to give first-time disabled skiers an opportunity to tackle the slopes again.
Some people may have thought she was crazy, but it was an important obstacle for Jenny to overcome. She and her husband went again the year after that first run.
Explain what that experience was like, facing the fear and the mountain again after so long.
“When we got there and I was getting fitted for the skis and everything, that’s when it really became real. Like ‘OK, I guess I’m really going to do this!’” said Jenny.
“It wasn’t until we were about halfway down the mountain the first time that it really hit me emotionally. They had me tethered in and I had expert skiers with me, but I think they had more confidence in me than I had in myself.
They had us going a little bit faster than I wanted to go and I got a little freaked out, so I stopped for a bit.
I went and had lunch and decided I wanted to go back – it was what I came here to do. So I went and by the second day I was skiing by myself, which they said was pretty unheard of. I was really proud of that accomplishment.”
Conquering the challenge of motherhood
How did you prepare yourself for the role of mother?
“After my husband and I got married, we never even talked about how many kids we would have or anything, we just assumed we would have them someday, so when we got pregnant, it was kind of a shocker,” Jenny says.
“Everybody asked, ‘Well, how are you going to do that? You’re in a wheelchair.’
I just said, ‘I don’t know, I’ll figure it out just like every other mom figures out how to be a mom.’”
Do your girls understand your disability?
“It’s all they’ve ever known and they don’t acknowledge that it’s any different. There was only one time I can ever remember that one of them acknowledged it,” says Jenny.
“We were at a park and my daughter wanted me to push her [on the swings]. Since it’s so hard to get through the sand in the wheelchair, I told her ‘You can play around by yourself and I’ll sit here and watch.’ Her response was, ‘I wish I had a stand-up mommy.’ That’s the only time she’s ever said anything like that.”
How has being a disabled parent inspired you?
“That experience at the park really inspired me to get involved with a local organization that is making a park for disabled children,” Jenny says.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s wonderful for disabled children, but it’s also great for parents with disabilities who have able-bodied children so they can interact and play with their children at the park.’”
Staying Fit, Healthy and Active Today
Do you use your braces to walk at all, or are you usually in your chair?
“Primarily I use my wheelchair, so even though I can use my short-legged braces, I prefer my chair because it’s easier for me to keep track of my kids and to keep up with my work,” Jenny says. “I get around much faster in my chair so it’s my main mode of transportation. “
How do you keep fit, healthy and active in your wheelchair?
“I am actually a little underweight from what my doctor would like, but not by much, so she encourages me to keep doing what I’m doing.,” Jenny says.
“That’s basically just running after my kids, we go swimming in the summer – I don’t really swim, but I get in the pool and move my legs around.
I eat enough to be full and we really eat healthy. I do play wheelchair tennis, although that’s only a couple months out of the year.
That’s really how I do it is by choosing to eat right, not eating too much, and listening to my body when it tells me certain things I don’t need.”
Creating “A New Normal”: Finding Balance and Strength
How do you think your life would be different without the injury?
“It’s hard to imagine what my life would be like without the injury.” Jenny says. “I would hope that it would be the same, but I don’t think it could be any better. “
“I think by having my injury, it’s helped me to try harder, to do things better, because I always felt like people thought I couldn’t, so I wanted to prove them wrong.
The injury actually opened up a lot of opportunities for me that I wouldn’t have had before. Like college – I wouldn’t have had the scholarship I got. Even though I worked during college, I never had to worry about student loans, so that was a blessing.”
What are your goals moving forward?
“Before the Ms. Wheelchair Kansas competition, I was really just going on with my day-to-day, working my job and doing my volunteer activities,” Jenny says.
“But now I’m really excited about the next step, which is the national Ms. Wheelchair competition in August.
At first I was really hesitant about the whole thing because I didn’t think I had the time to devote to it, but once I heard more about it, I figured it was something I needed to make the time for.
So that’s my goal for right now, to represent Kansas well and be a good example for my Girl Scout troop and my Wheelchair Sports friends.”
What advice would you offer to others living with spinal cord injuries and those who are struggling to live a “normal” life?
“I think you have to make a new normal and you have to surround yourself with people that are going to be supportive,” Jenny says.
“You also need to set goals for yourself and sometimes your goals are going to change.
I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but now I have this opportunity with the Ms. Wheelchair Kansas organization that I never even would have thought I would be interested in or feel comfortable doing. But after going through the competition and meeting the other women, I have just been very inspired by the program.
It has me thinking outside of my normal realm and my normal day-to-day activities and really wanting to try something new. You have to be willing and open to trying new things. Take life as it comes, and don’t get stuck in your ways.”
Would you like to share a story about you or your loved one’s experiences with a spinal cord injury? Please contact Rich Hamill today to discuss.