Nina Sheppard is at boot camp. She is not training for the military or trying to shed a few pounds as part of some trendy exercise plan.
Sheppard is trying to walk again, a goal that the mother of two — who was one of 10 national finalists in the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s Best Mom on Wheels contest — hopes her six-month boot camp experience at the University of Miami will bring her closer to achieving.
The 23-year-old Millville resident lost the ability to walk Nov. 20, 2011. She was driving on Route 49 from Upper Township to Millville when her car flipped after hitting a guardrail. She came out of a coma five weeks later to learn that the crash left her with injuries that included collapsed lungs, a snapped shoulder blade, a ruptured spleen and a severed spinal cord.
The spinal cord injury was the most severe, leaving Sheppard paralyzed from the waist down and facing life in a wheelchair. That is a future far different from what the former Millville High School field hockey and lacrosse player who always kept herself in good physical shape had ever expected.
But Sheppard is not one to give up.
She has learned to deal with daily challenges, including caring for her daughter, Ava-Kay, 4, and son, Levi, 2. She found new ways to do routine parental tasks, such as changing Levi’s diaper.
“I had to retrain myself and my son,” Sheppard said of having to change a diaper while sitting in a wheelchair. “My kitchen table has become my changing table. Instead of just picking him up and carrying him over, I trained him to get up on my lap. I’m then able to put him on the table.”
Overcoming those challenges and undergoing months of physical therapy helped Sheppard become a finalist in the Best Mom on Wheels contest. She didn’t win, but she said the exposure gained from the contest made her something of an unexpected role model.
“I have people tell me that I’m a hero,” Sheppard said. “It’s amazing. The major thing that I tell people is that you have to look at everything good that you do have and not what you don’t have. If I didn’t do that, I’d be a mess.”
Sheppard’s current challenge involves being one of eight people with paralysis participating in the boot camp as part of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. The Miami Project is run out of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine.
For the next six months, Sheppard will undergo intensive physical therapy at the medical school for about five hours a day, five days a week. She will also put in voluntary exercise and physical therapy time.
Miami Project researchers want to determine the minimum physical therapy needed for people with paralysis to develop the physical conditioning required for future recovery efforts. That could include the use of Schwann cells, which could help repair the spinal cord. The body must be strong enough to handle any changes caused by Schwann cell activity.
“They want me (and others involved in the study) to be at the top physical fitness level, so when that day does come you can get out and take those next steps,” Sheppard said.
The physically demanding challenge is something Sheppard said she was used to from being an athlete and always trying to stay in great shape.
“That’s another reason why I’m so excited,” she said. “I was so physically active. Every gym I’ve looked at (since the accident) wasn’t handicapped-accessible.”
Monday was Sheppard’s first day at boot camp.
“They’re testing me at the gym,” Sheppard said Tuesday. “Lots of weightlifting.”
Asked whether the boot camp seems as hard as she thought it would be, she replied, “Probably tougher.”
However, it remains uncertain whether Sheppard will finish all six months.
Her mother, Upper Township resident Bobbie-Gene Beebe, said Sheppard’s six-month stay in Florida will cost an estimated $25,000 for food, lodging, transportation and other living expenses.
Beebe said her daughter has already spent about $6,000 of the money raised by family and friends during recent fundraisers. That expenditure will cover the next few weeks in Florida, she said.
“But there is only about $2,000 of that money left,” Beebe said, meaning she and Sheppard will have to depend on more donations.
Sheppard has been in recovery since her accident. She lived in a physical rehabilitation center in Philadelphia for almost six months. Levi’s first birthday party was held at the center. Her stay there was followed by six more months of outpatient physical rehabilitation at another facility in Philadelphia.
Then, Sheppard said, her insurance carrier stopped paying for therapy sessions after it determined her to be functionally independent.
“Any paralyzed patient needs (continued) therapy to move and stay active,” Sheppard said. “It was very difficult.”
Sheppard said she still has unpaid hospital bills, some of which have been paid through the donations of family and friends.
Sheppard’s determination to care for her children through all the turmoil prompted a friend, Tina Amerman, to nominate Sheppard for the Best Mom on Wheels contest.
“She is continuing to be the best mother she can be as well as inspiring her two children that anything is possible if you put your mind to it,” Amerman’s nominating letter reads. “Every Mother’s Day is particularly special, and we can’t be happier to have Nina here to continue to inspire and uplift her children to become such outstanding young people like their mother each and every day. Ride to stride, Nina.”
Contest results were announced this week, and the winner was a woman in Minnesota. Sheppard said she is not upset.
“It’s an honor to even be in it,” Sheppard said. “I’m grateful one way or another.”
While Sheppard has a long way to go toward what she hopes will be full recovery, she is already planning her post-boot camp activities.
“My goal … is to start a nonprofit organization based on what I’ve gone through and overcome so other people (with paralysis) can learn from me and my experiences,” she said.
How to help
Contact Thomas Barlas: