Some people are true inspirations in life. Janet Oberholtzer is one of them. The 46 year-old mother of three from Pennsylvania was in a nearly-fatal car accident in 2004 that caused her to be severely injured and unable to walk. But, because she says our bodies are meant to move, she battled pain and depression and chose a different path for herself, which today includes running marathons “because she can.” Read her story and be inspired.
Tell me about your accident….what happened?
Within a few hours after going for a run on a beach while on vacation on May 20, 2004, I was in the hospital fighting for my life because we were in a six-vehicle accident and the other five vehicles being semi-trucks. The accident, caused by multiple drivers’ errors, happened at only 35 to 40 mph, but the impact was right in the passenger corner of our motorhome where I was sitting. I was injured from the waist down and pinned at my knees. I was slightly coherent right after the accident asking if my husband and boys were okay (they were) but I lost consciousness soon after that and I have no memory of the accident.
How did it affect you physically, mentally and emotionally?
After being helicoptered, I needed 45 units of blood in the first 24 hours (an average person has 8 units of blood). I hovered between life and death for two days. Twelve days later I woke up and learned about my multiple injuries…broken ribs, punctured lung, at least a dozen fractures (many requiring rods and screws) and multiple wounds. The doctors dubbed my shattered pelvis “Humpty Dumpty” because they didn’t know how it would heal. And for a time, they considered amputating my left leg, where I had lost about 70% of the soft tissue and skin between my knee and ankle.
Instead, they took a chance and preformed endless surgeries on my leg, which saved it, but for months walking again was in question. Thankfully I was able to walk with assistance three months later. But I needed ongoing surgeries for about four years to help increase mobility and reduce pain, and I spent about two of those years sad, angry and depressed. Adjusting to life with pain, limitations and a deformed leg was extremely difficult. Finding myself debating whether or not life was worth living scared me enough to seek help from counselors. (Yes, plural. I needed all the help I could get) They helped me process the trauma, deal with the post traumatic stress disorder and learn how to live with a new normal.
When did you decide that the doctors were wrong?
There was not really a specific time when I decided they were wrong, it was more of a slow realization that I have more control over my recovery than I realized. As I dealt with my emotional issues, I began going for walks and biking regularly because I believe our bodies are meant to move. My body and mind became stronger simultaneously, which allowed me to see that even with a new normal, life can be beautiful, and I wanted to live well. So I began doing what I can, with what I have, where I am and I recovered better than I ever dreamed possible.
How did running a marathon become your goal?
I had been a runner for ten years prior to the accident and initially all my doctors had said running was definitely a thing of my past. And for a time I was okay with that, because I was so thankful that I was able to walk. Plus, for four years I had so much pain that I wasn’t even tempted to run. But after the last surgery I was finally able to go off pain meds and the surgeon gave me permission to try running again.
In 2008, I took my first trembling running steps, not sure how my body would handle it, but by taking it slowly and carefully, my body tolerated it and I haven’t stopped running or smiling since. And then on May 20, 2012, the 8th anniversary of the accident, I did a full marathon!
How did it feel, mentally and physically, when you started running again?