34-year-old Kirsty Shepherd has always lived life to the full. She travelled the world, worked as an intensive care nurse and volunteered for HMET Leeds Coroners to support bereaved families.
Then, in the blink of an eye, her world was turned completely upside down.
Eight months later Kirsty made her debut as Run Director at Wakefield Thornes parkrun. In this incredibly personal account of her traumatic and life-changing experience, she explains how volunteering at parkrun and being surrounded by her running family is helping her recovery.
I adored my life. I couldn’t ask for more.
Being outdoors and active was always a joy, whether it was figure skating, walking my dog or swimming.
I first got into running through a friend who introduced me to parkrun. My first parkrun was at Nostell and I was instantly taken by the community spirit and social aspect. It soon became a regular Saturday fix as much as my shifts allowed. I volunteered too, and it became weird not being up on a Saturday morning.
Then on 19 March 2016 everything changed in an instant.
I went to parkrun after suffering with a virus, thinking in true runner style that I could ‘run it off’. I struggled around the course but refused to give up. I was ill over the finish line, things went hazy, and I recall coming round to my good friends Susan and John looking after me. I tried to stand and couldn’t. My legs were ice cold to touch up to my knees, I couldn’t feel my feet, my lips were blue and they had to hold me up to move me.
After being taken to A&E, I remember coming around in Intensive Care with severe nerve pain. But when the anaesthetist checked my legs I couldn’t feel the touch and I couldn’t move them.
Over the next few weeks I had loads of examinations. Nothing was really sinking in – I was still in shock. I struggled to get my words out, my family and friends said they could see in my eyes that I wanted to speak but I couldn’t get it out and when I eventually did, I was slurring my speech and forgetting what I was saying like I’d had a stroke.
My legs no longer hurt and I couldn’t feel anything at all – they had gone completely to sleep.
I had to rely on my sister Anne, close friends and nurses to change my position in bed so I didn’t get pressure sores. I lost most of my dignity relying on others to wash, change me and move me. My arms were so weak that I couldn’t butter toast or pick up a glass of water. I lost 20 kilograms.
Eventually I was hoisted into a wheelchair and propped up with pillows as I wasn’t able to sit up in bed without them – I still couldn’t feel from my chest down. I realised then just how tiring it was for the patients I had looked after to sit in a chair.
I’d have the odd wobble, feeling like I’d lost my independence and dignity, and when I was in pain I would cry on a friend’s shoulder. But more than anything, with the help of my friends and my family, I became resourceful. I was worried initially about them seeing me in the state I was in, but I soon realised I needed my mates more than anything. Two of my friends, Maya and Tillie, made me chuckle and distracted me well. They then helped stop the tears by giving me the Abbey Dash to look forward to and Tillie encouraged me in finding ways around problems.
There are too many friends to name but they know who they are. They kept me going, making spending my 34th birthday in hospital bearable and helping me realise that I’ve got this. Come on lady!
It was hard because my memory and cognition were poor, but I was alive and I was strong enough to get through it.
I stood for the first time at around 12 weeks after most of the feeling had come back, but I couldn’t move my legs and my feet were still a bit numb. It was hard work and exhausting as my muscles had lost tone and muscle memory, but I couldn’t stop grinning at being upright. Then at 14 weeks I took my first steps with a Zimmer Frame using my upper body strength, which I still use now to pull myself around and self propel (you quickly learn to compensate).
It’s not easy learning to walk again as my legs take a while to get the messages and I still fall a lot, but it’s nice being upright for a bit. When I’m fatigued badly I can barely stand and my balance is the first to go, so I end up falling back or to my right as that’s my weaker side.
I came out of hospital for around eight weeks but ended up back in with problems associated with my condition. Again my closest friends were there rallying around me, including my friend and now boyfriend Ash. I was so thankful, because at one point I really did feel like I was going to die.
Being involved with parkrun has been an enormous help. I’ve been pushed around a few times because I can’t self propel very far with my fatigue, but I’m trying to work on that by wheelchair racing at Leeds City Wheelchair Racing Club.
One thing I had always wanted to do is to be a run director at parkrun, and I realised that dream a couple of weeks ago at Wakefield Thornes parkrun. It feels like home and everyone is so supportive. They started to show me the ropes and my boyfriend Ash (who’s an experienced RD at Pontefract) gave me some tips too and before I knew it the morning arrived. I was so nervous that I forgot to say GO!
Everyone at Wakefield Thornes was brilliant and I couldn’t have asked for better support.
Being a run director at parkrun is making me more confident, and the faith that everyone shows in me and the positive feedback makes me feel like I am still a part of running. Processing the results whilst having coffee with everyone after is the best, and they’re on hand to help with my memory and cognitive issues that have been affected too.
Run Directing at parkrun has given me a purpose. Not being fit enough to work at the minute (I’ve always had a strong work ethic) means I feel lost. Run directing eases this and I believe it is helping my cognition and memory in preparation for returning to work one day. I am optimistic that I will eventually walk and run – anything is possible with a positive mental attitude.
The fresh air, teamwork and social nature of parkrun helps my mental health as well. I’m now due to RD for the third time this Saturday and I cannot wait. I can’t wait for the welcoming smiles, the happy chatter and the eager runners faces waiting for me to shout GO! I’m looking forward to shouting and clapping words of encouragement and seeing people cross the finish line with a sense of achievement.
This whole experience has changed my outlook on life by making me realise that I am strong enough for anything and can get through whatever life throws at me. It’s made me realise even more just how massively important friends are, especially those who see you at your worst and are still there for you.
I would say to anyone going through a life-changing experience to not dwell on what isn’t, but accept what is. Adapt and let your friends support you. Try to remain positive no matter how hard it is. Most of all, get involved with parkrun, whether it be to walk or run, cheer or volunteer. You’ll make an amazing set of friends, it’ll keep you active and help your mental health.
There are so many benefits to parkrun. It truly has been life changing for me.
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