Hope Happens Here: Ellie Shepard

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on November 22, 2021 # Giving Tuesday

#GivingTuesday is Tuesday, November 30, 2021 and we’ll be sharing Ellie Shepard’s story as she takes over our Instagram on November 30. But you don’t have to wait until then to make an impact for someone living with paralysis. Please click here to donate now—before the holidays!

As a chiropractic student, Ellie Shepard knew a lot about the spine and the types of injuries it could sustain. She couldn’t have predicted, however, that she would sustain a spinal cord injury herself.

On September 7, 2015, Shepard was enjoying the hot tub at her new apartment complex with a friend. “I was getting too hot, so I decided to go into the pool to cool off,” she says. Shepard dove into the pool, not realizing it was a sports pool with two shallow ends and hit her head on the bottom.

“While I was in the water, I realized I didn't have function of my arms, I only had function of my shoulders,” says Shepard. “Serendipitously, I had been studying about what to do if you suspected a cervical or spinal fracture and what steps you could take to mitigate some of the damage.” While they were waiting for the paramedics to arrive, Shepard directed her friend to do some diagnostic tests to test her muscle strength and level of sensation.

Ellie using an Outrider chair in front of a lakeShepard was taken to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in California. “I knew when the doctors gave me a diagnosis of a C6 burst fracture that I would be in a wheelchair,” says Shepard. “I remember crying and telling the doctor just kill me, I don't want to live, I don't want to survive because I don't want to be in a wheelchair the rest of my life.”

Her mindset started to change once she recovered from surgery and started rehabilitation. Shepard’s father, Jay Shepard, had reached out to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation shortly after his daughter’s injury to get information and find out where she could get the best care. Jay quickly immersed himself with the Foundation’s mission and served on the research and planning committee. He’s now the Board Chair.

A month later, in early October, armed with resources from the Reeve Foundation, Shepard relocated to Denver to complete rehab at Craig Hospital, a renowned national center of excellence exclusively devoted to patients with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.

“I was really wanting to get back to my life, and I figured out the best way to do that was to just keep focusing on the next thing,” says Shepard.

One of those things was being able to drive her car again, which she was able to do around nine months after her injury. Another thing was to come to terms with the fact that she wouldn’t be able to do hands-on work as a chiropractor. Instead, Shepard decided to pursue a degree in social work, specializing in working with people with disabilities.

Shepard doesn’t deny that, like so many people who experience life-changing injuries, she has had many dark moments over the years. “Before your injury, you have all the control in the world, and you can be super independent. And then after an injury, you have to rely on people all the time.”

She recalls one time when she forced herself to break out of her comfort zone. “I lived in an apartment near a super busy intersection, and I was really scared of crossing it on my own,” she says. “For months, I would never cross it unless someone was with me because I ran through the scenario of a thousand things that could happen to me and me being trapped and helpless.”

One day, Shepard decided to face her fear and cross the intersection to get a cup of coffee at a café on the other side. “When I returned to my apartment, I just started crying because I felt so happy and proud. For me, at the time it felt like an Everest that I had just overcome. And that was a turning point for me.”

As she continues to learn how to live more independently and with less fear, Shepard’s attitude toward her disability has changed as well.

“I found that I became much more at peace with my disability when I wasn't constantly fighting against it and looking at being disabled as something to overcome. People can be at peace with their injuries instead of in constant anguish. I love life, being joyous, and being happy.”

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.