Zissie’s Story: Never Lose Hope

zissie featured intro

(1/6) “A White World”

“When I was 19 years old, I went to Vermont with a bunch of friends to go skiing. It was my first time, and I was so excited because it turned out I was a great skier. One of my friends suggested that we go snowmobiling. I responded, ‘Cool! What’s that?’, because I was always up for anything.

We signed paperwork, ‘signing our lives away’, and hopped onto the snowmobile. We were flying, going 40 miles an hour on the snow-filled mountain path. It was then that everything changed forever.  We turned a bend, and crashed straight into a tree. My friend went into the tree with the snowmobile and I was flung 10 feet away, shattering my helmet into thousands of pieces.

There was blood everywhere. The person I was with was in really bad shape. His knee was out of his leg, and he didn’t know where he was. I thought he was going to die. Against everything inside me, I stood up and rushed to him. I stayed with him, reassuring him we would be OK and make it out of there, ignoring all instincts of what I had just endured.

There was glass and metal odds and ends spread around us. The snowmobile was a twisted mess in the closest tree.  I was awake, aware and alone in what I had just been through and witnessed. The sun went behind the trees, leaving a freezing, helpless feeling of desperation and fear in the air.  I needed to take care of him and make sure he lived.

Finally, after an eternity of dread, fear and freezing cold, an hour and a half after the time of the crash the ambulance on sleds arrived. As soon as I saw my friend being surrounded by nurses, with a blanket on him and finally in proper care, my body registered the hit. It registered the crash, the smashed helmet and the twisted snowmobile.  Within a few chilling seconds my whole body shut down. I couldn’t move. I crumpled into the snow.

They screamed for another stretcher and oxygen and rolled me into the ambulance and brought us to separate hospitals, for our very separate needs.

I was paralyzed from the neck down. The doctors didn’t know why I couldn’t move but they felt sure enough to tell me, “There is a strong chance that you will never be able to move again.”

I really believed I was going to move again. I felt no fear at the words they told me. They were words that left my family and friends terrified. They were not words that I believed.

Being in the hospital paralyzed was humiliating. Needing a catheter, having to be showered, being wheeled in a gurney to all my tests. They would make me wait in silence on a white bed, in a white blanket, staring at the white ceiling.  I couldn’t move, and there was nothing to do. Nothing to look at. I was just a corpse, waiting. Waiting for the next test, waiting for them to continue telling me they don’t know why I can’t move or if I ever will move again.

I was living in a world of white walls and nothingness.

Nothing was moving from the neck down. Not even the neck itself. One morning, a little shy of a week in, I woke up to discover I could move three fingers. The nurses and my family cheered.  A day later, I decided that I was going to sit up that day. And with a lot of help and propping up, I did.

I don’t know why Hashem gave me the gift of knowing that I was not going to be paralyzed; that being paralyzed wasn’t going to be my life. That it simply was not how my future was going to pan out.

Every time I made any slight progress, the doctors and nurses and family would come into my room and cheer for me. Every inch was excruciating. Every inch was a miracle.”

(2/6) “Agony”

“A day after I sat up I said to the nurses, ‘I want you to help me get up and walk.’ They said, ‘We are happy that you feel up to trying but your legs aren’t working.’ I had them stand me up, I had two nurses on each side of me. My legs crumpled beneath me but I said, ‘I don’t care. I am walking, and I am going to walk out of this hospital.’ My feet would not leave the ground but I was able to move forward by shuffling my legs back and forth, dragging my feet behind me. I told the staff, ‘This is it. I’ll do the rest in physical therapy. Let me out of here.’

I left the hospital in a wheelchair with high hopes and instead of going home to recover, I went straight back to school. I was in my second semester of college, and I didn’t want to lie in bed at home and feel sorry for myself.  I returned to school only to find out that all my new friends I had made earlier that year had heard of my accident and no longer were interested in friendship. I guess their partying and socializing lifestyle did not have the space for pain.

I found a physical therapist on campus and visited her every day in between classes. I could move my arms and legs, but I was walking extremely slowly. I looked fine. I was wearing no casts, or crutches, walker or slings. People would honk at me, push me in line and on the street. Every step and movement I made was excruciating. The crash had damaged my spine, the connecting piece to the whole body. It felt like a huge weight was sitting on top of me trying to crush me. There was no relief, not even when lying down.

Back at school, I didn’t talk about the accident. After a year of daily physical therapy, my walking got quicker, and I was able to run again. Yet still, every move was agony.

I went to the best doctors. They all said to me, ‘You’ll be fine in the next six months. You had a spinal concussion, and your MRI’s and cat scans are fine. The pain will go away.’ After the fourth or fifth doctor who was ‘the best’  and from the top hospitals of Boston and New York said the same thing, and the pain was still there, I told myself; ‘I’m walking again. I can run if I have to. I am moving, living and this is my new normal. I’m going to be in pain for the rest of my life.’

That first year, every night I would wake up, gasping for air and sweating. I would be woken by the sound of the crash. I was reliving it every night, alone in my dorm bed and living with the repercussions every day.

I got no relief, and accepted that this was my future.”

(3/6) “No More”

“I did not deal with my feelings about the accident. I consciously pushed them way down, in order to survive.’

Fast forward four and half years of being in this intense level of pain.  I had graduated college, traveled the world, gotten married, and had been working and living my life to the fullest that I could in constant pain. But the pain started to escalate. As the pain grew, new hope grew. I knew there must be something out there that could help me. I told myself that the pain is growing so that I don’t accept it anymore, it was time to reopen my search. I tried acupuncture, a chiropractor, the Alexander technique, and everything under the sun that was alternative.

Nothing was working. I got no relief. Not even for a moment.

I was coming to Israel for Pesach, and my sister, who lived there, mentioned to a family friend that I was coming, and how much I was dreading the airplane ride because it put me in an even worse state than I already was in. This friend said, “You need to go to this amazing doctor. He is from Korea, converted to Judaism twenty years ago, and was a martial artist and a medical doctor in Korea. He is known to be ‘The Human X-Ray.’ He has healed paraplegics, cancer patients, he has unbelievable success stories here in Israel.”

This seemed like my last option.

When I went to see him, he told me to walk to one end of the room and walk back, so he could see how I moved. All I had told him was that I was in an accident. He shook his head very slowly. He said, “You’re in big trouble. Everything that you have done to heal this has made it worse. All the pain medication from the Western doctors has made it worse. All the treatments from alternative doctors have made it worse. The entire tissue around your spine is in zig-zag. One of your legs is longer than the other, which makes you move to compensate for the pain, which causes you more pain.”

Then he said, “If you had gotten pregnant now, your body would have shut down forever.” But then he went on to say, “I can heal you. But you need to believe in me 100% and I’m going to put you through hell and back. You think you’re in pain now? You don’t know pain.”

He told me to think about it, and that he would need twenty five sessions. Every day that wasn’t Shabbat or Chag. Twenty five sessions in a row.This meant I would need to extend my ticket, take a break from work, and put my life on hold. I would need to leave the house at five am, and go to his home office at six in the morning, every day for twenty five days. I would be done by the early afternoon. I had to follow all his rules when I wasn’t there, and there were a lot of them.

I told myself that this was the first doctor that told me he could actually help. Not, ‘You’ll be better in a few months’…or ‘I don’t see anything in your tests’.

I was afraid. I was afraid that if I put myself through this unknown treatment and all the pain, and it didn’t work, that I would be sent to the depths of depression and devastation. The fear of it not working was stronger than the hope that it could work and I could have my life back.

In the end, I decided to go for it. Living the way I was was no longer an option .”

(4/6) “Tortured Healing”

“It was physically impossible to be in shape from the kind of pain I had been experiencing. But every morning, I would run with him and his wife. He made us run several miles and hike up several mountains each morning. I ran with him, clutching the heavy rocks he made me carry, gasping for breath, gasping for air. Then we would stop, in the middle of the big lonely mountains. All I could hear were the roosters saying good morning. All I could smell was the sweet mountain air. And all I could feel was my heavy breathing and deep unwelcomed pain. We stopped there, in the middle of the mountains and he would have me do these insane exercises; punching my chest, standing on my head, anything to get my heart pumping so that he could do more treatments.

The treatments felt unbearably torturous to me. Up until that point, a small touch to the spine sent a cold shock through my body that lasted for ten minutes. He punched those areas, moved my limbs, and attempted to reinstate my body.

I would cry and he would shout at me, ‘Stop crying. You are not a baby.’

Every morning I went back, and there was just more pain on top of the pain, because I needed to not feel this way anymore. I just kept believing in Hashem that He wouldn’t put me in this amount of pain and struggle for nothing.

One day the doctor did acupuncture. But it wasn’t like the treatment I had in the states. Every needle he put in my body felt like being electrocuted. He treated me with cupping method ‘to remove the unwanted blood’ which left my back with large blue and bleeding welts. I left filled with pain and self pity, cursing the fact that I had to return the next day.

He told me I was going to get worse before it got better. It got much worse. It felt like everything that could go wrong, did. It was so scary. I just kept going back hoping, keeping Hashem close, praying this was the cure.

One day he said to me, ‘You feel like a daughter to me. The reason I am so harsh with you, is because I need it to work. I need you to be afraid and to take it seriously. Everything the doctors did for you in the States, was terrible. This is going to work. I am going to send you back as a new person.’

His words struck me hard. Could I actually get better?

At number eighteen of the twenty-five sessions, he told me that the pain in my upper back was going to relieve itself. By the end of the session it was gone. I was terrified it was going to return. He showed me the progress I had made, that I could move, and that my body was healing.

We were so close.”

(5/6) “Back Again”

“When treatment was over I took my suitcase and went back to the States. I followed his protocol, and I was myself again. Life went on, but I never dealt with the accident emotionally.

I had completely removed myself from it.

I had an ongoing fear for two years afterwards that the pain was going to come back. I was grateful every day, and kept my strong belief in Hashem, that He gave me a second chance.

Then I got pregnant, and the pain was immediate. I couldn’t walk, I could barely move. I had my miracle baby and the pain went away. I had my second miracle baby very soon afterwards, and went through it all over again.

Several years passed, I became a chef in New York, made aliyah and got divorced. My first few winters in Israel were surreal, warm, and driving distance to the beach. I had finally escaped the snow forever. Then, because Hashem has the greatest sense of humor of all, I married an incredible man from the mountains of Switzerland, a place where you could see skiing and snowmobiles from his living room window.

When I lived in Boston and New York after the accident, I hated the snow. I lived in it, but it was a huge trigger and source of stress for me. Every time I saw snow, it reminded me of my awful experience and I pushed it down even further.

I emotionally prepared myself for my first trip to Switzerland. I told myself it would be ok if I was sad and that whatever I felt, I would get through it. But I was not prepared for the level of sadness that I felt when I got there.

I was a wife and a mother and knew in order to be a good wife and mother when we were in Switzerland, surrounded by snow and snowmobiles, I needed to finally deal with my trauma.”

(6/6) “Fourteen Years”

“Fourteen years of not dealing with it. Fourteen years of not speaking about it, and when I would it was simply an emotionless crazy story I told. Finding a therapist to face this with me was not simple. Now, I am seven sessions into my fourteen session therapy; one for every year I neglected to face. My therapist takes me through a process by going through pictures of the traumatic memories in my mind, and getting rid of the negative associations. There is hypnosis and visualization and I have found that I am finding some relief so far.

Anyone who ever had met me might have said, ‘Oh, she’s the happiest person. Nothing has ever touched her in life.’ I kept this story to myself for the first four and half years because I didn’t want pity nor did I want to hear self-referencing tactless responses of how people think they could relate.

After the pain went away, I didn’t share the story because I didn’t want to face the sadness that came with it, of how I felt so alone and secluded when thinking about the accident that only I remembered. I just wanted to live my life, free of any past pain, both emotional and physical, and be the grateful free-spirited person I am.

Now I am facing it. Facing what I went through. Facing the lonely, cold, snow-filled mountains. Facing the bright red-blood covering the perfect untouched white ground. Facing the sadness of staring at the white walls. Facing the doctors telling me there’s just no reason I should still be in pain. Picture by picture. Emotion by emotion.

You never know what people have been through. If you see someone walking slowly across the street, or not smiling at you during the day, never assume it’s about you. Never ever make it about you. Remove yourself from the situation, because you just can’t know what someone is going through or has been through. Don’t judge someone else’s path or pain. Often the more physical and emotional pain that someone has experienced, the stronger they can be.  And hopefully, eventually, when they are ready, the more they can help others.

At this point in my life, I am very happily married, and I have seven beautiful children, two of which I gave birth to. I feel blessed that I have the physical and emotional energy to care them and be a wife while I run my own business of being a personal chef. I am on my feet all day, preparing food for my clients and their events, managing my business, website, and often feeding nine people at home. My life, thank God, is full of blessing.  

My faith in Hashem gave me the strength to face each step of this story. I am so grateful for the comfort and support it gives me to get through the hardest of times.  That connection for me makes every day worth living to my fullest. “

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.