Pauline (left) at the 2017 Celebrate Our Vets 5k

Pauline Nelson has been one of the steadfast members of Achilles Pikes Peak. The vibrancy of her red hair is rivaled only by her brilliant smile and her tremendous gratitude for others. A constant source of positivity, Pauline has had setbacks in life and didn’t always, or perhaps ever, identify herself as an athlete. But her experience with Achilles Pikes Peak has changed all that. After reading her story below, you may begin asking yourself the question that has changed her life…”Why Not?!”

The Athlete Who Didn’t Realize She Was An Athlete

“I used to climb trees. I remember this one time I was climbing a tamarack tree. They’re very tall and very scratchy. The branches die off but they don’t look all that different than the branches that are alive. I climbed 30 feet up and I stepped on a branch. I was 11 or 12 because it was after my dad passed away. I had on tennis shoes and shorts and a little tiny tank top. When I stepped on this one branch, it broke and I couldn’t catch myself. I fell all 30 feet through the branches and fortunately the tree was in a peat bog. So where I fell it was really soft and cushioned. I was scratched up on every single piece of skin that was exposed. I can’t believe nothing was broken!”

“We lived up on a hill and there was a dirt road next to us. In the winter it would get really icy and it was a pretty good sized hill. I used to speed skate down that hill! You didn’t dare hit the pavement so I would speed skate down the hill and then I would get enough momentum so that I could jump over the pavement. Sometimes I hit the shoulder, sometimes I didn’t. Then I’d be rolling down the ditch! I never did tell my parents that I skated down that hill. There were a few times that I face planted on the pavement and I came back with little pieces of pavement embedded in my face and on my hands, but I didn’t care. It was so much fun. And it was so wonderful to challenge myself to see if i could get across.”

“One of the things that has been so incredibly wonderful about being a part of Achilles and all the encouragement and belief from other people has been it has allowed me to see myself in a completely new way. I never once thought of myself as being an athlete. Which is funny because in retrospect, I speed skated. I never liked figure skating and my dad built a skating rink for me every year. I speed skated at home and I speed skated at school.”

 

Advocating for Herself at an Early Age

“I started working when I was 11. My dad passed away in February and I started working in May. My very first job was peeling pulp. It’s aspen or poplar trees, that’s what they used to make paper out of. After the tree is felled and the branches are cut off, you cut the tree into eight foot sections, then take the chainsaw and make one slice down the center, through the bark. Then you take sharpened car spring and walk along on the top of the log and rip the bark off.”

“I did that for two years until I found out that I was getting paid a nickel for every eight foot section that I peeled. He was paying the boys 50 cents. I went to him and said, ‘I want to be paid the same. I actually work harder and peel more than they do so I want the same amount of money.’ His response to me was ‘I’m not paying any stupid girl the same amount I’m paying the boys.’ I walked right up to him and said, ‘This girl is not stupid enough to work for you. If you’re not going to pay me the same thing then you can find somebody else to do it,’ and I walked home. He yelled at me as I was walking away. He said, ‘You’ll be back!’ I said, ‘No I won’t! I won’t be treated that way.’ So I found another job.”

 

Setbacks

“In 1989 my disc ruptured. It was the L4-L5. Most of the time they rupture on the outside. Well this one didn’t. It ruptured right next to the spinal cord. In the community where I lived, the closest neurosurgeon was 75 miles away. There was only one that was really outstanding and he happened to be out of the country. So I laid on the floor in my living room for six weeks waiting for him to come back. I couldn’t stand up and so I literally crawled everywhere I went which wasn’t far. Even when I would take a shower or something, I had to crawl over the edge of the tub.”

“Finally the day came and I got to have the surgery. It was supposed to take an hour and a half but it took over six hours because when it exploded, this is the part I don’t understand, but what happen was it blew in a fan shape so they had to make the incision much longer because they were picking out pieces. Someone was supposed to give me a shot to reduce the swelling but nobody did. I was on a surgical ward but they were short staffed. I had to use the restroom and I was ringing the bell and nobody came. I managed to get out of bed and made it to the bathroom. I couldn’t get up again and I rang the bell for more than an hour. The muscle spasms were so horrendous I threw myself on the floor and it was probably four hours until somebody found me. All of that I think contributed to what happened next.”

“About three months later, the two discs above and the two discs below the surgical site herniated. I’d always been really strong and I’d always been really active. While there was tremendous pain associated with that, I gradually went back to work part time and little by little got back to a regular routine. But the amount of nerve pain, there’s no way to describe that. You can’t get away from it. Not any moment you’re awake, not any moment you’re asleep. I didn’t want surgery again, I wasn’t even 40 and they wanted to do a seven vertebrae fusion. I just said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.'”

“After that came many years of trying different things. For a couple of years I did the whole pain pill routine. One day when I got home from work I thought, ‘You know what, I’ve got to do something different. Either I’m going to let the pain run my life or I’m going to run my life.’ And I picked me.

“Time went on and then I started falling down. And at first I just thought it was because I had so much foot drop. The foot drop came after the other discs herniated. It got to the point where I just couldn’t pick my left leg up at all. I thought the falling down was coming from that. But the falling down kept increasing and increasing. I was literally falling down 40-50 times a day. Ultimately, I had gone to a neurologist to see if there was anything anybody could do about the nerve pain. The neurologist was so shocked at how much nerve damage I had. He got his partner and had him redo the EMG. He said there’s no reason I should be walking at all.”

“At that time, I could not sit down for more than 15 minutes and I worked over 30 miles away. And so I would drive part way to work and I would get out and walk around. And then I would drive the rest of the way to work. But by that time, my legs were completely numb. And so I’d call one of the maintenance guys and they’d help me get out of my car. They were so kind to me.”

“There was one thing that I did that absolutely in the long run made a difference. When I went to bed at night, I would visualize my body growing nerves. I did that for several years and I don’t think I missed a day.”

“I absolutely believed with all my heart that I could make my body be better. People, especially doctors would tell me that I just couldn’t do that, but I didn’t believe them.”

“I did a lot of meditating. I got a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator) unit and that was helpful. I started really accepting what some of my limitations were.”

“It’s not fixed. The herniations did go down and that helped. But what eventually ended up happening was that there was so much nerve damage that the pain messages quit making the circuit. I’d still have muscle spasms and I still stumbled a lot. I fell down a lot, but I didn’t have that excruciating pain anymore.”

“There was a patch of ice maybe the size of a half dollar in my driveway. I didn’t notice it because it was dark and I stepped on it with my left foot which has the least amount of feeling. First, I hit the bumper of the car and then I hit the cement. That happened again a year later, and again a year after that. The injuries were 2008, 2009, 2010.”

“The last of the black and blue went away the day before Thanksgiving. But the swelling didn’t go away for two years. Ultimately, what happened as a result of that, my brain started ignoring my right eye. That’s why I was having so much trouble with depth perception and balance. I had a headache for two whole years. It was from the brain injury.

“I’ve always been someone who was the word-master. Words have always been very easy for me. I could spell anything. I could tell you what anything meant. With all the cognitive changes, I felt like I lost so much of who I was. One of the things that I missed the most was the ability to really read. I used to read eight or nine books week. I went from that to not being able to read five minutes without a headache lasting days and days.”

“If it hadn’t been for really amazing professionals and the fact that I had wonderful insurance at that time, there’s no way I’d be where I am right now.”

 

Finding Encouragement in Achilles

“After I was done with PT, I really wanted to continue being active. So I joined different walking groups. But because I was really slow and I couldn’t do some of the distances, there were several times that I got left completely alone. Everyone else was gone and my car was the only one in the parking lot. And I’m somewhere I’m not familiar with and clearly I would make an easy victim. So i just quit going. I felt an enormous loss of my freedom.

“When I went to the presentation that you guys had at Goodwill, that was when I first heard about Achilles. I knew by the time I left that night that I was going to come. What really resonated with me was the talk with Karen. I talked with her a few minutes after and we have so many similar issues. When I could see and hear her talk with such feeling about the journey that she’s been on, it just made me feel like that I can absolutely do this. I think part of it too was I was in a place where I was very isolated and I wanted to change that.”

“The very first night I came, I got to the top of the Costco hill, then I had to wait a little bit and then come back. I didn’t even get down the hill. It was maybe a quarter mile. It was Jim that walked with me. He and I walked together quite a bit, especially as I was able to go longer. He was so encouraging!”

One of Pauline’s first workouts with Achilles Pikes Peak outside of The Colorado Running Company

“I do remember at the very beginning, you, and Anne, and Karen talking about, ‘Go at your own pace, you won’t be left behind, someone will always be with you.’ There was such relief in knowing that. Knowing that if I got to the bottom of the hill, ok, that’s where I got today. I remember when I first got to the first bridge thinking I had gotten really far!”

 

The Athlete Awakens

“The day that I started thinking of myself as an athlete was my first 5k. The Shield 616 at Memorial Park (Springs Spree). And every time I turned around, there you were. You were so encouraging and It was so marvelous and I remember thinking to myself, ‘If you think I can do it, then I can. I just have to convince myself that I can do it.”

Pauline and the Achilles Pikes Peak crew at the 2016 Springs Spree 5k to benefit Shield 616

“The turning point for me was that. I had so much fun and I remember when I got home just thinking to myself, since all of the back problems I’ve had, all of the nerve damage, altered feeling, three brain injuries in three years, all the visual issues I’ve had, doing a 5k was just something that I thought I’d never be able to do.”

“Once I got done I just remembered thinking to myself, ‘Ok, you just did something you never dreamt you would do. What’s next then?‘ That’s kind of how I looked at things as we’ve gone along.”

Pauline proudly shows off her medal after finishing the 4 mile NORAD Trail Race

“Making the decision to do the 10k’s was a direct result of rock climbing. I had been toying around with it for a year. Then, we had the first rock climbing and I had so much fun. I felt so athletic! I surprised myself because I didn’t think I would love it. It was so exhilarating. To be at the top of that wall and look down and think, ‘I just did that!

“One of the things that I realized around the time of the rock climbing, I realized that despite all of the things that I was told and eventually became to believe, I’ve always been an athlete. I was just an athlete with no support and nobody who believed that I was. Eventually I thought of myself as “not” as well. But the realization that I always have been was so enlightening.”

 

Pauline (left) scales the “Shark Wall” with Denise (middle) supporting at one of our monthly adaptive rock climbing events CityROCK Climbing Center 

 

The Power of Community

“I started thinking about all the years that I was a caregiver. I was still doing caregiving because I was then taking care of my grandson every week. My husband was sick for ten years before he passed away. We were married for eleven and he was sick for ten. I know what it’s like to be a caregiver. For the most part, they’re invisible. I talked to Tim Ashley (Independence Center) in one of the weekly meetings. I said, ‘I think there’s a big piece missing. What would you think if we started a group for family caregivers because they have so little support?‘ He thought it was a great idea and that’s how it came to be. We decided we would call it the Family Caregiver Encouragement Group. We are just now transitioning from that to the Cross-Disabilities Group.”

“Between The Independence Center and Achilles, I honestly know, without any hesitation whatsoever, that my life is so much bigger, and so much fuller, and so much happier than it would’ve been. It’s so important to me to be able to give back so someone else may have that.”

“One of the things that gives me so much joy and self encouragement is being able to challenge myself. I think that’s one of the huge strengths of the Achilles family as a whole. We have people of all different abilities, all different experiences. It’s so unique in the ability to have people that diverse together. It makes it so much easier to dream and to set a goal for yourself and realize that you are going to get there. And then you can have a new one. Coming from someone who truly never thought of myself as an athlete, but having people who are doing bigger things and then you hear about someone who did a different bigger thing. I think that is, without a doubt, one of the biggest strengths that we have.”

“The other thing that I think brings us together is it is uncommon to have a group of people that large and that diverse where there is no negative judgment. To be able to be in such a safe and encouraging environment. and to consistently be there.”

Pauline and the rest of the Achilles Pikes Peak crew at an overnight trip to Barr Camp in 2017

 

Why Not?!

“The confidence level that I have is so different than it was when I started four years ago. And it’s not just the confidence, its the dreaming about what’s next and knowing that I can have something next, and after that, there can be a different next. I don’t have that same fear of limiting what I can do. I’m much more likely now to say, ‘Why not?!’”

“There are other areas of my life that have really been enhanced by all of what we do. I wouldn’t have dreamt of driving across the country (to Washington) by myself in a car that’s 15 years old. But there are so many places that I’ve always wanted to see and you can’t see them in a plane. I don’t have any time constraints and so if it takes me three weeks, Ok. So, much to my son’s disapproval, I said, ‘I’m doing it.’ And so I did! I had a wonderful time. Between there and back I drove 4700 miles. All the way back the air conditioning didn’t work. So I drove all the way back in 90-100 degree temperatures in that van. I learned how to keep cool!”

“My sister lives just a few miles from the Washington/Idaho border. I went hiking on Mt. Spokane. That was really magnificent. There’s a certain kind of flower that was blooming at that time. It only blooms in a certain 1500 ft of elevation. There were thousands and thousands of these flowers and they were so beautiful. That was my first experience on a trail.”

The wildflowers that Pauline fell in love with while visiting her sister

“I would like to try a half marathon. The plan was to do the 10k trail races in April. I started working with Karen and we settled on one race a month. We’ll see what happens with my foot. If it heals up nicely then I can get back on track with that. If it doesn’t, it just will take longer, that’s all.”

“The first 5k that I did was a week and half before I turned 63. If I do the ADT (American Discovery Trail Race), it will be a week and a half before I turn 65. What an amazing gift to give myself!”

 

Dreams for Herself and For Achilles

“One of the things that I would like to do is I would like to go camping in Glacier National Park. I’ve wanted to go there since I was a little kid. I would like to do a camping, canoeing, fishing kind of thing.”

“After curling, it made me realize how much I missed skating. I would like to see if there’s a way that we could do skating. I always had really strong legs and I just loved it!”