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Spirited Northern Ireland teen Jennifer Smyth determined she will walk again

The Eglinton teenager, who has already managed her first steps in a US clinic, tells Stephanie Bell of her battle to recover from her broken neck, and the debt she owes the local community who have fundraised for her treatment.

A brave teen who vowed to defy doctors and walk again after she was left quadriplegic following a devastating accident three years ago has miraculously taken her first steps.

Now Jennifer Smyth (19) from Londonderry is looking forward to 2017 when she will start a new treatment that she hopes will enable her to walk once more.

In the three years since her accident Jennifer has inspired everyone with her optimistic outlook and determination to live as normal a life as possible and regain movement and feeling in her body.

Only a few weeks ago she learnt how to brush her hair again, and it is those simple tasks the rest of us take for granted which can be a huge cause for celebration as she chalks up yet another milestone in her long journey on the road to recovery.

Jennifer's life changed in an instant three years ago.

A talented young member of the Shooting Starz gymnastics club in Derry, tragedy struck as she descended from a vault in the middle of a training session on September 24, 2013.

She broke her neck on landing and was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, where she underwent surgery and was told she would never walk again.

She spent seven months in hospital, mostly in Musgrave Park, and vowed from the start that she was determined to walk again.

Her local community in Eglinton began to fundraise to pay for specialist treatments and physiotherapy, and to this day their continued support has enabled Jennifer to make astonishing progress.

It was those funds which allowed her to take part in a special programme in Orlando this summer, where she took her first steps since the accident with the help of a walking frame.

The journey to America was a difficult one for Jennifer as, just a couple of months earlier, she lost her devoted dad David, who died from a heart attack at Easter aged just 51.

Her mum Pamela explained how tough it was for the whole family, including son Christopher (21): "We lost David on Easter Sunday and he had just taken part in a fundraising cycle on St Patrick's Day for Jennifer to help get her to America, and we knew he would have wanted her to go.

"It was a month-long programme called Project Walk and it is aimed at realising the potential of people with mobility issues, and Jennifer was able to take her first steps using a frame that is a bit like a baby walker.

"They were amazed at her and the progress she made during that month.

"Now she needs special electrical stimulation treatment on her legs because to try and walk without it would mean damaging her knees.

"We hope that it will start in the new year."

Last year proved bittersweet for the family as though Jennifer made more progress and also started university in Birmingham, these achievements were all without her dad by her side.

Jennifer also underwent a major operation in London in January that gave her the independence to toilet herself. It was a complex procedure that took three months to recover from.

David had been feeling unwell when he and Pamela took Jennifer back to London for a check-up in March.

He had hospital tests when he returned home and it was confirmed that he had suffered a heart attack. He was sent home from hospital, but told he would be called back for more treatment.

Pamela said: "It was the early hours of Easter Sunday morning and he had just got out of hospital that day. He woke me during the night and I knew he was in difficulty. I rang an ambulance and I did CPR while I waited for it to come, but when the ambulance got here they couldn't bring him back.

"I still feel David is with me. I just felt we still had to go ahead for Jennifer's sake and I put my grief to the side, so that she could continue with Project Walk. David wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

"I have good faith in God and I just told myself this is God's plan, even though I didn't understand it. I just left it with God to get me through and He has.

"We got Jennifer settled in uni and I had to come home for September 30, which was David's birthday and our 22nd wedding anniversary, so I had two firsts in one day.

"That was tough, and it has been tough for all of us, but we talk about him all the time and keep him very much with us.

"We are just so grateful for the progress that Jennifer has made and to the local community who are still raising funds for Jennifer, which is absolutely marvellous. The money has allowed her to buy new equipment that is helping her, as well as pay for intensive physio in Birmingham."

Jennifer is studying 3D design making at Birmingham University.

Her course involves workshops, which have been a particular challenge. Without the use of her fingers she depends on a personal assistant to follow her instructions to construct items during her workshops, but in another breakthrough recently found a way to participate herself. She explained: "I have been able to do little things in the workshops and I am delighted.

"I get physio once a week in Birmingham and my phsyio teacher is great. My tutors are happy with my progress and I am really enjoying uni."

But being able to walk again has always been her main aim, so taking those first steps in Orlando last summer meant the world to her.

She said: "When I first woke up after the accident all I could do was blink. It was really exciting to get to the point when I was able to take my first steps. I'd never done it before without people supporting me, and I was able to move my legs myself. I was speechless.

"It was amazing being able to walk and prove to myself I can do it. I've now been told that I need electrical stimulation in my thighs, where my muscles aren't working, as without it I could damage my knees trying to walk.

"I am hopefully getting a 'Bioness' machine, which will give me that treatment in the new year, which should help me to stand and take steps." Jennifer's positive attitude has inspired others and she has been able to help people going through a similar trauma to herself.

There really is no stopping her. She has applied for her provisional licence, and this week she is going for an assessment to see if she can learn to drive.

If she passes the assessment, she will start lessons in what will be yet another giant step towards independence.

Both she and her mum hope to take part in the annual cycle race in their home town on St Patrick's Day this year in memory of her late dad, which he took part in before his death to raise funds for her trip to Orlando.

The family have just come through a difficult first Christmas without David.

But Pamela says it helped to keep their thoughts focused on what this year might bring for Jennifer and how best to support her.

She added: "Jennifer can look forward to a bright future and a healthy future, and she has the potential to have a fantastic life, which she couldn't have without the support of our local community.

"If people hadn't got behind us and fundraised for her, we couldn't pay for the physio she gets every week in Birmingham, which costs £170, as well as all the other treatments which have helped her so much.

"Without them, she would have been sitting in a wheelchair with her legs wasting away. We are grateful that people choose Jennifer to give the money to. It has really made us more aware of the need to support charity collections, because we know how important they are.

"Jennifer has a mono bike and together we hope to do the St Patrick's Day sponsored cycle in Eglinton this year in memory of David and to raise funds for the Chest Heart and Stroke charity.

"We are very lucky because we can see the day when Jennifer will walk with a frame or crutches, and she has worked so hard towards that."

Follow Jennifer's progress on her Facebook page - www.facebook/jennifersjourneytowalkagain.com.

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