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Fierce Attitude on Four Wheels – The Jennifer Britts Story

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Jennifer Britts, the woman with a fierce attitude on four wheels.  Champion ATV Racer recovers from a serious accident and now sets a new standard for disability employment in the insurance industry.  Contact: rick.sizemore@wwrc.virginia.gov  annehudlowe@comcast.net   jbritts82@hotmail.com.  See photos of Jennifer in the gallery and visit wwrcf.org for more information on the safegiat.” 

Be sure to check out
Jennifer’s photos
in the gallery.

Transcript Follows

This is the VR workforce studio, inspiration, education and affirmation   “AT WORK”.   The workforce and disability employment podcast from the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, A Division of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Service. The VR Workforce Studio is published by our Foundation at wwrcf.org and is available in iTunes and at vrworkforcestudio.com. You are listening to the vrworkforcestudio.

A couple of things that day, telling me not to race. Every medical professional who has seen the video, they ask the same three questions. One, how am I alive? Two, how did I not end up with a cervical level injury and three, how did I not end up with a severe brain injury.

Singers: vrworkforcestudio.

Rick: Hi I’m Rick Sizemore, Director of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center.

Anne:   and I’m Anne Hudlow, Director of the WWRC Foundation

Rick: and we are bringing you the stories of people whose lives have been profoundly affected and, well sometimes forever changed by disabilities. Stories of how through the vocational rehabilitation process these unique and determined people have become independent and employed.

Anne: That’s right, but you know it’s not just that; it’s the stories of people who redefine what it’s like to have a disability. Stories of people who show everyone that individuals with disabilities have an enormous capability to overcome the obstacles to independence and employment. They set a new standard of what it means to be a “great employee” and along the way we’ll hear from the champions of business and industry that hire individuals with disabilities and the professionals that lend a helping hand in the vocational rehabilitation process.

Rick:   Today in the VR Workforce Studio – the woman with the fierce attitude on four wheels, “The Story of Jennifer Britts Today”. A champion ATV Racer who has collected trophy cases full of 1st place wins in races like the Virginia Cross-Country Series and the Extreme Off-road Event by VXCS. Jennifer’s racing career however came to a tragic end in a near death racing accident that left her with a spinal cord injury.   Yet through an extraordinary recovery from complex medical injuries and a long road of physical and vocational rehabilitation she is now blazing new trails and living life to the fullest. Using a wheelchair, she is still involved in sports, owns and drives her car and most importantly is bringing a new spark into the insurance industry in the work that she does in a new career, bringing that same fierce attitude on four wheels into her new life and work. Jennifer Britts is here in the studio; it is a pleasure to welcome you to the podcast, Jennifer.

Jennifer: Thank you

Rick: Well we are really excited to have you here in the VR Workforce Studio, Jennifer. We’ve looked forward to talking with you for quite a while now. Take us back to the beginning. Do you remember the first time you rode an ATV?

Jennifer: Not the first time. I think it was something that I had always done. Even as a toddler I would ride with my brother on his ATV or Motorcycle so it was just something that always came naturally to me.

Rick: So it’s part of the family.

Jennifer: Yea absolutely, a lot of my family members have ridden their whole lives and we would always have group family rides and things like that so it was very much a family activity.

Rick: Where did you learn to ride?

Jennifer: I lived out in the country, so we would, you know ride near the power lines and the railroad tracks there. I have a lot of family members who had farms so we would have campouts and cookouts and things like that or we would all take our AVTs so those are some of my earliest riding memories.

Rick: Sounds like to me those could be some of the most cherished memories of your life.

Jennifer: Yea I think so, they were definitely good times.

Rick: Well a lot of kids grew up riding ATVs but how did you get involved in racing?

Jennifer: Well, I was living in Nashville at the time. I moved out there to be with my boyfriend who became my husband and we decided to move back to Virginia we were looking for places to ride our AVTs here and there really wasn’t that many places where it was legal to ride within the area. So I found this website about a state series, it was called the Virginia Cross Country Championship series and we just decided to give it a try. My very first race was in 2007 during hurricane Barry…

Rick laughs at hurricane comment

Jennifer: And it was actually in North Carolina at a motor sports track. I had a lot of motor cross which was essentially about a foot and a half of mud due to the hurricane, but I didn’t give up and I ended up not only being one of the first women to ever complete a race in that series but to; I finished top fifteen, I think I was fourteenth that day.

Rick: I had a lot of fun getting ready for the show. I spent some time on the internet; hoodkit.com, lots of racing statistics. I see you won a 1st place medal in 07….so did you start winning as soon as you started racing?

Jennifer: Yes, I was the only woman that raced that year so I won the championship that year. In 2008 some other women from Virginia and from North Carolina joined the series, but I won the championship that year as well and then in 2009 I decided to make the transition to the national series.

Rick: Well there’s the Hoodkit website there’s also mxsponsor website. The list just seems to go on and on with first place wins for you, Jennifer. Loretta Lynn’s 1st place, the Virginia X-Country Series 1st place, FMF Steele Creek 1st place, and then The General GNCC 1st place.   For the first several years after 07 you seem like you were the woman to beat in the quad series?

Jennifer: Yes, absolutely. Laughs

Rick: You know even if you’re conservative in your estimates – you had, what I would call, a celebrated racing career?

Jennifer: Shelves full of plaques at my parents’ house. I don’t even know how many I have.

Rick: Well you know like a lot of sports there are risk factors and yet one thing I’ve come to understand when you have conversations about disabilities sometimes people get hurt in high risk situations and other times they get hurt in low risk situations there’s sometimes no way to make a lot sense out of it, but in your case there was a day during a race when you had a bad accident. Can you take us through what happened?

Jennifer: Well the race was in Yadkinville, North Carolina so I left my house about 4:30; 5 o clock in the morning, went to pick up my best friend and we started the truck down there; it was about a four and a half hour drive so I got to the track and nobody really knew I was coming. It was kind of like a surprise visit and I only hung out with a couple of friends. I walked a small portion of the track. I noticed I had an engine leak on my four wheeler and wasn’t sure if I should race or not. I had a couple of things that day telling me not to race, but I decided to anyway. I didn’t get a very good start; typically the women that I was racing against I should have you know blown them away yea. I didn’t get a very good start so I was trying to work my way through the pack and the first little wood section I made a few passes and I knew there was a field section coming up where I would be able to make the remaining passes. When I got to the field section, I accelerated very quickly and that’s pretty much the last memory I have; next memory I have is waking up in the hospital.

Rick: There is a video of the accident from a helmet cam. I believe that was from the rider that was behind you during the race.

Jennifer: Yes, one of my friends who I was passing at the moment of the accident had a Go Pro helmet cam on and she of course turned her head when she heard something and it caught the video

Rick: So this video was up on the web for a while understand it’s not really available to the public anymore but you carry it on your phone. Its got to be difficult to watch that video I mean the punishment that your body went through during that accident. I mean, it’s extraordinary. So I have to ask, how does it make you feel to watch this moment when your life was transformed?

Jennifer: I feel lucky when I watch it. Every medical professional who has seen the video, they ask the same three questions. One, how am I alive? Two, how did I not end up with a cervical level injury and three, how did I not end up with a severe brain injury. So I was just very, very lucky

Rick: One of the things that guests on this podcast do for us, you help us feel inspired by your perspectives……you’ve had a life altering disability and yet you feel lucky. Being in your presence inspires me, I gotta tell ya. So I want to thank you for that. The question I have is “how did the road to recovery really get started after this accident”.

Jennifer: It was very hard. I was in Wake forest Baptist ICU for a month and it was, you know, four and a half hours away from my family, my friends. In addition to breaking my spine, I broke a lot of other bones and had some internal injuries. So I don’t really remember much of that month. A lot of medication and breathing machines and things. My family was finally able to get me moved back to Virginia to UVA. I was in a step down unit there for a week until I was able to get my feeding tube and things removed. At which point I went to Health South Rehab Hospital and I was there for, I believe six weeks the first time. I had some medical restrictions so I wasn’t able to continue. I had to go home for about a month and once those restrictions were lifted by my spinal doctor then I was able to go back for an additional four weeks. During that time I met with Tracie, who like a liaison, and she told me about coming here and what I can learn and gain therapy wise and things that Woodrow could do to get me back on the road to getting back to normal life and work.

Rick: I mean, it sounds like you had some very substantial medical challenges that you had to overcome before you could think about physical and vocational rehabilitation?

Jennifer: Absolutely, in addition to breaking my spine I actually have paralysis from my chest down and then I broke ten ribs on my left side, my left scalpel clavicle so pretty much my whole left shoulder, it was almost detached from my body. Also had nerve damage that didn’t allow me to use that arm very much and then I broke all four bones, the long bones in my right hand so that wouldn’t allow me to put any weight through it. So when you’re paraplegic pretty much the easiest way to get around is by your arms; you lift yourself up and move yourself around well I had one hand I couldn’t put weight through and my left arm wouldn’t work. I couldn’t get in the positions that I needed to be able to move around on my own. So those were all things I had to overcome

Rick: And yet today you look amazingly healthy and functional, I mean you look full of life – so to see you use your chair coming in today, into the studio it was amazing just to know how significant your injuries were and to see you today.

Jennifer: Yea, it’s still ongoing. I definitely have been able to benefit from the therapy that I have ongoing, whatever I received here at Woodrow and also some outpatient care within the past couple of months.

Rick: What kind of therapy were you involved in to get from post acute to the point where you are today, again it is amazing to see what you have accomplished?

Jennifer: I did a lot of things working on just everyday stuff. Transfers, how to get on and off the sofa, in and out of the car, in and out of the shower, things like that, getting dressed from the chair. I also worked on brace walking. I don’t have any functional movement below my waist, but given the braces I am able with a walker do maybe thirty feet at a time. So it’s not functional but its good exercise, it’s good to be upright and feel normal for at least a little bit.

Rick: Well one big step in the vocational rehabilitation process is always mobility and particularly learning to drive. As an ATV racer, I can only imagine how anxious and happy you were to get behind the wheel of a car.

Jennifer: I was so thrilled when I started the driving program here. My instructor said I could have passed the test the first day but I had to log some time so that was certainly a task I did not mind. It was a lot of fun. I got to drive around went through the drive through Starbucks over here, that’s always nice and it was great. I was able to pass my test and then going through here and with the help of different organizations they were able to get my hand controls installed in my car and that was defiantly a level of independence and freedom that really helped.

Rick: What kind of modifications did you have to make to the car?

Jennifer: Just the hand controls and spinner knob is really the only adaptations on there.

Rick: How do you manage loading and unloading the chair?

Jennifer: I used to put it in the passenger seat but over the past six to eight months I’ve regained enough core strength and stability that I can now put it in the back seat. My OT and I spent a good couple of months trying to figure out how to get the chair in the car so for me now to be able to get into the back of the car in huge.

Rick: So this is a compelling story, I mean it’s a great story about you being a ATV racer but its real story is you going to work. I’ve got to ask you, how did you go from ATV racing to the insurance business?

Jennifer: Luck I guess, *laughs*. I had a lot of applications out and I just got a call back and had an interview and they offered me the position; I went in and my disability has not been an issue at all they have been wonderful.

Rick: So a standard in vocational evaluation is always the voc eval, helping people figure out, you know what your strengths are so they plan their future. How did this play out for you and how did you reach the conclusion that working in insurance would be a good fit?

Jennifer: I have an evaluation and it was decided that I had enough work experience and I was marketable enough that it would be best just to go ahead and try to get me back into the work environment.

Rick: You know I don’t think the average person has any idea what a person in a wheelchair has to go through in the morning to be up and out of the house and at work on time. Give us a rundown on your morning routine.

Jennifer: I have to get up fairy early depending on if it’s a day where I do a bow program or not; it’s either 4:45 or 6:15 so you know I have time to make sure that I can get showered and get dressed and I buffer in there time just in case something come up because you never know. I do have uncontrolled muscle spasms. Medications can’t control them so sometimes my transfers don’t go well so I want to make sure I have time that if something does happen, I’m still able to make it to work. So it’s and you know I’m still a woman I still have to do all the primping and getting pretty to go to work*laughs*So I have to make sure I have time for all that. *laughs*

Rick: Employers who experience this level of dedication begin to understand the commitment that people with disabilities have to have just to get through the day and that make them incredibly valuable employees. Don’t you think on some level you challenge the work culture to aspire to the work ethic that you have.

Jennifer: There have definitely been times where the supervisors have had me jokes. Like today, it was icy this morning and I was at work early and then my supervisor said “You kind of make everyone else look bad if they’re not here”. *laughs*

Rick: It’s kinda *laughs* It’s kinda hard for your coworkers to say oh I can’t make it when the girl in the wheel chair is in the office early on a snow day. So full circle now, you recovered, you got a new life, a new job, your heaths back. Do you still go to the races?

Jennifer: Well I will always consider myself a racer, but I have not and probably will not go back to an action sport like that just because I do understand the responsibilities I have and I understand that if I were to have an injury or any kind of incident that could affect that. I do like to ride my hand cycle; that a lot of fun. I like to kayak, that’s a lot of fun in the summer time

Rick: So what in the future for Jennifer Britts?

Jennifer: I would like to keep going with the insurance industry and you know maybe make some advances there and then I think probably the next thing on my list would be family; definitely would like to have children.

Rick: The woman with the fierce attitude on 4 wheels. Thank you Jennifer and all the best to you and yours as you take on the challenges of the future. Jennifer Britts.

Jennifer: Thank you

Music transition.

Rick:   Anne we have pictures posted out at the gallery at vrworkforcestudio.com of Jennifer. We have photos of her racing career; we certainly have one of her in recovery and most importantly have a picture of her as she is today. And what amazes me is how she could come back from where she was to be who she is today. She, in my opinion was an incredible and sill is an incredible athlete. We heard her talk about core strength – I’ll bet the average person has no concept of just how strong she has to be to pick up a wheel chair from a seated position and lift that chair so she can put it behind the seat of her car. Talk about core strength. I’ll tell ya, I’ll say.

Anne:   Rick she mentioned brace walking and how incredible she felt to be up and able to move around. If you’ve ever seen someone try to brace walk the first thing you know is its incredibly hard, and it’s not only physically demanding on the patient but the therapist who has to balance them as well.

Rick: Now if you would like to see someone who’s brace walking. We have a photograph of Jennifer in the gallery at vrworkforcestudio.com. You can see Jennifer while she is brace walking here at WWRC

Anne: There is something new on the Horizon in the field of PT as well. Our foundation is working on a project to install a system to help folks like Jennifer when they are brace walking or other kinds of PT applications when the person is unsteady on their feet, its called a safegait. I caught up with Sharon Russo, physical therapy director at WWRC and she explained what a safegait is and how it works.

Sharon Russo: Thanks Anne and your absolutely correct, brace walking after a spinal cord injury or trying to walk after you have had a stroke or brain injury takes an incredible amount of physical and surprisingly mental effort and so were very excited about this innovative new technology called the safegait. It’s the actual safegait 360 balance and mobility trainer and it would help us as physical therapists to do an even better job of helping individuals like Jennifer work toward their goals of walking again and their hopes for being able to do that. I think we take for granite our ability to walk, all that goes into that the strength, the coordination of all the moving parts, balancing our body over top of our feet and particularly in a variety of different environmental challenges. Just getting into work today, I slipped as I stepped on an icy patch of sidewalk. Immediately my body reacted to prevent me from falling, but for many of our clients they’re injuries interfere with that automatic balance response so they aren’t able to protect themselves from falling and they know that. So when we’re asking them to do things in therapy that kind of put them in a precarious position where they don’t feel like they’ve got control of their balance or they feel like they are going to fall because of weakness or balance problems and then they are also concerned not just of their own falling but hurting us as therapists who are trying to help them so you can kind of guess that might handcuff people in terms of their willingness to try those things that kind of push them on to the next level being able to get around . It’s an overhead, dynamic, body weight support and fall prevention system that would help us lessen our client’s fears around walking and balancing and allow them to focus their energy and efforts on the actual movements that were are trying to foster and getting them better at being able to balance on their own. So that’s what we are hoping for and were excited about the potential for being able to help people do even better than we already do so thank you.

Anne: So if you’d like to see what a safegait looks like and how it works there is a video of the safegait on the foundation website at wwrcf.org. Over the life of this project we’ll be posting videos and interview with Sharon about safegait so check it out and see this incredible new device that’s helping patients to have the security and assistance they need as they are learning to walk and while you are there you can learn more about our Foundation and how we are helping WWRC in their mission to prepare people with disabilities for employment. Again that’s at wwrcf.org

Music Transition:

Rick: Alright Anne this marks the one year anniversary of the podcast at vrworkforcestudio.com. It’s been a thrilling and exciting year.

Anne:   And I can’t believe it’s been a year, it’s gone really fast and you know Rick we’ve had over 3000 downloads, top ranking on iTunes, listed in new and noteworthy and you know while that’s all wonderful, I know you’ll agree me that these numbers this is not the reason we keep going.

Rick: I go back to really almost two years ago when we began talking about this and our deeply held convection that the stories of vocational rehabilitation needed to be told and we have this unique place in the world at the rehabilitation center and at the foundation to really see a lot of people with disabilities. I’m reminded of my friend Ralph Paccinelli, he was a forty year veteran of voc rehab at the federal level as a college professor as a practitioner and a person who was totally committed to voc rehab and one of the things he used to say said is that if you want to know something about disabilities and vocational rehabilitation, well you can take a class or read a book but if you want to experience the vocational rehabilitation process, if you want to see it in action and be around people with disabilities then the best place to do that is at a comprehensive rehabilitation center like WWRC.

Anne: That’s true, that’s true and in any given year we are in the midst of 2,500 or so people with disabilities that come to WWRC. So Ralph is right, here at the center we get to meet some people who are the most inspiring and who are achieving independence and sometimes against all odds. One thing becomes clear when you are around people with disabilities that you feel something on a profound level.

Rick: I think it happens to a lot of people. It happened for me when I met a young woman with a disability and she happened to look a lot like my daughter and I still remember and it was twenty years ago. I still remember that exact moment and what it felt like to look into her eyes and think of her as my daughter because her parents were having the same feeling that I had at that moment and I will remember that until the day I die.

Anne: Right, right and you know I think we all get that feeling of wanting to help when we see someone with a disability but VR is so much more.

Rick: It is indeed, our Podcast stories are not just about people with disabilities. Our Podcast is about people with disabilities in the voc rehab process …which means they’re at WWRC trying to figuring out what they are good at and what they might be able to do to make a living wage or as is being discussed in the innovations and opportunities act now, a family sustaining wage

Anne: And in addition to that the VR Process, it is about giving that person with a disability the support they need to be successful. Guidance and Counseling, Assistive Technology, Vocational Training the list goes on.

Rick: All the supports that go into helping them. You know I think what this podcast is really about is bringing you the stories of what happened because of VR and these incredible people that were helping. Like the famer with a stroke, I mean his farm was going out of business and because of Assisted Technology, modifications to his tractor, a left foot accelerator, and specialized physical therapy to teach him to carry his plants, he is still in business. Stories like George Denihey, learning to drive with no arms and becoming a motivational speaker, and we just heard from Jennifer, the ATV racer who’s now blazing new trails with a new set of wheels but continuing with that same fierce spirit of independence and commitment to the job that getting her accolades at work. You know I mentioned Ralph Paccenelli and I think what we all share is this real commitment to help. One of Ralphs favorite quotes that I have taped to my computer monitor and I have had it there for a long time is from Voltaire and it goes something like this maybe not exactly but, people engaged in the restoration of the health and well-being of other people are by the sheer exertion of their skill and humanity above the rest of the earth. They even partake of divinity because to restore and to renew is almost as noble as to create.

Anne: You know Rick you had mentioned about you daughter and I think a lot of times people come here and are uncertain about their children’s future when they drop them off for rehabilitation and I think that once they have gone through the process, they are amazed at the level of care that is given here and just to see the relieve in the faces of the families just, you know I think that really puts into perspective. The hard work these people have to do to get; to reach their goals but at the same time, what WWRC is doing to facilitate such a strong future which gets them to self-sufficiency and living productive happy lives and I think that the bottom line for a lot of parents and students and clients here that they’re getting to that point. One of the great things about this podcast is that you’re able to see this through these stories that we have been able to share.

Rick: And along the way, we get to hear from those wonderful employers. How their businesses are changed because of these inspiring people. We get the family members perspective, consumer’s perspective and this is the place where it all comes together so we are going to continue our march forward to tell these stories into 2016 and beyond.

Anne: Well that’s great and you know it’s been a great year; more to come in the future which is very exciting. We appreciate you for giving your time to listen and what we really hope is that you’ll continue to follow us and listen to episodes – share them with a friend.   And from our Foundations perspective we hope you visit us wwrcf.org to learn more about joining in our efforts to support WWRC. I’m Anne Hudlowe

Rick: And I’m Rick Sizemore, until next time won’t you join us as we all work together to create hope and path forward so individuals with disabilities can live independently and go to work.

Music starts to play.

Vrworkforcestudio, inspiration, education and affirmation   “AT WORK”   The workforce and disability employment podcast from the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, A Division of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Service. The VR Workforce Studio is published by our Foundation at wwrcf.org and is available in iTunes and at vrworkforcestudio.com

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