BELLEVILLE – The guests of the United Way of Quinte  achievement breakfast on Wednesday were silent as keynote speaker Denise Hepburn told her story.
Her story is about near-fatal injury, her struggle to come back, and the support she received.
A year after serving with the military in Afghanistan, Hepburn was at Canadian Forces Base Trenton and was taking part in a helicopter jump over the Bay of Quinte. In the jump, she broke her neck.
“I suffered a traumatic brain injury and had a lacerated spleen. I was just a mess,” she told the crowd at the Urban Hall.
“It was at that time that my life came to a bit of a halt.”
Her physical recovery began, and she was able to resume some of her duties, “but then the nerve damage kicked in, and it ended up ending my career … I became extremely vulnerable.”
She became withdrawn from her husband and children, she said. “I had a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression. When I realized my career was coming to an end because of my injuries, it was a really difficult thing to come to terms with.”
Addressing the main theme of the breakfast, which was that those who receive help from the organizations the United Way supports aren’t always who you expect them to be, Hepburn said that vulnerability “doesn’t have to look like poverty … It could be people who are sitting here every day that become vulnerable.”
But things started to get better when she got involved with an organization called Soldier On , which helps ill or injured veterans to recover.
“It was really that first step for me to get back to who I was before,” she said.
She went into a horse therapy camp with some of the people she had been on tour with in Afghanistan, and that helped her heal, she said.
She compared Soldier On to the United Way saying, “It’s the same type of support for people in your community.”
While Hepburn was recovering from her neck injury, thoughts of her tour in Afghanistan came back. She served there for seven months as a medic, looking after Canadian soldiers with everyday illnesses and those who had been injured. She also accompanied convoys that brought supplies to military bases, and twice while she was in those convoys, bombs – known as improvised explosive devices – went off. Those were the most terrifying moments of her tour, she said.
When Hepburn came back to Canada, she didn’t realize how much what she experienced in Afghanistan had affected her – until after she broke her neck.
Her family and friends were integral in helping her get back on her feet, she said.
“I went from hiding how I was feeling around my family and friends to just being able to be myself, and being able to deal with everything I had been through at that point.”
She applied to take part in the Invictus Games – an international athletic event for injured soldiers – when they were held in Toronto last year and was accepted. But she told the crowd that she sometimes felt she didn’t deserve to be there:
“I worked as hard as I could for that year leading up to the games,” she said. She competed in indoor rowing, swimming and sitting volleyball.
Seeing people at the games who had adapted and overcome their injuries was overwhelming, she said.
Hepburn says her own struggles with mental illness have inspired her to work with organizations such as the United Way to help others in the same position she was in.