By David Norrie
Having grown up on a farm in Nebraska and given birth to three babies by the time she was 21, Jenny Pollreis thought she had a fine understanding of patience and perseverance.
Dedication and hard work were always a part of her nature and were attributes that would be put to good use in competitive sports like softball and gymnastics. Whether it was waking up at 5 am to do chores as a kid or having a child at 16, she says her philosophy was always ‘just find a way to make it work’,”.
That was until a seemingly minor motorcycle accident in 2001 set off a string of challenges that would test the tough Midwesterner’s fabric beyond what she could ever have imagined.
Initially Pollreis felt lucky to escape the crash with just a sprained ankle, however in the following weeks she came to notice that the foot involved in the accident was nearly impossible to walk on and her ability to straighten it was only getting worse with time.
Several months and five surgeries later, physicians diagnosed her with a neurological spine condition called Post-traumatic Focal Dystonia, an extremely painful disorder which effected the nerves in her leg and prevented her from having full use of her left foot. Severe pain and spasms became a part of her daily life and the situation turned from bad to unthinkable when specialists brought up the unthinkable –amputation.
“I was shocked,” said Pollreis. “You just expect to be fixed and say upon each surgery, ‘maybe this will be the one’. But this time I was floored because I had never once thought of amputation. Never once did I think I could lose my leg.”
Devastated and shocked, her mind began to contemplate the consequences, like how would she be able to play with and take care of her young children? Or, what would her husband think if she didn’t meet the typical physical standards of a woman? A last ditch effort to try one more surgery to save the leg was accompanied by the uneasy task of starting to contemplate the alternative, going through life without it.
“By that time, the pain became so constant and excruciating that amputation started to seem like a viable option,” Pollreis said. “There was this constant battle going on in my head as to whether to do it or not. And I didn’t just have to convince myself, but I also had to convince my husband and kids that our lives would be better off by going through with it.”
Once the decision was made, there was no looking back and in December of 2003 doctors went ahead and removed the lower part of her leg eight inches below the knee. The 23-year old, mother of three, would now enter the next phase of her life in unchartered territory.
The first order of business was weaning herself off of the painkillers that she had grown accustomed to taking in order to endure the pain which resulted from multiple surgeries and tendon transfers even before the amputation. Not an easy task considering that when a limb is removed the residual pain doesn’t go away and can often be worse.
“Before the surgery, I felt like my foot was constantly in a vice grip,” she said. “And afterwards, even though the limb was gone, it often felt like a railroad spike was being driven through the bottom of my leg.”
Pollreis added, “I had always liked to think of myself as somewhat of a tough cookie, but I’ll be honest, I cried a lot on my pillow.”
And even though the most traumatic part was now behind her, her time as a patient wasn’t nearly over. Within a couple of months, doctors performed another surgery, implanting an electrical stimulation device in her abdomen to help to stimulate the nerves and muscles and ease the pain. Then came the arduous process of learning how to walk all over again working with physical therapists and intense rehabilitation. For this part, she’d hoped to draw upon her childhood devotion to sports to get her over the rough spots.
But the physical challenges were only compounded by emotional ones, as the stress of her ordeal was causing her relationship with her husband to falter, she and the children’s father, her first husband, were engaging in a custody battle. If anybody were looking for a reason to take her kids away, she felt this was it. With the kids at a crucial age, all under 10, caretaking and discipline were enormous challenges for a parent lying helpless in bed and struggling with depression.
“You sit there wondering what kind of mother can I be like this,” she said. “You’re in constant pain and feeling helpless, immobile and gaining weight, then your kids want something to drink and you have to scoot out of the bed and crawl to the kitchen to get it for them. So matter how strong you thought you were going into it, you reach this point where it demoralizes you and you think to yourself ‘what did I do’,”?
The turning point came one evening when her kids returned home escorted by the local police after getting into some neighborhood mischief. Unable to walk, let alone work and provide for them, and with the fate of her family at stake, she knew it was time for a major life change.
“In any situation, you have to find something to motivate you and in this case it was my children,” she said. “The thought of them being taken away from me…I knew I needed to get off my ass and do something.”
And she did. Starting at the Freemont Nebraska YMCA, Pollreis was given a scholarship of sorts, allowing her access to the workout facilities and at the same time giving her children a safe place to participate in after school activities. In return, Pollreis would volunteer her time and do whatever she could to help out, but more importantly, the Y provided a place to focus her energy and call a second home.
At this point, it had been nearly a year and a half since the amputation and she still wasn’t walking efficiently. Along the way, she says the one thing she had to keep in tact was her sense of humor, adding that her experience as a youth gymnast at least helped her in one way, learning how to fall with grace.
Falling was one thing, getting up was another. Being bed ridden and wheelchair bound for so long, her weight had ballooned to up to 210 pounds. Unable to accomplish much in terms of cardiovascular exercise, she turned to the recumbent bike, strapping her prosthetic foot to the pedal and doing her best to simply move again in any capacity.
As days and weeks went by, she forced herself to pedal forward, at times she says she pedaled so long her butt became numb from sitting. Working her way up to 18-20 miles per session, she continued to push the envelope, next drawing on her former gymnastics training, which led her to choose Pilates as the first class to tackle. With her core being weak and needing the stability to get back on two feet again, the targeted training would be pivotal in learning how to balance and walk efficiently. She likens the experience to a child having to learn everything, even the most basic of movements, from scratch.
“There were ups and downs all the time,” Pollreis said. “I remember falling trying to put up ornaments on the Christmas tree and just crying and then there were times when I’d fall down and I’d roll over laughing. You really test the range of emotions, whether its wanting to break down and say ‘why me’ in a little pity party or picking up a handful of rocks and throwing them across playground like a 2-year old.”
But on the flip side, Pollreis started seeing herself get stronger, working her way up to five days a week in the gym.
It took her almost a year from the date she stepped foot in the YMCA to lose her weight and get somewhat back to her old shape. And it was during that transformational journey that she discovered her true passion — exercise.
With her sights set on helping others to transform their bodies, she studied and got her certification to become a personal trainer in 2008. In December of that year, wanting to advance beyond the limits of what she could do with her current prosthetic, Pollreis went in for a second amputation in order to clean out an infection which resulted from exercising with an old device and reshape the residual limb in order to be placed into a more athletic and versatile prosthetic.
Following that operation, her life had come full circle in 10 years, from what she described as a helpless, wheelchair bound, financially strapped single mother, to person with purpose, direction and an enthusiasm for fitness. Most of all though, she was now a self sufficient woman again with the security of her children by her side.
In early 2013, she decided it was time for one more challenge.
“I had trained a couple of clients for competitions and I told myself I can’t talk the talk and not walk the walk,” Pollreis said. “I wanted to show women with obstacles that they can do whatever they set their mind to. I wanted to get up there on stage and rock it.”
Having dropped down to 110 pounds, the aspiring competitor knew she had to add and shape more muscle, so she changed her diet, adding more protein and began to lift heavier. She coupled those changes with HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), plyometrics and a mixed bag of cardio comprised of stairs, biking and of all things, running.
“I had a ton of motivation the whole time I was training. I said I want to go out there and be their competition and not be seen like ‘Oh look at that little girl trying with one leg.” She said.
On November 9th of this year, the 33-year-old who once had to crawl to the kitchen to get herself a drink now stood proudly on the stage in the best shape of her life. The show was the USA Pro Qualifier and Bluffs Classic in Omaha Nebraska. Competing against women more experienced than her and with the benefit of two legs, Pollreis took seventh out of eight places and says that the competition was not the culmination of her journey but just the beginning.
“Oh my, I was so excited and nervous at the same time,” she said. “My goal was to tell my story through my smile and once I got out on stage and saw the judges faces, they all just looked at me and with that look of awe and I just wanted to scream ‘HEAR I AM’!”
Having caught the bug and getting over the first time jitters, her plan is to continue to push the envelope and be an inspiration to others. Her message is one that has a broad audience.
“Everybody out there that says ‘I have kids’ or ‘I’ve had a knee replacement’ so they can’t do this or that. Well, this is for them,” Pollreis said. “Just because life gets you down, you can’t show weakness. When you feel like breaking down inside, just smile and find a way to make it work.
I wanted to set a strong example for my children and for everybody else who ever felt disadvantaged. I knew if I showed them I can go out there and stand on my own two feet and stick it to the world, they can too.”