"No day but today."
Yesterday is gone and today is here. Not many of us wake up every day with exuberance for what is to come, as ordinary of a day as it may be. It is easy to fall victim to the hardships and traumatic events that change the scheme of our lives. For some remarkable individuals, these things can be the impetus for dramatic change. Here is how one woman turned from survivor into thriver.
Jen and I arranged to meet at a vegan café in town for brunch. I am not vegan, but this seems like a safe choice for health conscious people. She is full of enthusiasm and energy from the moment we sit down. The waiter arrives and I order a cold brewed coffee to start. Jen declines to order anything. My coffee arrives quickly and we begin talking. I feel the concern of the hovering waiter as we occupy her table with only a coffee order, so I select the live buckwheat granola from the breakfast menu. Jen still orders nothing. As I pick at the generous bowl of granola loaded with fruits and nuts in front of me, I wonder about Jen’s aversion to eating today, but dismiss it as we delve into her story. I have the ability to order freely from any given menu, because my body can handle it. I soon realize that I take this simple pleasure for granted.
Jen was an athletic powerhouse in college. Her collegiate athletic career began at Brookdale Community College playing both softball and basketball. She was a solid 165 lbs of muscle that performed at an elite level. She was awarded the All-American Athlete Division III title three times in only a few seasons at BCC. Most notably, she was the first athlete, male or female, to be awarded this title in two sports. Jen finished out her college education at Seton Hall on a full scholarship and received Northeast Division I honors. In 2015 she was inducted into the BCC Hall of Fame.
A few years after college, Jen became chronically ill. Symptoms began at Seton Hall with intestinal problems and continued into her young adult life. Accidents happen, but to Jen accidents were a daily event. She accommodated. A change of clothes came with her everywhere and she learned the location of every bathroom in the tri-state area on the New Jersey turnpike, including malls, restaurants and parkway stops. She had no control over her bowels and her weight soon plummeted to 99 lbs.
After unsuccessfully attempting to control the symptoms herself, Jen turned to doctors and was quickly diagnosed with severe Ulcerative Colitis. Her body was attacking itself and at age 25, doctors told her she needed immediate surgery. Without it she was at high risk of her colon exploding or dying from cancer. Doctors told her she had the most serious case of this condition that they had ever seen in a patient of her young age. She didn’t know if the surgery would work or even if she would wake up to see her family again.
Jen woke up from that surgery to an entirely new reality. Doctors removed her parts of her entire large intestine, colon and a part of her rectum. A J-pouch was built out of her small intestine and connected to the remaining part of her rectum. A colostomy bag became a new appendage of her body during the four months it took for her J-pouch to heal. Also, there was bad news that she had a rare liver disease called PSC, Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis; she would eventually need a liver transplant. The following two years consisted of weekly hematologist visits for IV treatments and injections. It was impossible to live a healthy and joyful life during her later twenties. Imagine how challenging it is for a former star athlete to cope with a debilitating illness. “Getting back into the game” might never be a reality. Depression soon compounded her daily struggles.
You have to accept feelings of sadness, embarrassment and frustration in order to overcome them. The daily physical and mental discomfort of autoimmune disease is tiresome. There were countless times that she wanted to give in. However, the support groups that Jen attended kept her pushing forward and slowly shifted her outlook on life. At these groups she heard about the disabling pain and struggle faced by people from all walks of life, and she could absolutely relate.
Fortunately, doctors were able to reverse and remove the colostomy bag after her body adapted to the J-pouch. Two years later, similar symptoms returned. This time her diagnosis was Crohn’s disease and she was removed from the liver transplant waiting list. Today, Jen lives with two autoimmune diseases. On the road to recovery, Jen realized her desire to inspire others. She wanted to live her life proudly.
Often times a life-altering event is the catalyst for positive change. Soon Jen became a social connector organizing groups of family and friends for regular activities like hikes and bike rides. “Whatever you do, don’t run a marathon,” her doctors advised her. Despite that advice, on April 11, 2011, she recruited 40 of her family and friends to complete the Tough Mudder event together. She was so moved by the feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie following this event that she decided to create something bigger. From this vision, she launched Team Braveheart Athletics. Using social media, Jen quickly built a network of like-minded people to push each other to the finish line in obstacle course races. Everybody on the team has different challenges, be they large or small, and everyone has different ability levels, but they all start the race together and wait for each other at the finish line. The team is over 2,600 members strong and growing nationwide. It even has an official anthem they sing to carry them through the long courses. The team is full of warriors that draw strength from the many health and mental battles they have already overcome. Jen’s signature motto is “be BRAVE.” She says, “being brave is pushing yourself” beyond your limits. She describes Team Braveheart as “a movement, a mentality, a way to remind yourself that anything is possible. We can use these tools in everyday life.” Jen has seen her legacy of bravery passed on to friends and the children of those people she taught. Team Braveheart is always united by heart, no matter where life takes them.
Anyone that knows Jen can attest that she conquers these diseases every single day. Over the past 4 years Jen has completed 100 events all while leading and inspiring so many others. She is also a motivational speaker, mostly speaking at schools about anti-bullying, leadership and team-building. Team Braveheart has a webpage, a Facebook page and an Instagram account.
Jen has always had an admiration of tattoos. In high school, Jen added a tribal band to her ankle as her first foray into permanent body art. The dragon on the back of her neck is a symbol of strength and power. Three simple stars on her wrist symbolize the beginning of a new life. Emblazoned on her thigh is the Team Braveheart logo, a burning heart with a “Be Brave” banner. Her family unit is represented by three arrows on the back of her arm --- Jen, Mindy and her stepson Travis. Finally, the inside of her right bicep reads “No day but today,” her daily mantra. The time that her mother found Jen’s medication in the garbage, she reminded her, “Remember you said, ‘No day but today.’” These expressions on her body serve as little reminders, and fuel for the fire that she has to live every day passionately. Jen has six tattoos and plans to add more.
The day we met, Jen was wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt, cargo shorts and Mexican sundial ring. Her eyes are a clear blue that speak with intensity. She has a sweet voice but might occasionally be mistakenly addressed as “sir.” She has a style that is uniquely her own.
Though currently a bright blonde Mohawk, Jen’s hair has a long history of different styles and colors. In fact, Jen used to cut hair for extra money in college. Growing up with a beautician mother, Jen actually went through a stereotypical “girly” phase when she was younger. Her hair was long and blonde. She was a cheerleader, and she entered a Miss America Pre-Teen pageant. Jen struggled to be comfortable with herself in her younger years. Before she went into surgery, at age 25, Jen finally revealed her homosexuality to her parents. Today, Jen’s mother cuts her Mohawk and she visits a barber for shaves and designs. Jen is happily engaged to the love of her life, Mindy.
Jen’s style is unapologetic. She expresses living outside of the box through her style preferences. Her style advice is to “rock it with confidence and bravery.” Camouflage appeals to the warrior she is at heart. Jen wore her game day face to this photo shoot. All Team Braveheart athletes complete their events wearing this trademark “war paint” on their faces. Jen explains that it is inspired by nature, “red and black are nature’s warning colors.” Her everyday attire is casual. She shops everything from Goodwill to JCrew for her threads. Nothing makes Jen happier than a pair of jeans, T-shirt and a hat. But she loves to dress up in a suit and tie when called for.
The orange and blue wristbands she wears are from AL1VE Magnetics, a sports performance clothing company. Jen is a company ambassador, along with elite athletes from all over the country.
Jen’s ultimate goal is to live a long happy life. She has no idea how much her lifespan may be shortened by her health battles, but every day she challenges herself to learn more about living healthy. She lives life one day at a time, because she knows we are never guaranteed more than the current moment. A fiancé and a stepson have brought new meaning, goals and dreams into her life. Extreme sports are no longer her priority, but staying healthy in mind, body and spirit for herself and for her family is at the top of her goals.
When life hands you so many extreme highs and lows, you begin seeking peace and balance in your life. Jen says, “we live life trying to find peace.” It’s a rare quality to capture even for a short time in our daily lives, but Jen believes “you get out of life what you put into it.”
Jen admires people who express themselves through art. She thinks artists of all kinds teach us about compassion through their means of expression. It requires a quality of fearlessness to offer art to the world.
To say Jen has achieved a lot against all odds is an understatement. Against her doctor’s recommendation, Jen ran and finished the NY marathon in November 2014. She didn’t run it for competition or for time. She ran it to finish all 26 miles through all five boroughs of NYC, and she did it with only one restroom break, an incredible feat considering her health background. A burst of energy and determination made her last three miles the fastest. Jen is proud to be living a full life and proud to share her story with the world.
Jen is always animated. She is full of excitement when she speaks. Her social media accounts have so many pictures of her captured airborne and kicking her legs out to one side. I’m convinced her “spirit animal” is a jumping frog and I wanted to capture that same energy and playfulness in these pictures. These pictures were taken at Asbury Park boardwalk where Jen enthusiastically hung from monkey bars, jumped from the top of the playground slide and snuck behind caution tape for a good picture. The final picture captures it all--- BRAVE, fearless and fun.