PORTSMOUTH — Each colorful bead she slips onto a safety pin and strings together into a bracelet brings Brenda Murphy a bit closer to her dream that she and others with spinal cord injury will someday walk again.Jewelry-making is now the Westport native’s full-time work. One corner of her apartment in Portsmouth’s Bay View Estates is devoted to it. Strings of turquoise, tiger’s eye, amethyst, onyx and quartz beads dangle from hooks on the wall, within easy reach of her desk where tools lay among partially built watches and plastic bags stuffed with colorful bracelets.
With each sale Ms. Murphy donates a portion to the Christopher Reeve Spinal Cord Injury and Paralysis Foundation, the organization that helped her transition to a life of being paralyzed from the chest down and especially helped her recognize that her life was not over.
“Being able to donate to them means everything to me because they did so much for me,” said the 47-year-old, her vivacious smile framed by a stylish auburn bob. “For me to be able to give back to them is great.” The foundation provides funding for spinal cord-injury research which may one day result in finding a way in which paraplegics can walk again, she says. “Even if it’s not in my lifetime they can do this, just to think I’ve had even a little part of that process because of my donations is everything.”
So far Ms. Murphy has donated over $525 to the Christopher Reeve Foundation but her goal is to give $1,200 this year. She sells her affordable jewelry at arts and craft fairs, farmers markets, and other local events, as well as on her website t3creations.net.
The jewelry often sells itself.
“I always wear my jewelry, and I always sell it when I wear it,” she said. “People are intrigued by them. They’re a definite conversation piece.”
The accident that paralyzed Ms. Murphy happened in the summer of 2005.
She was riding Mr. Big, a 1,600-pound horse rescued from an abusive environment. Mr. Big had quickly grown to trust Ms. Murphy. “I got him to the point he was following me around like a little dog,” she said.
But one day that summer while practicing for an upcoming show, it all went wrong. “When I took the jump all went well but after we landed, I started to sit lower into my saddle and Mr. Big came up with a buck, we met in the middle and I was catapolted about 20 feet in the air. I landed on my head, which broke my neck, back and severed my spinal cord at T4 “Thank goodness I had a helmet on because it saved me from having brain damage.”
Several back surgeries and intensive physical therapy have been her path to rehabilitation. In her home she trains every day on special physical-therapy machines, but she also enjoys recreational sports like swimming and riding her hand-pedal bicycle around Bay View Estates and on the East Bay Bike Path.
She has an amazing support system — her two adult children Rachel and Cody who live with her, her mother Mary Lou Murphy and sisters and brother all nearby.
But it’s her spirit that has done the most work. Though her doctors insisted she let her back heal at least a year, she wanted to get right back on a horse.
“I couldn’t get back on a horse soon enough,” Ms. Murphy said.
She waited the year advised by her doctors, then traveled to High Hopes Therapuetic Riding in Connecticut that runs a therapeutic horse-riding program. Lowered by harness onto a draft horse, she rode round an indoor ring and on a trail, with people standing on either side to hold her up.
“I was just so happy I was floating on air,” she said. “For me, horseback riding, there’s nothing like it.”
But she also realized that horseback riding caused her too much pain. A solution was proposed by Rita Bellinger, an equestrian farm owner with whom she had become close friends from selling Ms. Bellinger one of her horses after her accident: What if she rode in a horse-drawn cart?
A few times a year Ms. Murphy travels to Ms. Bellinger’s farm in Norwich, Conn. to ride in a horse-drawn cart. “It’s just something in your blood,” she says. “When you have that passion for horses nothing is going to stop it, not even being paralyzed.”
Something wonderful came out of her injury, according to Ms. Murphy.
The way she sees it, if she hadn’t been severely injured she would never have reconciled with her father, William. While she recovered in the hospital, he slept by her side and handled all the health-care paperwork. Her parents sold their Westport home and bought a house in Tiverton — a single-level house that would be easier for their daughter to get into and out of.
“I would not change any of this for anything in the world because of the good things that have come out of this. He was my savior. He did everything for me. He was my moral support. He was there every day by my side.”
Two years ago her father died of a brain tumor.
“If this accident hadn’t happened, we would never have mended fences and gained our relationship,” she said. “I cherish it now.”