I'm fitter now than I've ever been
Whizzing across the gym in her wheelchair, advising people how best to get strong, Jude Caunter is in her element.
In her early 20s, during Freshers’ Week, student Jude became paralysed.
Following that, she slowly got better and regained enough mobility to be able to walk with a stick, but the weight piled on until she became so big she had to cut the 42in waistband on her trousers.
Jude explains what happened: ‘It was 1987 and over the course of a week I went from a walking, fit 22-year-old to being paralysed from the waist down.
‘I had just started Portsmouth Polytechnic – as it was then – and it was during the night of the Great Storm that I was lying in bed and realised something was badly wrong.
‘Unfortunately, because there so much happening during the storm I had to wait all day for an ambulance. I became delirious, it felt surreal.
‘Eventually I was taken to Southampton General Hospital and doctors at first thought I had MS, then a condition called transverse myelitis – which attacks the nervous system.’
Over six months Jude’s mobility gradually came back, although she was left with a limp, impaired lower body functions and incessant buzzing in her lower leg.
The thought of going back to study was too overwhelming and instead she took a job as a ticket office clerk at Wightlink.
It was there the weight began to pile on. She worked shifts and the only exercise she got was cycling to work.
But she had to give that up because her condition left her unable to balance and she kept falling off.
She says: ‘By 2008 my disability had got much worse and I was severely impaired.
‘Because I was so depressed I kept eating and there were a number of really humiliating things which happened to me.
‘I bought an XXL men’s Pompey top and it was too small for me. A chair collapsed under me at my sister’s.
‘I ordered 42in men’s work trousers and was so embarrassed when even they were too small for me. I cut the waistband rather than go through the embarrassment of asking for a bigger pair.
‘And the acid indigestion was so bad I was going through two packets of Rennies a day.’
With her disability getting worse, Jude underwent an MRI scan. With a dangerously high BMI of 38, she was almost too big to fit in the scanner.
She says: ‘I knew it had gone too far, but it was a vicious circle.’
The scan revealed that Jude’s problems were caused by a cavernoma on her spine, not transverse myelitis.
She had a cluster of abnormal blood vessels on her spine and, over the years, they had bled, causing the on-off paralysis.
Her only hope was an operation to remove it, but she was so too big.
Back in 2005, Jude had fallen in love with Jeanie McKinsey online. After months chatting, the Californian invited Jude over to stay and they hit it off straight away.
The happy couple had a civil partnership in 2006.
They were both very overweight until one day Jeanie gave Jude an ultimatum: ‘I’m joining Weight Watchers. You can stay here on the couch and get fatter and fatter, or you can come with me.’
Jude decided to join Jeanie and together they went to their first Weight Watchers meeting in September 2008. Jude lost 5.5st in seven months and had her spinal surgery in September 2009.
Sadly, it did not work and she was left paralysed from the waist down.
It was a really tough time for Jude, who lives in Knight Gardens, Drayton.
She says: ‘I didn’t realise how difficult it would be for a woman in her 40s in a wheelchair to find a job.’
With Jeanie’s support, she continued to lose weight until she had hit a loss of 100lbs.
In 2012 she went on a fitness instructor’s course called Instructability, run by Aspire.
It armed her with the knowledge that you can be fit and healthy, no matter what your abilities are.
She soon started volunteering at the John Pounds Centre and is now a permanent member of staff.
She even takes part in competitions for disabled athletes. In 2014 it was wheelchair racing and this year she is focusing on discus, javelin and shot putt.
Jude says: ‘I wouldn’t be able to do half of this without Jeanie. Without her I would be a blubbering heap on the floor. There have been bumps in the road, with my operation not going well.
‘But it’s actually opened doors for me. I’ve got a completely different life now and I’m fitter than I’ve ever been.’
To see a video of Jude, go to portsmouth.co.uk.