Karen Northshield: a survivor and a fighter

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Karen Northshield Photo: Bernard Demoulin

Together editor Catherine Feore met Karen Northshield to learn about her incredible story.

On 22 March 2016, Belgo-American athlete, fitness coach, Aspria yoga and fitness trainer – and one of Together’s inspirational contributors – Karen Northshield arrived at Zaventem airport to catch her flight. She had come to the airport three hours in advance to check in her luggage and go through the rigorous US-gate security for her flight from Brussels to the sunshine state of Florida, where she was looking forward to a long awaited visit to see her grandmother and other family members. As she waited in line, to her left, a suicide bomber was also there. At 7:58 Karen’s life would change forever. 

Three suicide bombers entered the departures hall of Zaventem airport that same morning. One bomb exploded at 7:58, a second one went off within seconds, wreaking havoc. Later that morning at 9:11, a bomb would explode in Maalbeek metro station causing more death and injury. In total 32 people were murdered and 340 injured. Brussels was in shock, the world horrified. Ordinary people, going about their business, found themselves in the middle of the most deadly attack on Belgium since the Second World War. 

This year we marked the 7th anniversary of the bombing. At the end of December 2022, the trial started of the ten accused, six of whom have already received convictions in June 2022 for their role in the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, which murdered 130 and injured more than 416 people. 

‘Injured’ 

“I’m still trying to comprehend what happened on that day,” says Northshield. “It’s beyond imagination, it’s beyond my imagination. I was standing next to the terrorist, when the bomb exploded, I was swept off my feet, landing dozens of metres away, but I was conscious. If I hadn’t stayed conscious, I would have vanished, I would not be here today. So the fight, for me, started at that same moment.” 

Incredibly, Northshield stayed conscious for over an hour and a half, until the emergency services finally arrived. She lost consciousness once in the ambulance and didn’t come out of her coma until several weeks later in Erasmus hospital. 

“If I hadn’t stayed conscious, I would have vanished, I would not be here today”

The bomb had fractured her hip, leg and foot in multiple places, there was an open intestinal injury, she was suffering from asphyxiation, her hearing had also been hit by the blast, to name just some of the injuries. The prognosis was not good. Northshield was at death’s door and nearly died on several occasions. She was confined to a gruelling three-and-a-half years in hospital, where she underwent more than sixty surgical interventions, had multiple life-threatening infections, and was subject to many antibiotic treatments and experimental medicines. 

“My entire life was shattered,” says Northshield. “My body was shattered, my body was traumatized. I get around on crutches, I have multiple other handicaps. It will take an entire lifetime to reconstruct myself, but I will never be finished with my reconstruction because there are parts of me that are no longer there. I’ve lost vital organs, including my stomach and spleen, I’m missing pieces of my leg and I have post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). I was polytraumatized and no doctor expected me to be alive today. Each injury requires its own reconstruction, its own rehabilitation, its own care.” 

“Each injury requires its own reconstruction, its own rehabilitation, its own care”

I met with Karen at Aspria’s La Rasante country club in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, which I learnt is where she comes to for a lot of her rehabilitation work, swimming and physical therapy. I had done some background reading about Karen and was looking for someone who clearly had to be in a wheelchair, probably with several tubes coming out of her body. Then I received a message, she was in the café, seated in the corner. There was indeed a young woman, sitting in the corner with a laptop, but she wasn’t in a wheelchair and she looked very ‘normal’.

 Later in the interview I confessed that this is not what I had expected. “That’s my strength,” she retorted. “Most people are expecting somebody who has the attitude and behaviour of a victim. I worked very hard to preserve my body, although the doctors would have preferred to amputate my leg, which was severely damaged, knowing that this can often lead to complications with the danger of infections. Thankfully, I was spared this, because I’m an athlete, my body is my instrument, I need my body. Sometimes I wake up and I feel disassociated from my body, it operates in a different way, there are parts that feel stuck, or lazy, or slow. I’ve had to learn to cherish what is still there and work with it.” 

Three pillars 

It is very difficult to think of words to describe what Karen has had to overcome to be where she is today. I highly recommend watching her recent TEDx talk, where she takes us on a metaphorical flight and shares at least part of her approach. 

“I was thrown in the middle of a war scene, I had no choice but to fight”

Karen says that there are three pillars that have brought her to where she is today, each one has been critical to her survival. The first pillar is her will to fight: “Life was throwing a tremendous challenge at me, I was thrown in the middle of a war scene, I had no choice but to fight.” 

In some ways she could draw on her experience as an athlete and knowledge of yoga, through which she had already developed a strong and focused mindset.  In her TED talk she says we need to ask the right questions. Instead of waving our fists at the heavens and asking, ‘why?’ We need to think like a professional sports person, we need to ask ‘what?’. Assess our situation and ask what we can do to change it, to focus on goals. These goals were about her own rehabilitation, but as a trainer she was also asking herself how others could draw lessons and learn from her experience. Karen’s done this in a number of ways. She is a motivational speaker, what she has achieved by dint of hard work and perseverance is almost superhuman, there are valuable lessons that she can share. 

The second pillar of her path to recovery has been her family and friends: “There’s an expression I really like, ‘if you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together’. I found myself in a very long fight, one that continues today. In some ways every day is a marathon. I was going to need additional winds to help support me, family and friends to give me love and to give me hope.” 

TEAM KAREN – Brussels 20K

“Team Karen will run in the Brussels 20k for the fifth time this year”

Running for the victims and survivors of the Brussels Attacks 

Northshield has taken this approach to her ‘Team Karen’ project. Team Karen will run in the Brussels 20k for the fifth time this year. Karen can no longer run the race, but she is equipped with a wheelchair and a team of around 10 pushers who she motivates to “pulverize the finish line”. She says the team are her legs, but she is their wings. Her presence motivates them in the race and their lives: “We’re very excited about this year, we will carry a symbolic heart for all the victims and survivors of the Brussels terrorist attack. We have a very powerful message about hope, determination and resilience.” 

The final pillar is, of course, the remarkable medical treatment she received here in Belgium: “If the doctors were not there from day one, if they had chosen to give up on me at any point, I would not be here today.” 

A to Z 

Karen has written a book, Dans le souffle de la bombe (In the blast of the bomb, Kennes Editions), currently available in French and Dutch, but an English edition is in development. The book is a sort of psychological A to Z, in a sense it is a mental map that starts with Chapter A for Attentat (attack) and ends with Chapter Z (Zaventem). 

“Writing a book forced me to concentrate, to remember what happened and to put the pieces of the puzzle back together”

“For me it was also necessary to reconstruct with words,” says Northshield. “The bomb created chaos, physical chaos and mental chaos. Writing a book forced me to concentrate, to remember what happened and to put the pieces of the puzzle back together, but there are pieces that are missing.” 

“There are a lot of victims who are suffering from PTSD. Although I am still in recovery and rehab and have flashbacks, I choose to wear a smile on my face and be optimistic as I share my story and resilience with others. I choose to help others in finding meaning in their lives when faced with adversity and how to find and use the strength within ourselves.” 

When I ask Karen about the trial that started at the end of 2022, she says she sees it as a necessary process: “I believe in a democratic country and the law. For many victims it is a necessary step, a milestone. But in my case, it’s not something that will change my life, my life has already been changed.” Northshield is critical of the government for failing in their responsibilities towards the many victims of the attack who still have to fight for compensation and assistance. 

“I choose to help others in finding meaning in their lives when faced with adversity and how to find and use the strength within ourselves”

There’s a chapter in her book called F – Freddie Mercury, I asked Karen about this, and she explained that though she has lost much hearing she can still connect to music, the music of Freddie Mercury was extremely important to her as she lay in her hospital bed, trying to distract herself from the pain she was in: “I needed energy from another source, I’ve loved Mercury since I was eight or nine. I remember at swimming championships we would parade around the pool to ‘We are the Champions’, that was a magical moment for me. I found it energizing and powerful, it resonated with me.” 

I hadn’t listened to the song for some time. There is the victorious chorus of the title, but what I had forgotten about the song is that it is about overcoming adversity and injustice, and defiantly and resolutely fighting back, with ‘no time for losers’, the single-minded determination of the champion, a spirit that Karen Northshield embodies. 

Karen Northshield

Motivational speaker

www.karennorthshield.be