• John McGary, Woodford Sun News Editor

‘I forgot to tuck’, Phelps recovering from broken neck


When she steps behind the bench these days in Woodford, Bourbon or Scott counties, District Judge Mary Jane Phelps is wearing more than a judicial robe.

However, after breaking her neck, the brace she’s wearing isn’t an accessory, but a necessity.

The injury occurred Aug. 16 during an outing to a Lexington “ninja gymnasium,” where people climb rock walls, navigate obstacle courses and leap on trampolines. Phelps said it was her idea to go to the gym with daughter Laura Jane, a law student at the University of Kentucky, and her idea to perform the sort of back flip she’d mastered as cheerleader.

“She was watching, and she asked me not to do it, but I did it anyway,” said Phelps, laughing. “We were playing follow the leader on the different apparatuses they have and we ended up on the trampoline. The instructor was suggesting a front flip, but I just said, ‘Oh, I’m not comfortable with a front flip. I used to be able to do back flips all the time back in my cheerleading days, which was 40 years ago.”

Phelps said she was absolutely confident she could perform the move, then realized, mid-jump, that her bounce was insufficient. Also, “I forgot to tuck,” she said.

“And I didn’t think to put my hands out to make it like a handspring-kind of thing and I just landed on my head. As soon as I hit on the trampoline, I heard the crack. It wasn’t good. I knew,” she said.

Phelps said there were lots of children there, and one of them, about 7, pointed at her.

“He said, ‘This lady needs medical attention,’” she said, laughing again.

She wasn’t planning on going to the hospital by ambulance, but tingling in her arms and pain so great she felt she might black out led her to reconsider. She was taken to UK Chandler Hospital, where she was examined, given a CAT scan, kept immobilized, and eventually told she’d suffered a teardrop fracture of her C-6 vertebra.

Because she was the on-call judge, and might be asked to sign a search or arrest warrant in Woodford, Bourbon and Scott counties, she asked Laura Jane to call fellow District Judge Vanessa Dickson after calling 911.

Phelps continued to work at home, and was behind the bench in Scott County the following Monday.

“I had juvenile court, I had people coming in from out of state on some guardianship matters, and it was really too late to cancel,” Phelps said.

An aide told her of a defendant who seemed concerned about her health or, more likely, thought he’d come up with a good reason to not show up.

“His mother called our office and advised that her son couldn’t make it to court in Bourbon County… because they heard the judge was in an accident.

“So my administrative assistant told her, ‘Um, the judge is on the bench today,’ she said, chuckling. “I wasn’t real thrilled that they tried to use my accident as an excuse.”

On her way into the Bourbon County Courthouse, she was greeted with a sign on the courthouse door reading, “Looking for experienced trampoliners,” and a deputy who enjoyed telling the story. At last Friday’s swearing-in for new Woodford County school resource officers, a child asked her what happened, and whether she was friends with the officers.

Phelps told the child, “I promise you they are friends of mine. They didn’t do this to me.”

Elected in 1998, Phelps won’t have to risk reinjuring herself by looking over her shoulder at an opponent this fall. She’s running unopposed, which will likely be the best break she’s had all year.

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