Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Painful Memory

In my last blog entry, I introduced my little black bag of wondrous medical devices that are such a part of my life since my riding accident. Now I'll tell you how it all happened...

It'll be three years this May when I was showing in the amateur hunter division at Horse Park in Del Mar, California. It's a lovely setting near the famous Del Mar racetrack, just outside of San Diego. To give you an idea of the setting, major grand prix jumping events and even the Olympic show jumping trials have been held there. But this particular show was just another in a series of county-rated horse shows. This one was large and competitive, held over the three-day Memorial Day weekend.

I had already finished one round of hunters on Barbie (her show name was Welcome Home), a Hanoverian-Trakehner mare we'd bred and raised on our small ranch. She was really a beautiful mare: dark chocolate bay with golden dapples, a big blaze and a distinctive silver-streaked tail. Plus, she was an incredible mover. She won many hunter under saddle classes and she was a great equitation horse. But hunters? Not so much. She didn't have particularly good style in the air, so we often placed in the lower ribbons... if at all. Yet she was a very good mount for equitation over fences and medals, so I used my hunter classes as sort of a warm-up for the horsemanship classes that always came later in the show schedule.

Barbie and I were hanging out at the backgate, both of us dozing in the afternoon sun, when my number was called. I had two rounds in front of me. I woke Barbie up just like every other horse show, by tapping her with my crop and trotting her back and forth by the oak trees that lined the show arena. When the gate opened and we started on course I had no other thought in my mind besides getting her on a 12-foot stride and aiming for the center of the first jump: a simple vertical with a box of flowers beneath it. I remember recognizing that I was headed for a long, weak take-off spot, so I pressed my leg into Barbie's sides to ask her to move up. She didn't respond.

What followed next was a chain of events that is at once crystal clear yet obscured. I know that Barbie arrived at an awkward take-off spot yet she began to leave the ground... and then changed her mind. That sent me on to her neck. Somehow my right arm got wrapped around her neck as she gathered herself up and stepped back. That motion pulled my arm and rotated my body so that I slammed to the ground on the other side of the jump, landing directly on my right shoulder blade (my scapula). I bounced up and then came back down again. I swear, I distinctly recall thinking to myself, "Oh God, now my head is going to hit the ground." And it did. But fortunately, my helmet absorbed the impact, because I was also aware that the ASTM-SEI materials did their job. I could literally feel the helmet expand and take up the shock of my landing.

I sat up right away. My first thought? That I was in terrible pain, and that I was banged up... But that my medal class was much later in the afternoon, so I could probably muster up the strength to still ride in it. See? I'm always the competitor!

And then it hit me: Parts of my body that shouldn't move were moving, especially something in my upper back. Then the excrutiating pain began and I fell back to earth. I have never felt such agony in my life. I knew there was a herd of people around me in seconds, including my poor husband, my trainer, my mother, some of my fellow competitors and the show's assigned EMT. I kept saying, "Please, help me," because the pain was so intense. I kept praying that I would pass out, but I didn't.

I'll skip past the ambulance ride to the ER because (eventually) I was so doped up that I only remember shadows and mumbling. I do know that my custom made tall boots were pulled off of me. And I overheard my husband telling the trauma unit doctor, "Please take care of her. She's the love of my life." I'll never forget that.

I ended up in the trauma unit at Scripps Hospital for two weeks. I had suffered a fractured scapula, a collapsed lung and all of the ribs on my right side were broken-- some in 2 or 3 places. Then I developed blood clots in my legs and one in my arm. That was especially disconcerting, because my entire right arm turned purple unless I kept it elevated. So besides tremendous amounts of pain meds, I was also put on daily injections of blood thinners to prevent clots from traveling to my lungs.

In retrospect, my time in the hospital played out like an existential drama. The nurses and doctors were great; I even had a counselor to help me deal with the shock of the whole event. But nonetheless it was as if I was trapped in a nightmare. Or some stage of hell. I was hours away from home and I was not stable enough to be moved to another hospital, so much of the time I was alone. And lonely. I had a series of roommates, each one of whom affected me emotionally in a different way. I had physical therapy three times a day and three times a day I felt like I was being tortured. Because I had minimal use of my right arm and hand, I was assigned exercises to regain some movement before the muscles atrophied. So my sister bought me a pair of large Beanie Babies to carry and squish. One was a cow and the other was a tan pony. Several times a day I'd get out of my hospital bed and wander the corridors of the trauma unit, carrying my Beanie Baby of choice in my bad hand and leaning on a cane with the other. I was just a shell of the person I was before the accident.

Once it got dark I'd lie in bed. Above the noise of the hospital staff and the glare of the TV overhead, I'd relive the accident. I had to come to terms with the fact that I hadn't done anything "wrong." Barbie hadn't suddenly betrayed me and morphed into Rogue Mare of the West. It was simply an accident. Period. But who'd have thought that after all the wild things I'd done as a kid on half-broke ponies, and after all the hyped-up, green, spooky babies I'd ridden, I'd end up like this on a horse that had won so many championships?

In a way, I felt betrayed by riding. It had always been the passion in my life. I lived for riding. When I needed a special retreat, I'd go riding. Now it had nearly cost me my life. It didn't help that my doctors told me that if I'd landed just 4 inches to the left-- directly onto my spine-- that the amount of impact I'd suffered would've surely made me a quadriplegic. For the first time in my life, I associated riding with being terrified.

There were complications that I had to deal with, but slowly I began to heal both physically and emotionally. It was a struggle, because the one thing-- riding-- that had given me joy for decades was the precise activity that had put me in such a disabled condition.

Next: You can't keep a horsewoman off a horse for long!


Anonymous said...

wow you are truly an inspiration. after all that you still love horses and you still love riding.amazing

saddleup said...

I knew you'd been hurt, but I'd never read the details. How did you overcome the mental trauma? I broke my scapula in a jumping accident, and had to sleep sitting up in a chair for weeks. And I re-ran the accident over and over again in my mind. As my body healed I still had so much fear. I can't wait to hear the rest of the story. Amazing.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I really admire you for being so ready to get back to riding. I've heard that you can't be a true horse person until you've fallen. Well, it's rarely that I ever to get ride so I've never fallen, but I hope when (not if!) I do I'll be able to want to ride again and not be terrified.

Jessica (14 yrs)

P.S. Your husband sounds really sweet!

Anonymous said...

....I shouldn't be allowed to read this when I'm PMSing.

"Take care of her. She's the love of my life."

I started BAWLING. Your husband is really sweet.

As the first poster said, you're truly an inspiration to have such a bad fall and still ride.

Anonymous said...

Your hubby sounds super sweet and romantic! Kudos for grabbing him!

Funny how the unexpected can come along so suddenly and change your whole life. You had lots of courage to overcome your difficulties and start riding again. The country song by Rascal Flatts, "Stand," might have been dedicated to you. The chorus goes:

'Cause when push comes to shove
You taste what you're made of
You might bend, till you break
Cause its all you can take
On your knees you look up
Decide you've had enough
You get mad you get strong
Wipe your hands shake it off
Then you Stand, Then you stand.

To me, the song's inspiring during hard times.


Cindy Hale said...

I let my husband read your comments. Maybe that'll get me a nice night out! said...

This kind of clever work and exposure! Keep up the excellent works.