50 First Dates: Life after a Brain Injury

Me & my boy Harvey, just a few weeks before my injury.

If you read my previous post entitled The Accident, you will remember that I was a crazy horse lady but a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) put a damper on things. My brain surgeon warned me that I should never ride horses again or I could end up with severe brain damage, rendering me unable to care for myself. Ouch.

You see, you never fully ‘heal’ from a brain injury. My doctors kept reminding me that with head injuries ‘1+1 does not equal 2’ because the damage is not linear. The effect of each brain injury is cumulative so you never really get to start over with a clean slate.

My neurosurgeon asked if I had ever had a TBI or concussion before & I said no. Then he asked if I had fallen off of a horse before or been knocked out & I said of course, I’m an equestrian! He then informed me that I have had TBI’s before. I was stunned. He said that every time you’re knocked out, that is a TBI. He also said that any fall where your head falls from 4 or more feet is considered a TBI. My horse’s back is over 5 feet high & my head sits about 3 feet above his back so that’s 8 feet total; a pretty long ways from the ground & more than twice the 4 foot ‘safety’ range.

Me & my horse, Bert, on a trail ride.

I had never heard any of those things before. How could that be? You would think the entire horse community would be experts on TBI’s. If you know equestrians, then you know they’re experts on everything! Nutrition? Check. Proper saddle fit? Check. Blanketing? Check.

On a serious note, there is a great organization trying to get TBI information out to the horse world. They are called Riders 4 Helmets. I highly recommend checking out their website & reading about others who have dealt with horse-related TBI’s. There are some incredible, inspiring stories & lots of good info about concussions.

I need a bubble wrap sponsor.

Turns out that most people that have had a TBI never even knew they had one. How many times have stamped your frequent flyer card by coming off of a horse? Then what did you do afterwards? You probably didn’t rush to the doctor. Most horse people just jump right back up & school their horse, untack & groom their horse, muck a few stalls, fill some water buckets, mix feed for the next day, sweep the barn – ya know, they take care of their horse & completely neglect themselves. Ibuprofen & a beer or maybe even an epsom salt bath if you’re feeling fancy. Certainly not heading to the doctor for a concussion screening.

Me & my other horse, Moonpie, competing in an obstacle course challenge.

I was instructed by my doctors to rest & give my brain & body a chance to heal. I’m not too good at taking it easy (or listening, for that matter) & I struggled with my new stagnant lifestyle. Luckily I have a very supportive family who took care of my animals during my recovery period. I wasn’t allowed to drive, exercise, go for walks by myself or even read. My friends joked that I was prescribed a typical American lifestyle! I asked the doctor what I could do & she said after a few weeks I would be able to watch tv. No documentaries or anything that would strain my brain, only mindless tv. I’m 100% serious that my neurologist told me to start watching the Kardashian’s show because it would not challenge my brain in any way. I laughed, she didn’t. She was serious. I watched it. I felt my IQ decline so I turned it off.

My memory, along with my ability to solve problems & make decisions, was left in the dirt of an arena floor in another town.

The TBI caused me to be exhausted & I had to take at least a 2 hour nap every single day. My nap schedule went on for months. For some reason I craved sugar after my injury. I’ve never been a big fan of sweets but I craved candy (specifically Mike & Ikes) for months afterwards. Light & noise were my enemies. My eyes didn’t feel like they lined up right which distorted my vision. I went to physical therapy a few times a week to get help with my balance issues. I was put on antidepressants to help speed up my thoughts & wake up my brain. I had no idea that they were used for anything besides depression, but it helped since I was struggling with that too. I lost my job of 8 years due to my injury.

So I was trapped in a never ending blonde moment. Unemployed. A recluse. Now what? I decided to view my injury as a blessing instead of a curse.


The Accident

I’ve been an avid equestrian my whole life. Horses have always been my passion & I’ve spent every second I possibly could in the saddle. Exactly 6 years ago on February 4, 2012 that all changed. I had a young mare (female horse) named Moonpie that I had bought, sent to a horse trainer & was trying to put miles on (aka: give her different experiences to boost her confidence, typical of what you do with a young horse). I had taken her on trail rides through woods & fields, ridden her in a cowboy mounted shooting clinic and competed on her in equestrian obstacle courses. We even won champion in our division in the obstacle course show with some stiff competition!

The Champion horse blanket that we won at the High Cotton Obstacle Course.

Moonpie & I riding in a cowboy mounted shooting clinic. She had only been started under saddle for 42 days at this point. I was shooting a .45 caliber revolver off of her (blanks! Not live rounds) & she handled it great. By the way, I highly recommend cowboy mounted shooting! 

In a costume contest with Moonpie. I was the wicked witch & she was my flying monkey from Wizard of Oz!

We were having lots of great adventures together but still had some challenges that are typical of young, inexperienced horses. Young horses, just like young people, are still learning what behavior is acceptable & what isn’t acceptable. They will test you at times & they may throw tantrums which are extra dangerous when they weigh 1,000 pounds! Each horse is different just like each person. Some horses are easy to train while others are more challenging, some are excitable while some are laid back. Moonpie was overall a good horse but would still test you at times. I’m more of a laidback person & aggressive riding just isn’t my style. Needless to say Moonpie knew that & would test me, trying to be queen bee in the pecking order. Basically I was the pushover parent & she had my number.

One day I decided to go with a group of friends to a cowboy mounted shooting event about 2 hours from home. It was a cold windy day, which can make horses ‘feel their oats.’ In other words they tend to be more feisty & excitable when it’s cold, windy, or stormy.

I got up early on the morning of the shoot & hooked up my horse trailer to my truck, noticing that the trailer lights were not working. With the help of my stepdad (a retired electrician), we got the lights working. It was an inconvenience & made me run a little late but wasn’t too big of a deal. I now look back & realize that was the first warning sign. I never believed in signs until that fateful day.

I loaded up Moonpie & pulled out of the barn driveway. A small tree was leaning over the driveway, probably pushed over from the wind. I maneuvered around the tree but a branch hit one of my running lights on my trailer & shattered it. That was my second warning sign. Not deterred, I headed to my friend’s barn just a few miles down the road so we could ride together to the shoot.

I arrived at my friend’s barn, unloaded Moonpie from my trailer & then loaded her onto my friend’s trailer with her horse. There were several people going to the shoot & there wasn’t enough room in the truck for everyone so I rode in another friend’s car, following behind the horse trailer. We got about halfway to the horse facility that was hosting the shoot when the tire on the horse trailer blew, ripping the fender off of the trailer in the process. Warning sign number three. Luckily we were very close to a rest stop so instead of unloading horses on the shoulder of a busy interstate, we limped the trailer to the rest stop. Once we parked the trailer at the rest stop we immediately unloaded the horses & got to work changing the tire. The tire change went quickly while curious onlookers asked to pet the horses & take pictures of them, which we obliged. We loaded the horses onto the trailer & the spare tire went flat. The horses once again were unloaded from the trailer, the spare tire was removed & a friend took the tire to a gas station several miles down the road for more air. A few of us stayed with the horses while the tire was being inflated. We were relieved to see our friend arrive back with the spare tire. The spare was once again put on the trailer & the horses were loaded. The spare tire went flat AGAIN.

Once again the horses were unloaded, the spare was taken off & the tire taken to a service station. This time it was inflated correctly, put back on the trailer, the horses were loaded & we were on the way to the shoot. We got close to the facility but got separated from our friends at a stoplight. My friend & I had been to the horse complex multiple times before but couldn’t find it this time. No big deal, we would look it up on our phone’s GPS. Well GPS took us somewhere but it certainly wasn’t the horse complex. We finally made it our destination (which turned out to be about a mile away) around 30 minutes later.

Our friends from the Double L Bar shooting club were already there & competing. I grabbed my horse & saddled her up then took her to the big indoor arena where the shoot was already taking place. We watched the shoot from the fence until it was our turn to go for an exhibition run (practice run). We entered the arena & did the pattern, weaving around cones. I was so proud of how amazing my horse handled everything & was beaming as we completed the pattern. At the end of a run you ride your horse in a circle, slowing them down before you walk them out of the area. This is where things went bad.

The rest of the events are very foggy but some were caught on video that I have watched since then & my friends helped fill in the gaps in my memory.

I remember not knowing which end was up & which was down, extreme vertigo. Gravity soon forcefully showed me which end was down. I was very disoriented & couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or if I was in reality. I remember hitting the ground very hard & hearing every vertebrae from the base of my skull to my tailbone cracking at the same time. I thought I was paralyzed which had always been an incredibly huge fear of mine, since I have a quadriplegic & a paraplegic in my family. I remember coming too, several minutes later when someone handed me the reins to my horse that had run away after the accident. I was walking somewhere but had no idea how I got up or where I was going. I remember someone saying ‘your hood is filled with dirt’ then emptying my hoodie on the arena floor. I remember hurting all over & being very angry. I remember wanting to ‘get back in the saddle’ & ‘not let her get away with throwing me’ but truth be told, I had torn my groin (yes, women have groins) so bad that I couldn’t lift my leg high enough to reach the stirrup. I told everyone I was fine even though I was confused, hurt, angry, sad & wanted to just hide & cry. But cowgirls don’t cry (in front of other horse people anyway, it’s a pride thing), so I put my horse in a stall, sucked it up & stayed at the show until nighttime.

Evidently we even went to eat at a restaurant after the show but I don’t remember. I slept the entire car ride home. My friend kept my horse, truck & trailer at her barn for the night while another friend dropped me off at my house. My mom called me & I yelled at her which I never ever do. I trashed my room then went to sleep. I mainly slept the next 2 days, only waking to eat & use the bathroom. The day after the accident was the Super Bowl. I slept through it & thought it was football season for many months afterwards, like I was stuck in that place in time. Light & sound were unbearable so I closed every curtain in the house, kept the tv off & slept. I had constant migraines. My eyes felt like they didn’t line up correctly, which affected my vision. My speech slurred, my thoughts were delayed, I had no short term memory. I did weird things like put electronics in the refrigerator & put milk in the cabinet. I was living alone at the time so no one knew the extent of my injury.

The accident was on a Saturday & the following Monday I went to the doctor to get a muscle relaxer or something since every muscle in my body ached. I got lost driving to the doctors office that I had been to many times before. I tried filling out the forms at the doctor but realized I no longer knew how to read. I could say the word on the paper but had no idea what it meant. Words had lost all meaning to me. I told the receptionist I couldn’t read & she asked if I ever knew how to read. I told her yes, I had graduated college, was currently in grad school & working full time. I tried paying my copay with a Lowes gift card & couldn’t understand why the receptionist was giving me a hard time.  She got the orthopedic doctor who immediately sent me next door to a neurosurgeon’s office. I was very mad about having to go to another doctor but I went anyway. I checked in then fell asleep in the exam room until the doctor came in & woke me up. I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury or TBI. I was told to be very careful & not to damage my brain any further or my injury would be worse and my impairment could become permanent.

At the time of my injury I was wearing an ASTM/SEI approved equestrian specific helmet. My neurosurgeon said that my brain was probably damaged by the violent shaking I experienced in the saddle so I probably had the TBI before I ever hit the ground. He said that helmets won’t prevent a concussion caused by shaking but they do help prevent skull fractures. For the record, I’m still pro helmet.

A few weeks after the horse accident I was in a car that was rear ended at a stoplight. I went back to all of my doctors as my symptoms had worsened. Any healing & progress I had made was completely lost & I had to start the process all over again. I started improving again very slowly. Then I was a passenger in yet another car accident a few weeks later while coming home from a doctor’s appointment. I regressed yet again, & had to start from the beginning again. My doctor’s were stunned that I could have that many brain injuries in such a short amount of time.

The next few years (yes, years) were a blur of doctor’s appointments, tests, more tests, referrals, specialists, therapy, medicine, & having my mom drive me everywhere. I wouldn’t speak in front of anyone for about a year because I was embarrassed by my speech & the fact that I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. I wasn’t allowed to drive. I carried a notebook everywhere, writing down everything (including meals I ate, people I had talked too, if I had fed the dog that day, if I took my medicine, etc.). I literally wrote down every detail of my life. I have since replaced my notebook with a smartphone & still have to rely on it for many every day tasks. Fortunately I have come a long way but still deal with issues every day of my life from my TBI.

My doctor’s told me to never ride a horse again or I could have a much worse prognosis if I received another brain injury. I struggled with adapting to my ‘new normal.’ I needed to find a new hobby that would take my mind off of the loss of my lifelong passion.