I got the news on our answering machine. It had been an ordinary day, doing ordinary things, and I got home later than I had planned. It was September 18th, 2001 - our personal Black Tuesday as I would later call it.
I heard the message telling me in a calm voice, that our daughter, 31 year old Karen Brain, was in the Emergency Room at a Hospital in London, Ontario, after a serious fall from her horse, Miko, at her boarding barn. She was ok, but she may have broken her back, and couldn't move or feel her legs. They were waiting for a Doctor to look at her. They would call back. I quickly called my husband, Bill, at work and he came home immediately. We waited for more news.
Karen's boyfriend, Rob, who was at the Hospital with her, called. "They're waiting for another Doctor to come and look at her, and they want to take x-rays, tests, etc. She's still on the stretcher in the waiting room but they've given her painkillers. Don't worry, she'll be fine." he said.
After several calls, we knew it was very serious. They were transporting her to another Hospital. She needed a Specialist, they needed to do surgery, and she was partially paralyzed from a spinal cord injury.
We made reservations to fly the 3000 miles from BC to Ontario on the 6 o'clock flight the next morning, the first flight off of Vancouver Island, where we lived. We would be in Ontario that evening.
We knew Karen would be devastated. Horses were her life, her love, and her passion. She had been riding since she was 8 years old, and her love for them was overwhelming. She worked at barns, feeding the horses, mucking out their stalls, grooming them, cleaning tack, and if the owner permitted it, riding them. Karen gave up Birthday parties (a big deal at that age), and other activities, to be with the horses and ponies. She would spend all day with them at the barn and walk home at dinnertime, exhausted but happy. Since Bill and I knew nothing about horses, and were very scared of them, we knew her passion was genuine.
Over the years, through hard work, determination, dedication, and talent, Karen became a member of the Canadian Equestrian Team, winning Riding Scholarships, Awards and Trophies. She successfully represented Canada at the World Equestrian Games in Rome, Italy in 1998 in the Olympic sport of 3-day Eventing, going clear on the huge cross-country course with her horse that she had trained herself, Merlin. She was long-listed for the Sydney Olympics in 2000 before Merlin unfortunately went lame.
This was going to be a hard blow to Karen. Walking to her hospital room, we braced ourselves for the sadness and despair she would surely be feeling. We were not prepared for it! People, flowers and laughter filled the room when we opened the door. There was Karen in her hospital gown in bed, hooked up to an IV and other paraphernalia, holding Court with about a dozen riding students and fellow barn workers and friends.
"Mom, Dad, I'm so glad you're here," she said as we hugged her. "Now you finally get to meet all my friends in Ontario!" said Karen enthusiastically, and proceeded to introduce us to them all.
It seemed everyone was in a jolly mood, as if they were celebrating something special. And Karen was at the centre of it all, making everyone laugh, with her jokes about her fancy bed clothes, and her hair that hadn't been washed for two days and was filled with sweat and dirt.
The next day and night were filled with dozens of more visitors, all wishing Karen well and laughing with her. It wasn't until we were alone, the night before the scheduled surgery, that Karen was serious.
"Mom. I'm scared. What if something happens during the operation? What if I don't survive?" asked Karen.
I tried to reassure her that she would come out of it ok, that she was strong and determined. But in my heart, I had the same concerns.
"Mom, Dad, I love you with all my heart. You know that. You've got to promise me that if anything happens to me, you'll find a good home for my horses, Merlin and Miko." Karen said tearfully. "Karen, you know that we love you so much. You're going to come through with flying colours. But we promise to look after Merlin and Miko." I said, with a lump in my throat.
"I want Bo to have Merlin if she'd like to ride him", said Karen. "He's a good jumper and she may want to compete him. If not, maybe he could be retired at Elizabeth's place. She always said I could retire him there." said Karen hopefully.
"And promise me that you won't let Miko go to just anybody. He needs a loving home too." cried Karen. "Don't worry, dear," said Bill, "We'll take care of them. We love you. We'll see you in the morning before your Surgery."
The surgery was scheduled for 10 hours. It was a risky operation, the Surgeon had told us. They were going to go in from the front, and if that wasn't successful, they would have to go in from the back too. The T 12 vertebrae had burst from the fall and they had to try to remove all the tiny splinters of bone from the spinal canal, without damaging the spinal cord even more. They would remove her 10th rib to make a new vertebrae, and build a titanium cage around the T11, the new T12, and L1. What they didn't know, until they started the operation, was that her lung had collapsed from the horse landing on her, so a large drainage tube had to be put into her lung, complicating things even more.
We went to the Waiting Room early. The Doctor told us he might possibly be finished after 7 hours if everything went well. I wanted to be sure I was there in case he finished early. It was a long agonizing wait! The room was large but it was very crowded. The seats were uncomfortable. News flashes about the New York Trade Center monopolized the two TV's in the room. Her accident happened exactly one week after the September l lth attack. There was no sound coming from them, and I could not concentrate on them. I kept my eyes glued on the door, waiting for the Doctor to appear. Finally he did appear, and our names were called. We went into another room.
"The operation was a success! It went as planned except for the lung." said the Doctor. He explained that Karen was a Paraplegic, and only "time would tell" what recovery she would get back. We would hear that phrase a lot during her recovery. She was in Intensive Care.
Two weeks later, Karen was moved to Parkwood Rehabilitation Hospital where she would get specialized Therapy to learn to be as independent as possible and hopefully be able to one day walk again. This was harder than anyone could ever know, except those that have gone through it. Her new life had begun.
Brain, Karen's Mom - with love
MY ACCIDENT AND RECOVERY
Hopefully the correct story finally got around because I was hearing stories about myself that even scared me! I fell off my young horse and landed hard on my back at exactly the T12th vertebrae and managed to destroy it, to the point that they needed to create a new vertebrae from my 10th rib, enclosing it in a titanium cage around T11, T12, L1. I hear models will remove their last ribs to get a smaller waist, so I guess Iím half-way there with one of my 10th ribs gone now!
I also suffered from a collapsed lung, when the horse rolled onto me after he fell too, and I had to have a drain tube into my chest for about a week following the accident. When they removed the tube, much to my dismay, I was surprised to see what I thought was a short and small tube, to be 18Ē long and the circumference of a toonie! GROSS!
These days are dedicated to myself now. Itís quite sobering to realize that how little or how much effort I put into my rehab will perhaps have a bearing on how well I will walk again one day! My appreciation for what we call ďnormalĒ has greatly expanded. I will never look at a person in a wheelchair the same ever again! They truly are the heroes! Gold medals, World Championship titles, and great accomplishments pale in comparison to what seems important to me now. What this life altering accident has proven to me more than ever is the magnified importance of family and friends! It is only with the undying support of all my great and dear family and friends, that I know things will be ok. I know I am loved and that comes first, because from being loved and with everyoneís support I know I will one day be doing all that I imagined to be doing before my accident!
I want everyone to know how significant your cards, flowers and phone calls have meant to me. They have been sources of motivation as well as frustration releases as I read everyoneís kind words. Peopleís generosity has overwhelmed me and I truly am grateful! Thank you!
I have been given a discharge date for December 13th, and shortly after that I will fly home to BC for an extended Christmas visit. When I fly back to Ontario, I will be an Outpatient in Rehabilitation Therapy for quite some time.
I continue to progress in my rehab and literally improve every few days. The Occupational Therapist and my Physiotherapist laugh because they canít keep up with the equipment I need since it changes daily! Currently I am trying to walk with the aid of two canes, and helpers on each side holding my arms up, someone ahead of me moving my feet forward, and someone behind me with a wheelchair in case I collapse. I still use the wheelchair for all daily activities, but it is a far cry from just 5 weeks ago when just sitting vertical in a wheelchair made me faint and nauseous. As each week progresses, my stamina increases and I am able to do more such as stand in partial balance on my own, with no assistance. For normal people it may seem like small changes, but when youíre living in a rubber-like body, every change towards normalcy is huge!
I look forward to doing things like trusting my own balance again, being able to walk, and drive, dancing, and of course riding! And I know it will come, all with time. Thank you again to everyone who has been sending me your best wishes, your support has been amazing and helped me see light at the end of the tunnel!
One year later! So much has changed with me physically and my rehab has gone very, very well. On April 29th I got on a horse for the first time, and yes, much to many peoplesí disbelief, I rode my dear little Merlin! I think he had figured out Mommy wasnít quite the same as before and actually relished in the fact that I couldnít really post the trot or kick or do more than Ĺ a circle without pulling up. I had a great deal of pain with my left foot and basically rode without stirrups from day one. I felt like weeble-wobble, only staying in the saddle from pure balance. Needless to say that my rides were short and tentative at first while I went through a whole new training process!
But soon I could post the trot for 3 minutes (Yah!), and I bought some of those angled stirrup treads to cure the pain in my left foot, and it wasnít long before the old me took over. I had predicted some great euphoric, emotional wave of feelings to sweep over me when I first sat on a horse again, including tears and squeals of delight, but nothing as such happened. All I could say to myself was, ďI suckedĒ, and that I had a whole lot of homework to do!
However, being tenacious has its benefits, and I am happy to say that since that rude awakening day on April 29th, I have come a long way baby! Once I felt more secure and could actually work on the horse and not just on staying on, I quickly got bored and needed a new goal. Thatís when I decided to literally pursue my previously talked about plan of looking into the Paralympics.
I still go to intense physiotherapy two times a week and my latest great desire is to be able to run again. They tie up my feet in such a way that my toes donít drop (because I canít move them up), and then two physiotherapists hold my hands while Iím on the tread mill. We crank up the speed until I have to run, and away I go! To be honest, itís the funniest thing. I look like a duck thatís running after a person who got too close to her babies; wings out-stretched, head and neck sticking out, and a waddling gait with her tail wiggling!!! Not quite what I was hoping for, but itís a start, and if thereís one thing Iíve learned through all of this, is that with everything, you just have to get started and from there go up. Thereís no use in waiting to be educated enough or fit enough or prepared enough to guarantee success, because there is no guarantee in anything in life, and personally, Iíve come to enjoy the getting started stage.
Iíve come to realize that in all our seriousness, we forget to see the humor in life. Had it not been for a sense of humor; my past year would have been filled with very dismal and depressing events, instead of the character building and family bonding year that it was!
My future goals include the World Championships for Paralympic riders next year in Belgium, and to start getting my jumping legs back again! Since Iíve reached my one year mark, Iíve been given the OK to start jumping again. Iíve jumped my good olí Merlin twice so far.
I guess if my accident had to happen, I can honestly look back and say that it really wasnít all that bad. Just another adventure in life, rightÖ.. yahÖÖright! I look forward to getting out next year and showing again, and eventing again, that is, of course, if all this Paralympic stuff doesnít turn me into a DQ (Dressage Queen)!
Thank you again to all of you who have so generously and kindly helped me during the past year, with your donations and expressions of well wishes! Every single person who has helped me has touched my heart in an ever-lasting way, and I think it is hugely due to the support that Iíve received that I have been able to heal as well as I have. Thank you!