Confession: there have been moments in the past, where I have envied those who have walked away from their TBI’s without any physical deficits. I believe that cognitive deficits are the most difficult to face, but pairing that with being unable to walk or use half your body, makes the entire process all the more devastating. I have also looked on in awe at the survivors who have returned to school or work within a year, or 18 months of their injuries. While I know that life is never the same for them, and in no way mean to diminish the truth of their struggle, I couldn’t help but stare on with a twinge of envy, in my moments of rock bottom grief or exhaustion.
It’s always been important for me to remember, that though things have felt like a very arduous and slow crawl towards recovery, there are those who look at us and can’t believe how fast it is all happening! Ah yes! Perspective: the key to unlocking gratitude.
Patrick has made, through our combined effort, slow and steady progress since his injury. It took him 3 months to speak. It took him 18 months to get his skull-cap restored. It took us two years to get him out of his wheelchair. It’ll take us probably another year before he can walk confidently without fear of falling. If there is one thing I can say for us, it is that we never, ever, EVER back down from a challenge, no matter who tells us is it impossible. We won’t be told we cannot do something. We are used to things taking time.
As a result, we have become olympians of patience.
A perfect example of that is this: on a somewhat overcast day in October 2015, Patrick and I arrived at Hearts Therapeutic Riding Center for an evaluation for equestrian therapy. This was something that I had fixed my eyes on for about a year. However, unlike some centers that offer indoor arenas with harnesses that strap into the ceiling, providing opportunities for wheelchair-bound people to ride, Hearts only had an outdoor area. This meant that Patrick would have to ride mostly on his own, with some support from volunteers using various “leg holds.” It took us almost two years to get him ready for that evaluation, and he had never been so excited as he was that day.
We entered the gate, and he walked with his walker towards the stable. We were still using the wheelchair at home. Hunched forward, Patrick pressed all his arm weight into the walker to stay upright across the terrain. We were soon greeted by Rindi, the manager and a stroke survivor herself, and Tom, a volunteer, TBI survivor and veteran.
As Patrick walked up the stairs to mount the horse from a platform (side-saddle style), I guided him up the steps, helping him clear his left foot. Though optimistic, we all knew going in that this may or may not work. We had agreed that it was to be an experiment. If anyone felt it was too risky, we would have to wait.
Patrick needed three people to guide him back onto the horse. He was terrified to sit down. I stood there, as a team of people tried to help, feeling every ounce of my body wanting to assist in some way, yet knowing that I could do nothing. As they tried to swing his left leg over the saddle, so he would be facing forward, Patrick’s face filled with fear. “Ahh agh!” he said, as they reassured him. They managed to get him on the horse, but as he took a step away from the platform, Patrick started to slide off. The volunteers stabilized him, but it became quickly apparent that he did not have the core or leg strength, nor the balance to hold himself up on the horse.
The bottom line: Patrick was not going to be able to ride.
With a heavy heart, Rindi had to refuse us therapy. It was late Fall, and the center would be closing in a few weeks. She encouraged us to return in the Spring for another evaluation. Patrick and I got his walker and slowly moved back towards the gate, and got into the car. As I turned on the engine, blowing hot air into my hands to warm them, I caught a glimpse of his face, as he sat there quietly.
“Well, that went great,” he said. “What horse would want me on top of him, with all this weight, and when I can barely walk?”
I don’t remember the particulars of our car ride, except that it was very sad. We were both disappointed, and his inability to ride was a big blow to our optimism. But I personally also felt fueled by the knowledge that it was not impossible, just another formula to put into practice.
“We just have to set this as a goal,” I said. “You can do it. You ABSOLUTELY can. We need to get you stronger, and then come back in the Spring.”
It should be noted, that beyond Patrick’s witty and determined exterior, lies a river of pain and frustration from his TBI. Nobody should have to withstand the suffering he has endured. Yet, I have always had an unwavering belief in his unstoppable potential, and regardless of how dejected or sad he gets, he still gets up the next morning and does the heavy lifting of recovery. This is the magic of our relationship.
So, we worked at it. We hired a personal trainer. There was more PT, OT and ST. There was more aquatic therapy in our pool. He had a month of Biofeedback Therapy in Miami over the winter. He ditched his walker in the Spring. We practiced walking every day. Then came yoga three days a week, which eventually turned into five. In the summer, I bought him a recumbent cardio strider. He started getting aerobic exercise. Knowing that he couldn’t easily walk or ride a horse severely overweight, he began to watch his diet. Then, he went completely vegan, citing ethical but also health reasons behind this change. By the middle of the summer, he was down 22 lbs and a hell of a lot stronger than he had been the previous October.
It was time.
On July 21, 2016, nine months since his initial evaluation, we pulled back up to the gate of Hearts Therapeutic Riding Center. This time, Patrick opened the gate himself and walked, though shakily, without assistance to the stable. He greeted Rindi and a whole team of volunteers, and met Barron, his new horse. We all knew that once again, this was an experiment, and despite our effort, might still not work, yet everyone was willing to try.
As I watched Patrick walk up the steps to the platform without anyone’s help, I remembered lifting his foot to clear it back in October. They instructed Patrick to sit back onto the saddle sideways, and explained how he would need to lean back a little, as the instructors would then swing his leg around, so he could face forward. I stood on the platform as this process began, feeling that same urge to assist him in some way, and knowing once again I could not. I saw that same fear come over Patrick’s face as he leaned back, and they moved his leg. I felt my stomach tighten in knots. But all in all, it went much smoother this time, than the last.
Then, the horse took a step.
Suddenly, like a dark cloud passing, all the fear on Patrick’s face was gone. And a huge, ear to ear, “cartoon-grinch-after-his-heart-grows-three-sizes” SMILE came over his face. He was riding!!! He had done it!
They walked him through the arena, conducting the evaluation. They asked him to put his arms on the horses neck, then on his own shoulders, and then to touch his helmet. They asked him to reach back and touch the back the saddle with one hand, and then the other. Patrick looked up, laughed and said, “This is the most fun I have ever had at a therapy evaluation… ever.”
As I watched him riding Barron, with dappled sunlight streaming onto his skin through the trees, I suddenly heard how quiet everything was at the stable. I watched Patrick, (with that smile plastered to his face), and my eyes filled with tears. I felt absolute pride and joy.
I realized something. Yes, while it is true that our journey has been slower than others, and it has taken us years to get to this point, the reality is that our life is richer than most people will ever understand. Nothing tastes as sweet as triumph, especially when you conquer what the world tells you is impossible. Nothing is as satisfying as building up another person and helping to give them back their life. Nothing forms a bond so strong as that which is created in the fires of trauma, and forged by the heat of love.
(Stay tuned for more stories, and information on how therapeutic riding can greatly assist in the healing of a traumatic brain injury. Subscribe to our blog for FREE today so you don’t miss any of the journey!)