Kathleen S. Bartl

September 21st, 1996 – Draper, Utah

This should have been the best day ever. Unfortunately, I chose to make one poor decision after another at a Horse Show I was competing in that Sunday. I took all I knew to keep me safe, and dismissed it as if I was invincible. As I cued my beautiful Thoroughbred to jump a more than reasonable jump, my poor decision-making changed the outcome of my life. My boot came out of one stirrup and I lost my balance. I grabbed my horse's neck as I began to fall. Everything I knew about my life would change in just an instant. As I lost my grip on Vic's neck, I fell down backwards on a 12x12-inch beam marking the outside of the arena. My helmet was pushed up and my Brain Stem and skull were crushed on impact. The horse's speed multiplied by my body weight meant my skull received 1,560 pounds per square inch of impact. As Life Flight was alerted by the 911 calls, I was unconscious, bleeding from my ears and my nose and quite still.

As my family followed directions from the helicopter EMT, they met me at the only Emergency Department taking traumas at that hour. I woke a time or two only to be thrown into a Code Blue each time with life-threatening complications. I had paralyzed vocal chords, a blood clot in my throat and severe damage to my brain stem and most other brain sections due to the shearing that took place on impact. I was in and out of surgery that day and was placed in the ICU in a coma with no predictable outcome.

As luck would have it, I was transferred to a full Rehabilitation program in a nearby teaching hospital there in SLC, Utah. I remained in a coma on a breathing tube for nearly six weeks. As I began to wake, I was assessed to determine what and how much therapy I would require. I was assigned three different therapists and my work began as I became more aware. I was to be a patient of an Occupational therapist, a Speech and Cognitive therapist and a Physical therapist. My schedule was an hour or so with each therapist six days per week. My list of major priorities was to learn to swallow and then to speak. My speaking would lead to being able to pronounce first one syllable and two syllable words eventually. I had no balance, could not walk, had double vision and no clear understanding of how badly I was hurt.

As time passed I eventually learned to walk and talk in the simplest terms. I ate and drank only thick sauces and thickened drinks for several months before my swallowing was safe enough to not drown myself. When I was released into home care, I required three therapists again on a full time schedule. As I got stronger and my fogginess lifted all I could think of was how much in life I was missing. I had a beautiful Thoroughbred horse just down the street at the Riding School standing in the mud and snow all alone every day. I was an Executive with a big job I could never do again. I was an artist who had double vision and hands that wouldn't do what I wanted them to do. I only had four more classes to finish my BSBM in college. What was I going to do?

My husband and I talked a lot about everything that was bothering me. We felt we had come to a solution for my frustrations. I spoke to my Dressage (horse riding style) trainer about letting me sit on my horse and learn to cue him to walk on straight sides of the arena again. I felt with time I may learn how to walk him around the corners. She agreed to keep me very safe while we did this work. She and her husband would help me out of my wheelchair and up into Vic's saddle each day until I was able to do it on my own. My trainer would keep Vic on a thirty feet lounge line connected to his bridle so he would always be under her control. This was the beginning of my first real therapy that I controlled. My husband named it “Life Experience Therapy.” This therapy was with my horse in an environment I loved. The horse's walk is considered the closest movement to a human being's walk. I was going to learn what I loved to do all over again.

I actually spent seven years doing this first kind of physical therapy. After two years we moved to California and we found a Dressage teacher there willing to pick up where my other trainer left off. I was getting a little more confident and a little stronger week after week. I trained on my horse five days a week in California for five more years. As time went on I had others in my world suggest areas I may want to explore. Even with a compromised balance center, I was learning to walk safely often times without even watching my feet! I found a Personal Trainer who had experience with stroke and knee replacement patients. I was taken on as a client. I learned to lift very light weights and ride the stationary bike for several minutes. I was slowly learning to put small sequences together. When I rode my horse, I could then begin to do very beginning Dressage. My son eventually talked me into trying to paddle a kayak in flat quiet water. He helped me overcome my new fear of water. He spent months teaching me to slowly come out of the boat and not panic. I would stand up or kick my feet in the water holding the side of the boat. I was learning to overcome fears and losses and began living a life again! Fifteen years after my closed head TBI, I was walking on my own, driving a car again on surface streets and feeling like I could be proud of my progress. Even when I wrote in chicken scratching and used only simple words, I kept journals on my problems and my accomplishments. After I retired my beautiful horse I continued on in my push to learn new skills and improve old ones. I was never as good as I had been but I was incredibly proud of how far I had come.

Today I am twenty years out from my TBI and do many exciting things. Under the name of Life Experience Therapy I am learning so much that is new to me. I took my Golden Retriever to Obedience training and found an Agility teacher who was willing to let us begin with one jump and one tunnel. It didn't matter how long it was going to take us to do more. I found a Personal Trainer that was also a Life Coach and he inspired me to take charge of my recovery journey. He was a published author and gave me hope that my journals could be a memoir someday. I began writing and speaking on the subject of TBIs. I had found a forum for giving hope to others about the journey to recovery. My final gift to myself was to have my memoir edited by a professional editor and see my manuscript accepted for printing and sale.  My memoir is called THE FALL – A MEMOIR – TBI – From Injury to Recovery Outside the Box. I am proudly selling my paperback and Kindle about thinking outside the box when it comes to how to accomplish a satisfying recovery by doing things you love.

Kathleen S Bartl