A horse of a different colour
The smell of wet grass filled her nostrils as avid rider Grace Hicks tumbled with her horse when the mare slipped on sod slick from a rainfall the day before. In that moment, her life took a devastating turn.
“We both went down hard,” says the 20-year-old. “It was a fluke accident. The right side of my body hit the ground, including my head.”
The impact was severe. Grace was air-lifted to hospital and placed in a medically induced coma for a week to reduce brain swelling. When she awoke, she had lost the ability to talk and walk.
After a month at London Health Sciences Centre’s Victoria Hospital, Grace was transferred to St. Joseph’s Parkwood Institute for rehabilitation.
"We all developed a great rapport and she trusted us to help her reach her goals."
“At first Grace was not interactive at all,” recalls physiotherapist Melissa Fielding, a member of Grace’s care team in the Acquired Brain Injury Rehabilitation Program. “She was tired and despondent, and her body couldn’t tolerate more than 15 minutes of physical activity each day.”
It was October 2020 and the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic was surging, limiting much-needed support Grace’s parents could provide due to visiting restrictions. Rosemary and Steve could only look at their daughter through a window.
“I couldn’t hold her hand or let her know we were there,” says Rosemary. “Steve and I had no idea what her prognosis would be.”
Slowly, however, Grace’s body began to tolerate more activity as she worked with her rehabilitation team – speech language pathologist, occupational therapists and physiotherapists – and as her body healed.
“We all developed a great rapport and she trusted us to help her reach her goals,” says Melissa.
The young woman’s ultimate goal never wavered. She wanted to ride again.
“That was it,” says Grace. “I wanted to get back on that horse!”
Once cleared to visit at the bedside, Rosemary and Steve watched and cheered as Grace began to regain movement.
“We celebrated every little accomplishment, every toe wiggle,” recalls Rosemary.
"I knew I had to get back on that horse. It meant everything to me. That’s how I was going to recover."
The milestones came surprisingly quickly.
“Grace likes shock value,” laughs her father. “The first time she walked we didn’t even see her coming. She walked into the room. We were astonished. You can’t even imagine the joy in seeing that.”
Hoping to refer Grace to therapeutic riding after discharge, Melissa had to ensure the ardent equestrian had sufficient trunk balance. While Grace could move from lying to sitting, standing and walking, could she sit on a horse? To find out, Melissa got creative. In the fitness gym at Parkwood Institute, she rigged up a bright yellow, peanut-shaped stability ball on a gurney and had Grace sit on top. As the team supported her from behind, the gurney was wheeled forward.
This horse of a different colour worked wonders for Grace’s confidence and ability. The care team began working with Grace’s riding coach, Shay Nejim from All About Horses, and, together, they developed a plan for riding and rehabilitation.
Within six weeks, Grace was discharged from Parkwood Institute – an achievement her parents attribute to the care team and Grace’s love of riding. Two months later, the team received an update – a photo of Grace beaming from atop an actual horse. Today, she is riding regularly and considering joining a horse-jumping team.
“I have been basically riding horses since I was born,” says Grace. “I knew I had to get back on that horse. It meant everything to me. That’s how I was going to recover.”
Still careful and cautious, and never taking her recovery for granted, Grace is literally back in the saddle, and so happy to be there.