Body

How a serious horse riding accident gave me the new beginning I needed

A serious riding accident left Catherine Milford facing a bleak future, but little did she know the ordeal would usher in a positive new beginning.

It was a perfectly normal Saturday afternoon. I was chatting with friends as we walked our horses around the sunny arena, warming up for our regular riding session. There was no warning that the next minute I'd be on the ground, all 600kg of solid chestnut mare having rolled over my left leg, leaving the femur shattered – and life as I knew it in very much the same state.
There's no-one to blame for what happened. My horse spooked at something – and reared. Realising the danger, I opted for a 'controlled' fall (in other words, I would have come off anyway, but had some semblance of control over my landing). Unfortunately, Dream backed into another horse, losing her footing and rolling right over me.

The accident that had me fearing for my life

There are several minutes, hours, even days since that day in February 2018, of which I have no recollection. But I do remember lying on the coarse arena sand, feeling the sickening crunch of several pieces of femur grinding in my thigh, as if the bone had disintegrated into gravel.
I was told some more details later, but I remember my friend Karen holding my hand, keeping me talking and conscious. She directed shocked fellow riders not to move my head, remove my helmet or give me water, and to look after my daughter Jess, who'd seen the whole thing, and call my husband.
I remember the light-headedness from the nitrous oxide I was given so the paramedics could manoeuvre me onto a stretcher, and the most intense pain I've known (and I've had two kids.)
The ambulance ride to Auckland Hospital trauma centre is a blur, but I recall the emergency doctors discussing whether we were looking at immediate removal of the leg (note to doctors: a curtain is not soundproof), and me asking the nurses if they really had to cut off my favourite, very expensive Mark Todd-designed jodhpurs. (They did.)
I was transferred to North Shore Hospital, where I had to stay in traction for two days before my leg was straightened enough to operate. I vaguely recall weights hanging off the end of the bed, keeping my leg in traction, and needles and tubes everywhere.
Surgery on the Monday took several hours, during which my femur was pinned together with a Meccano-esque array of bars, bolts, nails and pins. Peter Misur, my orthopaedic surgeon, told me I had a 'comminutive fracture' – one in which a bone is splintered or crushed into several pieces – and during surgery, putting the bone jigsaw back together was like trying to balance shards on a spinning top.

A kind of pain I'd never experienced

During my two weeks in hospital I underwent a cocktail of x-rays, CT scans, MRIs, painkillers, antibiotics, blood transfusions, and intravenous solutions and potions. My accident, I learned, was well-known across the hospital; my injury, and the fact my surgeon had saved my very damaged leg, was the talk of the staff room. But while the immediate danger to limb was over, the hits on life just kept coming.
I developed a pulmonary embolism next to my heart as a result of the long surgery; a bad fall on my way to the bathroom on my hospital walker caused fears I'd rebroken my leg. The next morning, I received an email telling me my injury meant I'd lost the freelance job I'd put my heart and soul into for the previous six months. My life as I'd known it had combusted.
The next few months were gruelling.
My self-confidence evaporated; I'd changed from being a busy, outgoing journalist and food writer, to feeling physically, financially and emotionally up s**t creek.
For the first six months, losing my leg was still a real possibility. My house looked like a retirement home, with walkers, toilet handles, shower stools and crutches everywhere. I couldn't drive, shower or even carry a cup of tea without help. I underwent hours of rehab every week, and I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. More surgery followed: a bone graft to fill in some of the femur that wasn't growing back, then later an operation to replace the original metal shrapnel for different shrapnel that will stay in my leg for life.
The physical trauma from my accident was intense, but for a time, it almost became the sideshow to the mental and emotional challenges. I was angry and frustrated at feeling so dependent on others; I became emotional and difficult. My family had no idea whether they'd find me raging, crying or hiding away on any given day.

My leg was crushed but I wasn't broken

But no matter how hard it got, something inside me refused to give up. Being told of the multiple ways I should have died (one of the femur breaks piercing my artery or the horse rolling onto my chest instead of over it) gave me a new perspective over time. I discovered that to a degree, I was only as helpless as I chose to be. Cooking and writing, especially about food, has always made me happy, so I returned to it as soon as I could.
At first, creating one simple dish was agonisingly slow. But I had a purpose, and it felt good. I'd always meant to start writing for myself, but never got around to it.
A friend set up my website (eatscooksreads.co.nz) and I began putting recipes and food stories online. Eventually I realised that, far from taking me down, the series of blows had given me a new direction.
I didn't find out until months later that I was experiencing what experts call 'post-traumatic growth'. The New York Times describes it as "... the surprisingly positive flip side of PTSD"; the process of finding positive psychological change after adversity, in order to rise to a higher level of functioning. Put simply, it's coming out the other side of a traumatic experience and finding a way of making it work positively for you.
I started learning about ways I could help myself grow from my experience, rather than be defined by it, and in doing so, discovered I had far more up my sleeve than I realised. The key to my recovery was in nobody's hands but my own.

Positive change

It isn't easy, pulling yourself out of a pit that's swallowed you whole. It takes determination, good professional help and an awful lot of patience! I'm lucky to have a fantastic rehab team, a caring husband, great kids and very supportive friends; I couldn't do it without them. And I'm not at the end yet. But I'm growing every day.
I never wanted the events of last year to define me, but they have changed me. I've learned coping mechanisms as a way to deal with the chronic pain from the injury; I use mindfulness to deal with things that used to upset or frustrate me, and I've found online yoga I can adapt to fit my changed body. My priorities have changed too; I have a new appreciation for the family and friends who've stuck with me – I am not an easy patient! – and I am grateful to be alive, well and able to work, which makes me luckier than many who've had half a tonne land on top of them.
I've put my family through a lot, but if anything it's brought us closer. Through my website, my writing and my recipes, I've found a work-life balance that simply didn't exist before, and I'm looking forward to whatever adventure comes next.
And Dream? She remains completely unaffected by the whole episode. I even feed her an apple every now and again, just to show there's no hard feelings.

Post-traumatic growth

Trauma can come in many forms – divorce, losing a job, a physical trauma or event. But it needn't define the rest of your life. "People who grow as a result of trauma are generally flexible thinkers; those who don't like being told what to do, and optimists who tend to see the glass half full rather than half empty," says clinical psychologist Lisa Cohen.
"Chronic pain wears people down, so periods of depression are common; it can be hard to believe positive changes will happen. Many trauma sufferers can't work, and this in itself creates a feeling of hopelessness. It takes bravery and courage to work through the problem, but keep trying. Every time you try, that's growth."
While professional help is important, it's possible to help yourself through trauma.
Lisa recommends the following:
  • Do something meaningful. Knit for prem babies, grow strawberries, get part-time work; whatever makes you feel good.
  • Recognise there will be breakthrough pain at times and learn to accept it. It will pass.
  • Do exercise, even if movement is restricted. Exercise is known for its positive effect on anxiety and depression.
  • Meditation and visualisation can be powerful tools. Just 10 minutes a day can make all the difference.
  • Create a project or goal. It will help you focus and move forward.