alsac-features-patient-back-in-the-saddle

Three-day eventing is a grueling equestrian sport where rider and horse must work together to perform three different styles of riding: dressage, cross-country and show jumping. This type of competition requires the rider to be in strong physical shape, be technically adept and have a good bond with her horse.

Sixteen-year old Elizabeth has both the mental preparedness and the physical attributes needed for eventing. Her favorite of the three events is cross-country, where horse and rider navigate a course full of obstacles generally found in the countryside: water, trees, logs, ditches and banks. Intense training, focus and determination have helped Elizabeth qualify for Nationals twice.

Focus and determination have also proved important in the most important competition Elizabeth has encountered yet: her battle with cancer.

In September 2007, while out with her horse, Elizabeth fell and compressed three vertebras. Pain medicine helped alleviate some of her discomfort, but it never totally went away. By April 2008, Elizabeth’s pain had intensified and spread to other parts of her body.

“Sometimes it seemed to be in her chest, too, not just her back,” said Elizabeth’s mother, Jeannie. During the summer of 2008, Elizabeth told her mother she felt bruises, but there were no marks visible on her skin.

Elizabeth's parents searched for a logical explanation. They worried Elizabeth’s fall back in September had been worse than they’d first imagined. Jeannie took Elizabeth to a local doctor, who suggested that Elizabeth had gotten knocked against something during a ride.

Physically, the pain was taking its toll. In bed at night, Elizabeth had trouble breathing. Riding, something that used to come so naturally to her, had become difficult. Elizabeth’s trainer expressed concern that she was getting out of shape. In November, Elizabeth returned to the doctor who had treated the compressed vertebras. He, too, was concerned. X-rays were ordered.

The X-rays revealed a shadow. A CT scan the next day revealed a mass. Elizabeth’s family feared the worst.

Horse-riding injuries can be fixed, and are familiar to those who ride. But the CT scan revealed uncharted—and rocky—territory for Elizabeth’s family. A biopsy revealed she suffered from non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The mass pressed against Elizabeth’s heart and lungs. There was no time to wait. Elizabeth’s doctor immediately called St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

At St. Jude, Elizabeth underwent five rounds of chemotherapy, which she finished in February. Elizabeth received her chemotherapy as an inpatient and the schedule was grueling: For seven days, she underwent aggressive treatment at St. Jude. She would return home for two weeks before returning for another seven days of aggressive treatment. For 90 days, this was Elizabeth’s routine.

Jeannie appreciated their visits home during Elizabeth’s treatment, but those forays back to the familiar were not always pleasant. Elizabeth was often sick. A local oncologist would take labs every other day and send them to St. Jude. Even away from the hospital, Elizabeth was in the constant care of St. Jude.

Despite the difficulties, Elizabeth persevered. She dealt with the sickness and the hair loss and the confinement to a small hospital room by flipping through her photo albums and lingering at the riding photos with her and her horse, Montini. She envisioned the day she would return to the sport she loves. She felt grateful to her St. Jude medical team because they matched her in determination.

Elizabeth recently finished treatment, and she is already back on Montini every day after school. She is working with her trainer and slowly building back up to the level she was at before her diagnosis. Her first competition will be in June. She’ll be ready.

 

April 2009

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