Three years after a freak horse-riding accident almost left her daughter Abby (not her real name) permanently paralysed waist down, Marina B. is still struggling with overwhelming mum guilt and regret.
On that fateful day in September 2017, the 44-year-old senior administrative manager did what many mums would do when her daughter wanted to skip her riding lesson because she “wasn’t in the mood”.
“That day, I insisted that she go for her lesson,” Marina says.
“I told her to be fair to her coach, because every time she cancelled, lessons would be affected. Plus, she had been missing her training sessions regularly and wasn’t feeling unwell or particularly flooded with homework that day.”
Abby, who was 14 years old then and a confident rider, was practising a new move inside the training paddock when the horse suddenly bolted. It threw her out of the saddle. She landed on her back, fracturing her spine in the process.
“Everything happened so suddenly and everyone was shocked because all the horses that they use for training have always been good-tempered. I heard that after it jumped, the horse simply stepped aside as if nothing happened. My husband, who had accompanied my daughter to her lesson, witnessed it all and was badly shaken,” says Marina, who has an older daughter aged 24.
She was getting ready for a family dinner when the call from her husband came.
“I thought they were on their way home. I never expected my husband to call to tell me Abby hurt her back. He sounded very agitated and was talking very fast. I dropped everything to rush to the hospital,” she shares.
Wracked by guilt
An overwhelming sense of guilt hit her. “I kept asking myself how could I have been such an ignoring and uncaring mother. Why did I insist that she go for her lesson?
“On the other hand, I kept wondering if an accident was truly meant to happen that day. Would something even worse have happened?” Marina says.
At the emergency room, doctors scrambled to pinpoint the exact location of the girl’s fractures and ran tests to assess if she still had sensations in her lower limbs.
Scans showed that she suffered a compression fracture and several hairline fractures in her vertebrae, which act as a support column to hold up the spine.
Marina’s heart sank when she saw her daughter on the stretcher, still in her riding gear. Dehydrated and in immense pain, Abby sobbed throughout the entire ordeal.
“She couldn’t move or cry out loud because that would hurt further. She simply lay there, with tears streaming down. One of my first thoughts was whether she could walk ever again,” she says.
Abby was fortunate to have narrowly escaped permanent disability.
“The doctors told us not to worry. The injury would not be life-threatening and she would be able to walk eventually. But if the fracture had been one level lower, she could have been paralysed,” Marina says.
The slow, painful recovery
Abby spent four days in the intensive care unit and wore a back brace for two months.
For the formerly-active and fit teenager, the recovery period was challenging and painful – both physically and mentally. To cope with the physical pain, she took painkillers every day.
For a long time, she could not carry or lift heavier items, such as her school bag, or climb steps.
“When she returned to school after three weeks, she could only carry a laptop, nothing more than 2kg. She also could not undergo physical activities for a year,” says Marina.
Just as Abby seemed to be healing well from her injuries and began walking well again, the incident came back to haunt them. About eight months after the accident, the teen started complaining of ear pain.
“We thought it was an ear-piercing issue and took her to the ENT doctor, who ran tests and advised surgery as something seemed to be moving inside her ear,” shares Marina.
It turned out to a piece of ear cartilage that had broken off.
Recounting the doctor’s bewilderment, Marina shares that she was told that the condition is usually seen in some children with congenital issues and motorbike riders who are involved in road accidents.
The ear cartilage can be damaged when helmets are pressed against the ear at the point of impact.
“When the doctor mentioned the motorbike riders and helmet, I went ‘oh my God!’ and then put two and two together,” she says.
“My daughter had been wearing her riding helmet when she fell from the horse. Not only did it break her back, the impact must have affected her ears, too. That was when the guilt I felt came rushing back.”
Abby sometimes still experiences back pain. While she can run, sharp movements or sudden jumps, and certain yoga stretches, are out of bounds.
Time doesn’t always heal
While the physical wounds are healing, the psychological scars seemed to have remained. Marina thinks the traumatic accident left an indelible mark her child.
“She doesn’t like to talk about the incident. She had anxiety for a while, but I’m not sure if it’s due to the injury and/or an accumulation of school stress,” she shares.
Abby has also given up horse-riding and has no wish to resume the activity. Marina says she now cannot help second-guessing her decisions from time to time.
“My daughter never blamed me for the accident, but my guilt is still there. “I guess I’ll always feel like this,”she says.
A lesson Marina learnt from the horrific accident is that parents who encourage their kids to take up a sport or activity should always check if they actually like it.
If the kid appears reluctant to participate in the activity, try to find out the reason for the lack of enthusiasm, she says.
“Is your child truly enjoying the sport or just doing it to please you, the parent? I still believe that horse-riding is beneficial to child development and I know my daughter enjoyed the sport when she was younger,” she says.
“But in the months leading up to the accident, I think she was actually just going through it to please us.”
In hindsight, Marina says she should have picked up subtle signals that Abby no longer enjoyed her horse-riding lessons as much as she used to.
“She would say things like, ‘Yeah, maybe I’ll go. You said horse-riding is a good way for me to get fresh air.’ Looking back at our conversations, I should have tried to understand her viewpoint.
“Parents, listen to your child, and not focus only on pushing your own agenda,” she says.