In her new book 'Where did I go?', eventer Polly Williamson recounts the day a dramatic incident with a young horse left her with a horrific head injury — and how she has put her life back together again five years on
I can’t remember anything about ‘the accident‘. My last memory is of competing at the West Wilts Equestrian Centre in the morning. I see a snapshot. I’m standing with my good friend Pete Coote, watching a mare in the showjumping, my interest sparked as the horse had been in my training for the past year.
However, hugely talented though she was, I had sent her back to her owner. I didn’t trust her temperament. I didn’t feel wholly safe riding her. I was unsure I should continue training her, so I had sent her back. Now she was being ridden by an established international rider. Had I made the right decision? Should I have persevered? No, I assured myself. I have a responsibility to my children.
That was my last tangible thought for the next seven weeks. How ironic that three hours later I was riding a horse I did trust and was happy to train, when a freak accident took place.
I have survived endless horse falls over the years. Most of them insignificant though two or three had been more dramatic. I had seen them on film as they were at notable venues. Badminton, Blenheim, Aintree.
This fall was not so glamorous. There was also no playback on film so what I know is what I have been told. I was simply training a young horse in the menage at Charlton Park. No jumps were involved. The horse had been playing, messing around a little, alas he slipped and fell over. He panicked. He found himself on the floor with his rider still in the saddle. He scrambled to right himself, crazily thrashing out, hind hoofs became canons flying in all directions with no control. One caught me square in the head. The deed was done. I was out cold.
But the gods were with me. I was not alone, my 18-year-old student Daisy Charlier was riding with me at the time. She instantly leapt down from her horse, ran over to my unconscious body, placed her coat over me and, with no mobile at hand, raced back to the yard with her horse in tow. My horse had galloped off. The first people she saw were two lads who worked on the farm, Chris Edwards and Jason Woods. They sprinted to the arena and quickly phoned 999. Daisy then saw Linda Suffolk, my landlady and good friend.
“Polly’s had an accident! She’s unconscious!”
Linda was quickly by my side. Drama unfolded. Within 15 minutes an anaesthetist arrived, instantly assessing the situation. A call for a helicopter was made before the anaesthetist administered the necessary drugs to ventilate me and place my body into an induced coma. My landlord Mickey arrived, quickly followed by Frankie, who worked for me, and Hec.
Long minutes passed before the helicopter arrived. But the gusty wind had picked up and with dusk rapidly approaching the pilot radioed down to the first response medic.
“It’s too windy. We can’t risk it.”
“You can land,” Mickey yelled, “helicopters land here all the time. I’m a pilot. I know. Come on. She must be flown to hospital!”
But the pilot was insistent and flew away.
The road ambulance arrived and I was taken to Frenchay Hospital just outside Bristol with Hec following in his car. My husband Tobe was called and after checking the children had care and that Katherine, who worked for me, would stay with them, he too drove to the Accident and Emergency department at Frenchay, meeting Hec in the waiting room.
For over an hour they sat surveying the normal range of cuts, bruises and breaks that typify early evening in A&E not knowing my situation. Eventually they were ushered into a side room, the focal point being a table where a single telephone was placed. The atmosphere had changed and instantly felt ominous. Painful seconds ticked by before a doctor and nurse entered and immediately sat down, followed by a request for Tobe to confirm my name and date of birth. Such detail only compounded the gravity of the moment.
Tobe can’t recall exactly what was said next. The word injury cartwheeled into serious and crashed into head with the word brain flying alongside traumatic. There was a pause while the totality of it all collided. The next questions were almost peremptory. “How bad?” was met with “not good”. “Only the head?” was met with “also the spine”. “What next?” was inevitably answered with “more tests”. “What sort?” was met with “pressing ones”.
Tobe, his breath having been sucked out of his body, was asked to sign various forms giving the doctors permission to place probes into my skull in order to determine exactly what was happening inside my head. My condition was serious, the immediate task for the doctors was to stop it becoming unstable.
Tobe rang my sister. A tricky conversation to have. The facts were still few but the interpretations can be many. The consultant had not ruled out any outcome. Was that because he didn’t know what they were dealing with or conversely because he knew the consequences of serious injury only too well?
After an hour, Tobe was invited to come and see me, the nurse preparing him well warning that I wouldn’t look like normal. There were a mass of tubes and wires surrounding my bed, each leading to some part of my head, neck or arm. I was lying prone, legs slightly raised and with a neck brace fitted. A bank of machines beeped, with figures and graphs telling the experts what they needed to know. My coma score was five (extremely low), and I lay still, eyes closed and unresponsive.
Tory rang our Mother. It was past 8pm by this point and Mum immediately left with my stepfather, Geoff, for the three hour drive from Cheshire. A long, scary drive made worse by the M5 being closed that night due to a crash. Tory also could not drive to Frenchay knowing that the couple of glasses of wine she had drunk would place her over the limit.
She sensibly rang our great friend, Alex Connors, knowing that Alex would be someone you could rely on in a crisis (not a General’s daughter for nothing) and Alex drove to Frenchay, staying with Tobe for much of that dreadful night and becoming a complete stalwart in the months to come.
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I survived the night. Over the next 10 days or so Tobe, Mum and Tory took it in turns to sit with me, a truly frightening experience for them. There were two other patients in the intensive care area, one of them died while Tobe was by my side.
‘I have no memory of that time’
The medics cared for me, my family remained by my side and our friends rose to the challenge and offered incredible support to Tobe. I was in a coma for 11 days, then a high dependency ward before I was finally moved to the neighbouring Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit on 5 January.
But I have no memory of that time. It was three months later, once my memory had returned, that Tobe brought me a copy of the email reports he had regularly sent out to keep all our family and friends updated on my progress, as I was now continuously asking him for information concerning my accident and the weeks I had spent at Frenchay Hospital.
I remember Tobe giving me these emails and indeed I remember trying to read them, but my brain was too muddled at the time. My eyesight was fine but I couldn’t concentrate for long enough to unscramble the words and place them in any order. Some six months later I picked up the emails again, read them and had some understanding of the missing seven weeks from my life.