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‘Flying again’: rider who survived life-threatening stroke aged 31 returns to jumping

A rider told by doctors she was not certain to leave hospital alive, let alone ride, after she suffered a stroke aged 31 has been able to jump again, a year later.

Harriet Cooper suffered severed spinal cord arteries in a horse-related incident but did not go to hospital for two weeks.

When doctors saw how severe her stroke had been, they were amazed she was still alive.

Harriet explained she was looking for a new horse, and one of those she viewed was a youngster, who reared as she mounted.

“Though I didn’t fall off, the action of the rear snapped my neck backwards,” she said.

“I wasn’t in pain – I shrugged it off as a simple jolt and carried on my day. I didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation.”

About a fortnight later, when Harriet found out a horse she had hoped to buy had failed the vet, she started realising something was wrong.

“As I found this out, my brain suddenly went foggy, as if someone had flipped a switch inside my head,” she said.

“I became less responsive and felt dizzy. I remember the horse managed to bite my finger because I didn’t move it quickly enough. I had to stand up propping myself against a wall; I couldn’t work out what was happening.”

Harriet remembers her eyesight flickering as she drove home, struggling to walk into her house, and vomiting, as well as needing support to walk around at home.

She went to work the next morning, but by the end of the day was “holding on to anything I could to just get one foot in front of the other”.

“The next morning, I woke up feeling really bad,” she said. “I knew I needed medical help, so with the help from a friend I went to hospital.

“I really felt like I was wasting the doctors’ time. I knew I was unwell, but didn’t think it was anything serious – I thought maybe an ear infection as I had lost my co-ordination. It’s only when I mentioned the horse accident, that they decided a CT scan would be a good idea.”

The scan showed 50% damage to the mobility area of her brain, which doctors said must have been caused by the horse’s rearing. Harriet was immediately admitted to the stroke ward.

“I remember asking the doctor if I would ride again, and he said that I may not make it out of hospital alive, let alone ride.

“Two out of four of my arteries were severed. In medical terms, I should be dead as you shouldn’t be able to function with more than one artery dissected. My case was so rare that doctors were speaking to specialist medical professionals in America to try to understand more.

“The first night was really scary and I honestly thought I was going to die. I still didn’t really believe this was happening to me.”

The simplest action was challenging but Harriet pushed herself, walking further and further, then faster and faster, along the corridors, until she could jog.

“This is the moment I had a glimmer of hope that my life was nowhere near over; and that I would beat this,” she said. “I dug deep for the determination I needed and pushed myself – I didn’t want to be on this ward or in that hospital bed.”

After six days, Harriet was allowed to go home, where she carried on pushing herself. She said she is still seeing improvements, although she suffers effects such as fatigue, heightened emotions and increased clumsiness.

Two months later, she bought an older horse, Mr Bean, whom she credits as a major factor in her recovery, helping build her confidence as well as her stamina.

“Together we have done so much in a year, including fundraising and winning a charity dressage show in March,” she said. “After my last CT scan in August, which showed my arteries have healed, I was able to start jumping again. What an amazing feeling to be able to fly again!”

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Harriet is supporting the Stroke Association’s “Hope After Stroke” Christmas appeal, to help the charity support stroke survivors and their families.

“Support to get through this is so important. I not only hope sharing my experience raises awareness among others of my age — as I dismissed a lot of the signs before getting checked — but also would love to raise more for funding research which ultimately saved my life, as my case was rare,” she said.

Tara Lakin of the Stroke Association added: “When someone’s life has been shattered by stroke, they may feel all hope is gone. But we also know that stroke survivors cling on to even the smallest glimmer of hope.

“This is what powers them on to achieve what many thought would be impossible.”

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