An 11-year-old girl who was given a 50% chance of survival after contracting “human strangles” has been slowly regaining her health with the help of her horses.
Anya Teuton spent two weeks in an isolation ward seriously ill with the strep C blood infection, which has also left her battling a series of debilitating after-effects.
The normally fit and active Northern Irish rider had recently returned from the Royal Dublin Horse Show when she woke up “screaming in pain” .
“She’d had a couple of symptoms that we put down to being a bit flu-y, but then she woke up — she’s in the bedroom next to mine — with a blood-curdling scream,” said her mother Victoria, an instructor and producer of Irish draughts. “We rushed her to hospital.”
The illness is so rare, it took several trips before doctors acknowledged the seriousness of her condition. An increasingly desperate Victoria even phoned the family vet for help.
“It was presenting as extreme pain in her shoulder and she was vomiting but they were just guessing at first,” said Victoria. “My family vet stayed on the phone for an hour and a half while they were treating her, giving me a list of things to research and ask for tests for. It was surreal. The hospital were saying they had never had a case of it.”
While it is steptococcus equi s. equi that causes the highly contagious strangles infection in horses, another subspecies, zooepidemicus, is capable of transferring to humans.
Although horses can suffer opportunistic infections of this strain, some just carry the bacteria harmlessly in their noses and throats, and it usually only affects animals or humans who have compromised immunity.
“Anya had a sore throat beforehand — the only guess we can make is that we were at Dublin and she maybe touched or fed a horses who was carrying it. It was shortly after that she became ill,” Victoria said.
After aggressive treatment with intravenous antibiotics — and losing a stone in weight during the two “frightening” weeks — Anya pulled through. But once she returned home it became apparent that the illness had taken its toll.
She was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and cognitive and emotional problems as well as muscle pain and fatigue.
“It’s prevented her from attending her new school — which she loves — as she became ill just a week into the start of term,” said Victoria. “She was having nightmares, separation anxiety, panic attacks and a terrible fear of falling asleep — simple tasks had became really difficult for someone who was previously a carefree, active little girl.”
Any change in air temperature, loud noises or change in blood sugars would trigger attacks but there was a 12-week waiting list for her to receive any help.
“She didn’t want to wait that long, so she took matters into her own hands,” her mother said.
In her hospital bed, Anya’s thoughts had been all about her horses and she had hatched a plan to be riding again by Christmas.
After talking to her GP, and reading research on horses and therapy, she decided to try and bring her target forward and get back in the saddle as soon as possible.
“Her goal was to ride at the Christmas dressage extravaganza at her favourite venue, Ardnacashel Equestrian, in early December, just three months after her illness,” Victoria explained. “It wasn’t an easy process, with muscle pain and anxiety crippling her, and restricting riding to a ten-minute hack, or halt-walk-trot transitions initially. Practising was a struggle between determination and tears.”
Anya also had the help of her best friend Zara Wood, who had decided the pair would take on the freestyle to music at the show.
“Riding at home was such a challenge, Anya would have three or four breakdowns just doing transitions from walk to trot. Zara, although she is very caring, just ignored them and would say ‘right, can we get on with this now?’. She wouldn’t let her give up on anything.”
Anya — who has a background in working hunters but had never ridden a dressage test before — took her Connemara Honey in the freestyle, but also elected to ride another pony, Starlight, in the prelim — which they won.
“She said ‘I’ll have to take Starlight too she’ll feel left out.’ It was cold with two ponies — I wasn’t sure it was going to go well!” Victoria added. “Her memory and her nerves weren’t wonderful after the illness and another thing that was affected was her hearing. The judges allowed me to use my instructor’s earpiece to call the test.
“Starlight is a jumping pony through and through so is a bit of a Ferrari in dressage but Anya had a ball.”
The popular Flat jockey has won his first 2 races back after more than 3 months away from the track
A four-star event horse has returned to competition after recovering from a life-threatening condition
While still off school — though she has now started having some hours back — Anya has been helping her mother break in five Connemara ponies. She has now also set her sights on her next goal, the Christmas showjumping event at the same venue on 30 December.
“I’ve been blown away by Anya’s strength, mentality and physically,” Victoria concluded. “She is beyond inspirational, and now has her heart set on helping others suffering with trauma and anxiety in the future.”