By Nicola Elson
An Australian rider whose acute leukaemia left her the size of a seven-year-old child credits her ponies for keeping her alive.
Georgia Lowry lives in a rural town just south of Perth, Western Australia. When she was nine weeks old she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, an incredibly rare strain of infantile leukaemia which only 2% of children survive.
Before her third birthday, Georgia had been subjected to two bone marrow transplants and several sessions of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This intensive treatment at such a young age permanently stunted Georgia’s growth: at 24 she is 4’9” tall and weighs 4st 8lb.
Georgia was born into a family of horses. Her father, Shaun Lowry, was close friends with New Zealand eventer Mark Todd through his early years of competing, and the farm on which she grew up was always a haven for horse-lovers. Georgia was drawn to the sport, although her size required something a little safer than her dad’s usual mounts.
“I’ve been pretty much spoilt with ponies. My dad grew up with whatever he could get – cheap, nasty, green young horses – and unfortunately my sister was the test dummy. After a few ponies and a few tumbles, Mum said ‘Georgia’s not getting put on the same. If you want her to ride, I’m choosing the ponies.’ Thankfully Mum put her foot down, and I’ve had some really safe and honest little ponies since then.”
Georgia got her first pony when she was about four: Valiant, a Shetland who introduced Georgia to the world of Pony Club. Her mother, Anne-Marie, said that as long as she was riding, Georgia remained strong and healthy, to the extent that she never even caught the colds and flu her siblings suffered with. They began to call riding Georgia’s “prescription.”
Just after Georgia’s 21st birthday, a new phase in her illness developed; the doctors found a blood clot close to her liver. She was immediately put on blood thinners, and told that she could no longer ride. It was simply too dangerous – a fall could prove critical. Unknowingly, the people who were trying to keep her alive took away her only lifeline.
Georgia rapidly lost weight, falling to a dangerously low 3st 8lb, due to later identified pancreas damage. Any energy from food was wasted as no nutrients were being extracted, and she needed to have a naso-gastric tube inserted. This made her even sicker, and she began to spiral downwards. In her darkest moments, when she was battling depression and her physical illness, she found herself questioning if it was worth carrying on to live in this way.
Georgia made her decision.
The rider was diagnosed on 11 February, underwent surgery on 15 March and is now aiming for next year’s Paralympic
The unsuspecting driver parked his car in Dartmoor National Park to embark on a hike around the moors
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“It was just mental power. Of course I wanted to be here, so I had to muster what I had to drink and to slowly eat,” she said. “I’m always one for if something bad does happen, I’d rather do what I love going out strong. That’s when I got back on the horse.”
Salvation came in the form of 14.2hh roan Hansie, a Welsh-Australian stock horse cross. Determined to get her life back, Georgia climbed back on her “old trusty”, and a miracle happened. Inexplicably, she got better.
“[Riding] is my prescription. Mum has always said that’s it, that’s my therapy. Whenever I’m on the horse I seem to be well. And as you do at a young age, you believe your parents, so I genuinely believe that horses made me well again,” she said.
Without medical assistance or a change in prescription, Georgia started to put on weight. Her physical strength returned and she conquered her depression. Over the next year she rode her way back to a full recovery. She now has to take tablets every day and will one day need a liver transplant but is taking each day as it comes, and her doctors have acknowledged that riding has played its part in her improved health.
“I live with a few pains – not physical pains, just needles and tablets – but my life could be so much worse. I see people who have lost limbs, who are in wheelchairs, and respect to them – I wouldn’t want to be in that place. Everyone says ‘you’re so incredible, you’re so inspirational’ but I’m really glad they think that but my life could be so much worse. I just go through each day, and if I’m having a bad day I just think it could be much worse, chin up. And I get on a pony.”
Georgia continues to ride and compete at 1.05m, and she hopes one day to join the Australian eventing team. She said riding keeps her from feeling as though her life is defined by her illnesses.
“I just feel at one, I feel freedom with them. I don’t do any other sports. I tried netball and through the Pony Club I’ve done some swimming as well – tetrathlons where you have to swim, run, shoot and ride. I pushed my body to the max by running and swimming – I don’t want to let anyone down, I want to be there for the rest of my team so I tried my hardest, but really, I’m not an athlete,” she said.
“But when I’m on a horse I just feel so level and on the same playing field as everyone else. I love it.”
The story of Georgia’s illnesses has been published: Growing Georgia is available to buy online, through the Children’s Leukaemia and Cancer Research Foundation. The book gives Georgia’s view of her darkest moments and her battle to overcome them, serving as a reminder to anyone fighting their own illnesses that they are not alone.