'Dr. Debbie' Rides Again After Severe Brain Injury

Debbie Stanitski, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, fought back from a severe brain injury to return to medical practice--and to her beloved sport of eventing.

When Debbie Stanitski and her husband, Carl, relocated to Charleston, S.C., in autumn 1998, they joined the Middleton Hunt to stay in shape for eventing. Debbie had set her sights on going Prelim and perhaps entering her first CCI*. But it was not to be.

Photo by Pamela Roberts

On the cold, drizzly morning of March 14, 1999, life came to a screeching halt. Halfway through the final hunt, her galloping horse hit a jump and she somersaulted over his shoulder, slamming her head on a sharp rock and sustaining a traumatic brain injury. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital, where she underwent emergency neurosurgery. Her prognosis was bleak. Totally unresponsive to any stimuli for several days, Debbie was expected to die. When she didn’t, surgeons predicted she would never regain the ability to walk, talk, swallow or perform the simplest of tasks without assistance.

After nine days in the intensive care unit, she was moved to a brain injury unit. Her weight plummeted to 85 pounds because she could not get enough calories through her feeding tube. Two weeks later, emaciated and barely able to make a sound or control her body, she was transferred to a rehabilitation facility. Finally somewhat aware of her surroundings, Debbie began the arduous task of re-learning rudimentary functions. She went home on Memorial Day, tottering with a walker, speaking in a garbled monotone and able to eat once more. Continuing rehab as an outpatient, she struggled to redefine her role in the world.

A Lifetime of Looking for Challenge
From girlhood, Debbie had charged through life, demanding much of herself and always raising the threshold of excellence. Academically successful, she opted to pursue orthopedic surgery, a specialty that included few women in the 1980s. Typically, she chose the subspecialty of pediatric orthopedics for the added challenge of factoring in growth as she determined the course of treatment for her young patients.

Her pursuit of equestrian activities was no less intense. Her passion began the moment her camp counselors introduced her to English riding. At summer’s end, the seven-year-old returned home lobbying for further riding lessons. Although her parents weren’t athletic themselves, they indulged her, thinking her interest would soon wane. Instead it grew. Debbie began competing in hunter and jumper shows in high school and, when a friend of her father’s commented that he couldn’t find anyone to ride his racehorses, she began breezing the Thoroughbreds at Chicago’s Arlington Park.

In college, Debbie joined the equestrian team and the 16-horse drill team, which performed to music. Her instructor noticed her bravery with difficult mounts and challenged her to try eventing. Debbie had some qualms about cross-country jumping but, never one to succumb to her fears, she took up the gauntlet and soon recognized eventing as her sport of choice.

Medical school and the subsequent time constraints of her residency and fellowships curtailed her riding to once a week. Her short vacations, however, always incorporated equestrian pursuits. She once spent two weeks as a working student for Olympian Bruce Davidson, training with him for an hour each day and riding for another three hours. She was in rider heaven.

As her surgical career flourished and she became a wife, Debbie continued squeezing in riding time. Only when seven months pregnant with her first child did she stop, and then only because the increasing bulk of her petite 5’2″ frame made balancing in the saddle difficult. She gave birth to a healthy son a few weeks later. Thirteen months later, a daughter arrived. Although her children showed little interest in riding as they grew, it was never far from Debbie’s heart. Finally at age 42 she bought her first horse and began training more seriously. Over the next three years she successfully competed at Novice and Training Level in Area VIII, and earned her US Dressage Federation bronze medal.

Dealing With Disaster’s Aftermath
The summer after her accident, Debbie faced a new challenge: creating a life that combined her undamaged intellect and her broken body. Spasticity in her hands made a return to surgery impossible and riding was out of reach for the foreseeable future.

“My teenaged children occupied my summer, but when they returned to school and Carl was seeing patients, the days seemed endless,” Debbie recalls. “When I heard about Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding (CATR), I jumped at the opportunity.” At her first session in October, she sat astride a small, aged pony and was led around the ring while two side-walkers held her legs. Meanwhile, she spent hours in the medical university anatomy lab with orthopedic residents. Convinced her medical knowledge was intact, she rejoined her practice part-time in January 2000 to treat patients on a non-surgical basis.

Feeling she had progressed as far as possible, her therapists discharged her from outpatient rehab in March 2000–but Debbie refused to stop improving. She continued riding with CATR and began yoga classes. Her tenacity paid off. By August 2001, she was able to walk, trot, canter, and jump small obstacles on Patch, her Irish Thoroughbred. In fall 2002 she resumed competing, albeit at Beginner Novice level. When she soon realized Patch was now too unpredictable for her, she went looking for and bought a calm, well-trained Quarter Horse named Chocolate.

Although she had far exceeded everyone’s expectations, Debbie pushed on, always seeking new avenues. Her two loves, medicine and horses, converged with her presentation about her accident and recovery at the 2002 convention of the American Medical Equine Association/Safe Rider Foundation (AMEA/SRF) Conference. Executive Director Rusty Lowe asked her to join the Safety Committee, which researches safety concerns and develops guidelines for avoiding possible hazards. As both a physician and a severely injured rider, Debbie brings a unique perspective. “I could understand injuries intellectually, but I never really considered their long-term effects until this happened to me.”

Debbie Stanitski riding Bounce | Photo by Pamela Roberts

Her safety work led to her role as event physician for the Foxhall CCI*** in 2003 and 2004. “Dr. Debbie” rode around the cross-country course in a golf cart, enjoying being a spectator but also prepared to deliver immediate care in the case of an accident.

Returning to the sidelines after aiding a rider who had come off her horse and been knocked unconscious, Debbie watched her gallop away. “She’s lucky, ” she commented. “I’m lucky, too. I wouldn’t even be here if I hadn’t been wearing my hat [ASTM-SEI-certified safety helmet].” She watched wistfully as the next rider sailed over the obstacle. “I’d still like to do that–if I could.”

For the latest information on brain-injury prevention and new U.S. Equestrian Federation rules on the use of ASTM-SEI-certified helmets, see “Safety Gets a Call-Back” in the May 2005 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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