Ann Gressette’s left hand holds a leather rein and rests on the withers of a 17-year-old horse named Woody. In his younger years, the dark gelding competed in dressage and three-day event competitions. These days, he takes care of Ann with the patience and calm of a creature who knows his job is to give the human aboard not just help with rebuilding her balance and muscles but recovering what Ann calls “a different kind of joy.”
Ann’s joy is being in the saddle again after a fall from her beloved chestnut Apache on April 11, 2019. The fall left Ann paralyzed from her upper chest down. It did not, however, leave her without determination and hope. On a Friday morning 18 months later, Ann, in a wheelchair, makes her way up a specialized ramp that leads to a platform where, with the help of staff at the Great Oak Equine Assisted Programs in Aiken, Woody waits quietly.
“I’m just always happy to be here,” Ann says, preparing herself for a “crest mount,” which requires her right leg to swing over the front of the saddle and Woody’s neck. Once settled in the saddle, Ann reaches down and rubs Woody’s shoulder. “It’s all right,” she says to Woody. “It’s all right.”
The pivotal day in April 2019 at Doodle Hill Farm in St. Matthews appeared to be all right too. The weather was perfect for riding. The sun was shining. The temperature was a pleasant 70-something degrees.
“It was a Thursday morning group lesson,” says Ann, who lives in Columbia’s Heathwood neighborhood with her husband, Bam, a retired wealth manager. “It was a fabulous day for riding. We were having so much fun. Apache was doing beautifully. It was one of those days when you are just in sync with your horse. We were jumping, and I had that fabulous lift-up-and-over feeling.
“We were doing the last round of jumps of the day. We came to the barrel jump — Apache was going so well — and I just assumed that he was going to go over it and didn’t kick him like I needed to. It was all in slow motion. Apache was slowing down and then he was really slowing down and then he just stopped before the jump, and I kept going.”
Ann landed in the grass on the other side of the jump.
“You know, I have fallen off before and been fine, but I landed funny. I remember I was lying on the ground, but I felt like my arms were up in the air. It’s called proprioception. That’s your awareness of your body in space. My proprioception was off.”
Ann remembers seeing Apache grazing quietly on the other side of the jump and a fellow rider asking her what her name was, thinking that Ann had suffered a concussion. Ann knew her name and she knew her injury went beyond a concussion.
“I think I need an ambulance,” she told those gathered around her. Fortunately, no one tried to move her, heeding her instinct to call for emergency services. “Among the many thousands of blessings I have received,” Ann says, “was that the Calhoun County EMS was close by.”
Emergency personnel got to the farm quickly, assessed the situation, stabilized her on a stretcher and decided that Ann should be sent to a Columbia hospital by helicopter, which was able to land in an open area behind a store in the nearby Sandy Run community. Ann recalls seeing the shadows of the helicopter’s blades flashing on the ceiling of the ambulance, but she cannot remember much else before being airborne.
“Maybe that’s a good thing. I remember being very confused about my arms, but a lot is fuzzy … I do not remember hurting.”
Once at Prisma Health Richland Hospital, Ann went into surgery for almost five hours. Orthopedic surgery specialist Dr. Gregory Grabowski led the medical team, which put a plate in the front of her neck and eight screws and some rods in the back of her neck.
“I don’t remember ‘coming to,’ but I went to the ICU, where they took great care of me. I don’t remember ever being upset. Maybe I blocked it out, but I was always hopeful.”
Ann had good reason to hope. Her neck injury was diagnosed as an “incomplete spinal cord injury,” which means that her spinal cord had not been severed. Instead, it was bruised and pinched at the C-5 through C-7 vertebra level, and it was possible that she could regain some use of her arms and legs as the spinal cord healed.
“Yes,” Ann says, “another blessing.”
Within days of surgery, Ann recovered limited movement of her arms and was able to wiggle her left foot, though she could not feel it. She had a slight sensation when her right leg was touched, but could not move that leg. She could not use her hands or fingers.
On April 17, Ann was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, where her rehabilitation began in earnest and where she remained steadfastly hopeful.
“I would say from the get-go that I felt strongly that people were praying for me. I had a feeling of peace that I can’t imagine would have come any other way. I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna. Was I happy all the time? No, of course not, but I had this sense throughout it all that God has been with me. I never felt nor will feel that God caused this to happen to me.”
Shortly after arriving at the Shepherd Center, Ann was put to work retraining muscles and nerves in her body. “Within 24 hours of moving there, I was in a motorized wheelchair, and they told me to go down the hall and report to the therapy gym.”
Ann says that occupational and physical therapists at Shepherd asked her to do “just a million things, a million things” that she didn’t believe she could do. She says she had to learn to give up control and trust in her therapists.
“I would tell myself, ‘Ann, you just have to let go.’ When they would say, ‘Ann, we are going to do this,’ I would say, ‘OK.’ I learned that my best plan of action was to say ‘Yes,’ whatever the task was … the people there know exactly what they are doing, and they encouraged me to do what I didn’t think I could do over and over.”
Ann had numerous therapy sessions every day, and the wins started coming. Ann says Dr. Brock Bowman, her doctor at Shepherd, assured her that anything she could “get back, we can strengthen.” Indeed.
On May 8, 2019, she experienced movement in her right leg. On the 15th, her therapists helped her stand. On the 21st, she was doing leg presses with only her right leg. By the 28th, her right toes were moving. Later that month Ann reported to friends and family that the middle finger on her right hand “decided to join the party … so, seven fingers in, three to go.”
Alone in her Shepherd room at night, or early in the morning, Ann took comfort in the view from a big window. The view led her to the advice she has for others who suddenly find themselves faced with a challenge like hers.
“You have to look for the blessings,” she says. “At Shepherd, my room was on the back side of the facility. I looked out the window on a public golf course. Trees, sky. There was not a building in sight. I kept the blinds open 24 hours a day. I could wake up in the morning and look at the sky, see its color change. At night, I could do the same thing. Watch the sky go from blue to darker blue to lavender to purple and then dark. Then I would see the stars come out. It just reminded me of God’s goodness. The blessings are there if you look for them. The sky was huge for me. Every morning and every night I would look out that window and think about the wideness of God’s mercy.”
Every day, Ann also filled out Post-it notes with blessings she had experienced throughout the day. She stuck the hot pink and bright orange bits of paper to the walls of her room, reminding her of the good things that were going on in her life.
“One might say, ‘Today my middle toe wiggled.’ Another might say, ‘Today, so-and-so came to visit me, and we had a nice time talking in the garden.’ All the walls in my room were wallpapered with blessings. It was such a helpful thing.”
In June, Ann moved into a day program at Shepherd and an apartment provided by the facility. Patients are not allowed to stay in the apartments alone, so friends and Bam split up the days to be there with her. The day program, she says, was “more intense” and apartment living provided practice in completing everyday chores she would normally do at home, like loading a dishwasher, pushing a Swiffer across the floor from her wheelchair, and standing to reach something in a top kitchen cabinet.
None of it was easy.
“It is amazing to me,” Ann reported at the time, “how much concentration and effort it takes for me to do something that was so easy and effortless not so long ago.”
Ann says she had difficult moments while at Shepherd, reporting highs and lows on a social media site called CaringBridge, established to help others stay in touch with a person’s progress through a health-related ordeal. “I basically use this site to share my victories with you,” Ann wrote, “but I don’t want you to think that’s all there is to it. The successes are liberally interspersed with face plants on the mat, collapsed arms, and body parts that won’t work no matter how much I will them to.”
In August 2019, for the first time since her accident, Ann returned home to Columbia and Bam. She describes making that move with “mixed feelings.”
“I just didn’t know what it was going to be like. Bam and I were very fortunate that someone who had worked for us in our house before helped Bam figure out what needed to be done to make it possible for me to maneuver around my house. Ramps, pull bars, that kind of thing. They handled doing all that, which was a huge piece of it. So, I told myself, ‘Let’s just go home and see what it’s like.’ It was a mixed bag. I was thrilled to be home. I was thrilled to be with Bam. I was also thrilled my wonderful husband who has never complained even a single time would no longer have to drive to Atlanta every weekend. I was thrilled to begin to figure out what life was going to look like. On the other hand, being in the Shepherd bubble, where I was surrounded by so much professional help and knowledge, I was kind of nervous about losing that kind of support.”
Other kinds of support flowed into the Gressette household. “I could go on and on and on about it. People came out of the woodwork to help us and still do. They did laundry for us. They shopped for us. They brought us meals. They drove me to therapy. And they encouraged me constantly. And all with great kindness. It was all such a testimony to what great family and friends we have. Our boys, my parents, my brother and sister-in-law have all been so helpful through it all.”
Ann has returned to Shepherd once and hopes to return for more therapy when the time is right. In the meantime, she is working hard with her excellent therapists at Prisma Physical Therapy Specialists to become stronger and improve her dexterity. She strives to use her walker more than her wheelchair and is able to take care of her personal needs without assistance. She even works in her garden and has become a lefty — learning to use her left hand to write.
Ann recalls reflecting upon the one-year anniversary of the accident, both how far she had come and how far she might still go. “Yes, of course,” she says, “I was going to continue working, but I realized I needed not to be so focused on that physical progress that I was unable to see what else was in God’s plan for me.”
In September 2020, especially good news came Ann’s way. While most incomplete spinal cord injury patients are given a standard 18-month window in which significant progress can be made, Dr. Grabowski told Ann not to focus on that date passing. Since she was still seeing progress, Ann should not allow that rough timeline to hinder her efforts to strengthen and improve.
“In a way, I knew it, but it was so important for him to say that to me. I have always been making progress and that has been huge, huge, huge for me.”
With help, Ann adjusts her feet in the stirrups and asks Woody for a walk. While Ann is in the saddle, Woody is led by a Great Oak staff member. Another staff person and Columbia friend and fellow Doodle Hill rider Doak Wolfe walk alongside Ann and Woody. Ann’s Great Oak riding instructor, Grace Flanders, follows several yards behind and slightly to the side of the contingent. She watches Ann’s position in the saddle, making sure Ann is not leaning one way or the other but has a balanced, centered seat.
“How are you feeling, Ann?” Grace calls out.
“Fine,” Ann says. “I’m always happy to be here.”
Bam, along with a group of riders from Doodle Hill, watches on the sidelines. The hope is that Ann will one day be able to ride Apache again and her fellow Doodle Hillers will have learned enough at Great Oak to help her with that goal.
Bam admits to being nervous when he sees Ann on a horse, but, he says, “It gives Ann such a thrill, so overall, it makes me happy. She’s an inspiration, for sure.”
Ann did not ride as a child but took up the sport later in life. “Riding was my midlife crisis. I went on a trail ride with a friend. I remember thinking this was just the best thing ever. I love everything about riding and horses. Riding requires me to be fully present. I can’t be thinking about a long list of things I have to do.”
Ann laughs and recalls the years when she and Bam were raising three young boys — Lawrence, Paul, and John.
“What little sanity I have, I got on the back of a horse.”
Ann has been riding at Great Oak every Friday since September. Her lessons last 30 minutes, and she hopes to push that to 45 minutes. Ann is an anomaly at Great Oak because, ironically, she is a rider. Most of Great Oak’s clients have never been on a horse.
The director of the program, Nicole Pioli, explains why riding a horse is so therapeutic for people who are trying to relearn to walk. “The horse’s movement — his walk — mimics a human’s walking. When Ann is sitting in the saddle and Woody is walking beneath her, Ann’s muscles are feeling the motion of walking and so she is actually walking for 30 minutes.”
Woody and Ann move in circles and straight lines. Ann drops her reins and reaches for the sky. She stretches forward, reaching for Woody’s ears. She makes minor adjustments to her position in the saddle.
All the while, Grace is encouraging her. “Good, Ann, remember, eyes up. Reach forward, now reach back. Good, Ann, now, open up your chest, open up your core.”
The lesson comes to an end. Woody walks back to the platform where Ann will dismount. Her face is flushed from effort, but her gray-blue eyes sparkle. She drops her reins and rests her hands on Woody’s withers.
“Thanks, Woody,” she says. “You are very special.”
Woody does not reply, but surely if he could, he would tell Ann, “So are you.”