BY SARAH WARD-RUPP
I’m an ex-professional equestrian, but not because I didn’t have the heart or didn’t love the job. Because I have something called Cauda Equina Syndrome. It’s a rare disorder where something, in my case a herniated disc, compresses the nerves at the end of your spinal cord causing severe pain and loss of sensation, among many other things. As a rider, I’m no stranger to back pain. Usually, a warm bath followed by my horses’ liniment gel gets me back on my feet… but this pain was something entirely different.
In November of 2019, my usual back problems turned into severe pain after a sneaky pony ducked out of a jump. I didn’t even fall, but immediately knew something was wrong. Jon, my husband, had to drag me off. As the days went by the pain only got worse. By December, I could only stand for two minutes at a time before the excruciating pain set in. I wasn’t healing. The time my body allowed me to move was quickly getting shorter and shorter.
After doing a walk-in MRI, I was told to get to the ER as quickly as possible. I could no longer stand and was completely alone at our farm. My husband is a pilot, and at the time he was gone more than he was home. But this wasn’t a “when you have time” or “when Jon gets home” situation. I was told there was an immediate risk of never walking again.
When the ambulance wouldn’t take me to Emory in Atlanta, my wonderful neighbor somehow got me in the backseat of their car, drove me, and sat with me outside until a bed was available. By the time I got admitted, I could no longer even sit up without feeling as though I was getting stabbed and the knife dragged down my spine and legs. I screamed the entire way to the hospital bed. I would have done anything to make the pain stop—if I had the ability to move.
After spending most of the night like this, I was finally admitted with Cauda Equina Syndrome. As soon as a neurosurgeon was available, I had emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on my spinal cord. The next few days were a blur. I remember some doctors saying it was CES, while others saying no because of how rare it is. It was later confirmed that yes, I had suffered from Cauda Equina Syndrome. If I had waited much longer, I probably would never have regained feeling in my right leg. I was lucky to be able to move. As soon as I could do something that sort of resembled walking, I was sent home.
Back at the farm, I knew things still weren’t right. When I was able to get up, I got around with a cane – mostly by thrusting my left leg forward with the cane and then dragging my right behind me. My entire right leg was numb and tingly. I couldn’t feel my foot at all. The pain was still unimaginable. I was struggling to believe that this was my life now, my new normal.
I had a follow-up with a nurse a week later. She told me I was doing great and went to send me home without even taking her eyes off of her notes to look at me. I was in complete disbelief at how she blatantly ignored me when I was telling her something was still wrong. I begged to see the doctor, and she refused until I ugly-cried. That’s when she finally looked up and watched me “walk.” I was sent directly to the MRI and from there was admitted and immediately scheduled for another surgery.
During all of this, I was alone and scared and felt like the whole system had failed me. No one would listen to me. The most frustrating thing about the situation is that people made me feel crazy. Even family members didn’t listen or believe the severity of what was happening to me, thinking I was just making up practically losing the ability to walk. Because I was constantly told “you’re fine, get up” I believed that maybe it was all in my head. If I just rode it out, it would go away as quickly as it came. By doing that, I now have permanent damage.
Two surgeries later, I am lucky to walk, but I live with almost constant pain. There are some days I can hardly pick up my daughter. My back condition deteriorated so badly that it took almost nothing for me to break it in four places last October. I’m finally to the point now where I can admit that I do not know if I will ever ride again, but I will keep trying.
There are so many people who have lost everything because no one believed them when they said something was wrong, or because they assumed it would go away as quickly as it came. I know I’m one of the lucky ones.
Cauda Equina Syndrome has turned my life upside down, and it didn’t have to. I’ve learned that people with CES often aren’t taken seriously. The results of that have quite literally ruined lives. So when something is wrong, trust your gut. Only you know how you truly feel. Fight for answers, because if you don’t fight for yourself, who will?
Sarah Ward-Rupp runs Flyover Farms out of Atlanta, GA with her husband and daughter. Sarah specializes in training hunters and jumpers, after showing and training extensively with the likes of Jack Towell, Don Stewart, and Paul Valliere, winning everywhere from WEF to Indoors. Now, she enjoys a more laidback lifestyle of teaching and rescuing animals of all kinds.