“Why did I insist that she go for her lesson?”

Her daughter fell off a horse and broke her back. One mum shares the traumatic incident with EVELINE GAN and cautions parents to listen to their kids.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Two years after a freak horse-riding accident almost left her daughter Abby (not her real name) permanently paralysed waist down, Marina Bhandari is still struggling with overwhelming guilt and regret.

On that fateful day in September 2017, the 44-year-old senior administrative manager did what many mums would do when her daughter wanted to skip her riding lesson because she “wasn’t in the mood”.

“That day, I insisted that she go for her lesson,” Marina says.

“I told her to be fair to her coach, because every time she cancelled, lessons would be affected. Plus, she had been missing her training sessions regularly and wasn’t feeling unwell or particularly flooded with homework that day.”

Abby, who was 14 years old then and a confident rider, was practising a new move inside the training paddock when the horse suddenly bolted. It threw her out of the saddle. She landed on her back, fracturing her spine in the process.

“Everything happened so suddenly and everyone was shocked because all the horses that they use for training have always been good-tempered. I heard that after it jumped, the horse simply stepped aside as if nothing happened. My husband, who had accompanied my daughter to her lesson, witnessed it all and was badly shaken,” says Marina, who has an older daughter aged 24.

She was getting ready for a family dinner when the call from her husband came. “I thought they were on their way home.

I never expected my husband to call to tell me Abby hurt her back. He sounded very agitated and was talking very fast. I dropped everything to rush to the hospital,” she shares.

An overwhelming sense of guilt hit her.

“I kept asking myself how could I have been such an ignoring and uncaring mother. Why did I insist that she go for her lesson?

“On the other hand, I kept wondering if an accident was truly meant to happen that day. Would something even worse have happened?” Marina says. 

“My daughter never blamed me for the accident, but my guilt is still there. I guess I’ll always feel like this.” 

Could have been paralysed

At the emergency room, doctors scrambled to pinpoint the exact location of the girl’s fractures and ran tests to assess if she still had sensations in her lower limbs.

Scans showed that she suffered a compression fracture and several hairline fractures in her vertebrae, which act as a support column to hold up the spine.

Marina’s heart sank when she saw her daughter on the stretcher, still in her riding gear. Dehydrated and in immense pain, Abby sobbed throughout the entire ordeal.

“She couldn’t move or cry out loud because that would hurt further. She simply lay there, with tears streaming down. One of my first thoughts was whether she could walk ever again,” she says.

Abby was fortunate to have narrowly escaped permanent disability.

“The doctors told us not to worry. The injury would not be life-threatening and she would be able to walk eventually. But if the fracture had been one level lower, she could have been paralysed,” Marina says.

The slow, painful recovery

Abby spent four days in the intensive care unit and wore a back brace for two months.

For the formerly-active and fit teenager, the recovery period was challenging and painful – both physically and mentally. To cope with the physical pain, she took painkillers every day.

For a long time, she could not carry or lift heavier items, such as her school bag, or climb steps.

“When she returned to school after three weeks, she could only carry a laptop, nothing more than 2kg. She also could not undergo physical activities for a year,” says Marina.

Just as Abby seemed to be healing well from her injuries and began walking well again, the incident came back to haunt them.

About eight months after the accident, the teen started complaining of ear pain.

“We thought it was an ear-piercing issue and took her to the ENT doctor, who ran tests and advised surgery as something seemed to be moving inside her ear,” shares Marina.

It turned out to a piece of ear cartilage that had broken off.

Recounting the doctor’s bewilderment, Marina shares that she was told that the condition is usually seen in some children with congenital issues and motorbike riders who are involved in road accidents.

The ear cartilage can be damaged when helmets are pressed against the ear at the point of impact. 

“ Listen to your child and don't just focus on pushing your own agenda.” 

“When the doctor mentioned the motorbike riders and helmet, I went ‘oh my God!’ and then put two and two together,” she says.

“My daughter had been wearing her riding helmet when she fell from the horse. Not only did it break her back, the impact must have affected her ears, too. That was when the guilt I felt came rushing back.”

Currently undergoing physiotherapy, Abby sometimes still experiences back pain. While she can run, sharp movements or sudden jumps, and certain yoga stretches, are out of bounds.

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Time doesn’t always heal

While the physical wounds are healing, the psychological scars seemed to have remained.

Marina thinks the traumatic accident left an indelible mark her child.

“She doesn’t like to talk about the incident. She had anxiety for a while, but I’m not sure if it’s due to the injury and/ or an accumulation of school stress,” she shares.

Abby has also given up horse-riding and has no wish to resume the activity.

Marina says she now cannot help second-guessing her decisions from time to time.

“My daughter never blamed me for the accident, but my guilt is still there.

"I guess I’ll always feel like this,” she says. A lesson Marina learnt from the horrific accident is that parents who encourage their kids to take up a sport or activity should always check if they actually like it.

If the kid appears reluctant to participate in the activity, try to find out the reason for the lack of enthusiasm, she says.

“Is your child truly enjoying the sport or just doing it to please you, the parent? I still believe that horse-riding is beneficial to child development and I know my daughter enjoyed the sport when she was younger,” she says.

“But in the months leading up to the accident, I think she was actually just going through it to please us.”

In hindsight, Marina says she should have picked up subtle signals that Abby no longer enjoyed her horse-riding lessons as much as she used to.

“She would say things like, ‘Yeah, maybe I’ll go. You said horse-riding is a good way for me to get fresh air.’ Looking back at our conversations, I should have tried to understand her viewpoint.

“Parents, listen to your child, and not focus only on pushing your own agenda,” she says. 

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More sports injuries in kids

Experts from the KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) are seeing more cases of sports-related injuries in children.

    “This is likely due to the increased participation of sports activities among children as well as initiation of such sporting activities at a younger age,” says Dr Mohammad Ashik, a senior consultant at KKH’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.

    Injuries can occur in any type of sports. They range from minor conditions, like overuse injuries, to the more serious types like fractures and dislocations, he says.

    “High energy” trauma injuries are on the rise, says Dr Ashik. They occur in high contact and riskier sport activities such as gymnastics, trampoline jumps, skiing and mixed martial arts.

    “This type of injuries results in complex fractures and joint dislocations, akin to injuries sustained from a fall from height or road traffic accident. Management of these injuries can be challenging,” he says. 

How to prevent injuries

Micheal Lim, senior clinical exercise physiologist and head of the Sports Medicine Programme, Family Medicine Service at KKH, shares tips on keeping kids safe when they are involved in sports and physical activity.

INTRODUCE SPORTS AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY GRADUALLY The sports programme must be appropriate for Junior’s age and development, as well as his physical, mental and social abilities. It should also account for his growth, maturity, learning ability, skills and fitness level.

ENSURE THAT YOUR CHILD LEARNS THE PROPER TRAINING TECHNIQUES He also needs to be educated on proper warm-up, cool-down and flexibility exercises to prevent potential injury.

ENCOURAGE HIM TO ENGAGE IN TWO TO THREE TYPES OF SPORTS The activities should focus on a broad range of motor skills. Specialising in a single sport early and intensive year-round training can increase the risk of overuse injuries, mental stress and burnout.

LET HIM HAVE TIME-OFF TO REFRESH HIS MIND, AND REST OR HEAL FROM INJURIES Monitor your child’s physical and psychological well-being regularly and carefully when he is participating in sports. This helps detect risks for injuries and signs of over-training. 

When practice isn’t always perfect

    When kids over-train or specialise only in a particular type of sport, they run the risk of getting overuse injuries.

    Your child may experience muscle imbalance and tightness, painful inflammation of the bone-tendon junction and even stress fractures, says Dr Mohammad Ashik, a senior consultant at KKH’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.

    “Overtraining can cause overuse injuries as the growing bones and ligaments are subjected to undue stress, with repetitive loading without sufficient recovery,” he adds.

    Watch for some common signs of overuse injury listed in the Orthoinfo website by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:

• Pain that is not tied to an acute injury such as a fall

• Pain that increases with activity

• Swelling

• Changes in form or technique

• Your kid is less interested in practice