Everyone experiences a headache now and then—whether we’re sick, overheated or overindulged. For most of us, we take care of them, and they go away. But what if you had a headache all day. Every day. For years? For Hannah Strobel, this isn’t a “what if?” scenario. It’s real life and has been since a riding accident four years ago. But for Strobel, the same sport that caused her headaches are beginning to heal them too.
Strobel, 27, grew up in southern Rhode Island and found horses at an early age. “I started riding when I was 7. My older cousin was really into riding, and I wanted to be just like her! I got into it, and I caught the horse bug and never looked back,” Strobel said. “I grew up at a barn that did both eventing and a little bit of hunter/ jumper. My trainer was classically trained in Germany and lived in Britain for a while, so right from the beginning it was no stirrups every lesson. I did my first event when I was 10 years old, and that was when I really was like, ‘Eventing is what I want to do.’ ”
Strobel went to undergrad at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (N.Y.), where she earned a degree in biomedical engineering and rode on the school’s equitation equestrian team. But by the time she graduated, Strobel really wanted to get back to eventing.
After graduating in 2012, Strobel went straight to grad school to earn her PhD in biomedical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Mass.). When she first moved there, Strobel struggled to find a barn that was the right fit. “I wasn’t riding too much, just maybe every other week for a little while. And that’s I think when I started to get out of shape and made it a little bit easier to fall off. That’s when I hurt myself,” Strobel said.
In the summer of 2013, Strobel was still catch riding here or there when she went to a barn to work a green Norwegian Fjord. Her boyfriend (now husband) came along to take some pictures. “The pony had had some days off, and I was getting out of shape, and she just bolted, which she sometimes does, and started bucking,” Strobel explained. “I used to be able to pull her up when she did that, but she was getting in much better shape as I was going the other direction. And she went around a corner bucking, and I couldn’t hold myself on. I landed on my butt but fell backwards and slammed the back of my head into the ground. I knew I had a concussion right away because I’d had them before. It was that instant headache,” she continued.
Strobel admits that her judgement was a bit clouded immediately afterwards. “It’s funny—when you get concussions you don’t think very clearly. I got up, and I was like ‘I think I have a concussion. But I should use this energy and make her work!’ So, I got back on and cantered around for a while until someone came out and told me, ‘Hey this really isn’t a good idea,’ at which point it kind of hit me like ‘Oh. This isn’t a good idea.’”
Strobel didn’t go the doctor right away. She had a headache, and had expected to. But when the headache didn’t subside, she got increasingly concerned. About a week after the accident, Strobel went to a doctor and had an MRI and a CT. She didn’t have a brain bleed, but that was about all they could determine. There was no acute answer for the constant headache other than her head had experienced trauma, and there wasn’t much to be done but wait it out. “Concussions are different for everyone, and for me it was headaches. And for a long time, it was every day, six to eight hours a day,” Strobel said. “And the problem was when it drags on for months, you start to get really stressed, and then the stress makes it worse, and it kind of goes in a cycle. When you get them every day for most of the day it starts to drive you insane,” she continued.
For two years, Strobel tried to take it easy. “I did try to ride periodically in the beginning, but the bouncing of the trot would make it worse. Most of the doctors had recommended I wait [until the headaches subsided]. They said if I fell off and hit my head when I already have a residual concussion, it can get a lot more serious. There’s a thing called Second Impact Syndrome which is really dangerous. Even if you have a mild concussion and you get another mild concussion it can cause some lot bigger problems,” she added.
So Strobel stayed out of the tack and focused on her PhD and lab work, doing as little reading and writing as possible so as not to aggravate her headaches. Strobel’s research is focused on building tissue engineered blood vessels.
“We’re trying to grow a blood vessel out of just human cells. And the reason our lab is doing that is to aid in the drug development process,” Strobel said. “So, when drugs are developed, they’re first tested in two-dimensional cell culture dishes. But cells don’t behave the same in a dish as they do in an organ. So next they move onto animal testing, but animals are so different from humans that about 90 percent of drugs that work in animals fail in human clinical trials. My research is trying to bridge that gap and grow a 3-D human tissue that you can infect with a disease so then you can test drugs for treating that disease. It’s really interesting; I love it.”
Eventually Strobel decided to take six months off from her PhD to focus entirely on recovering and see if the long period of rest would do the trick.
“It did not,” she said. “That was difficult for me. I don’t regret trying it, but I think in the long run that probably did more harm than good. At that point, I was so desperate I thought maybe if I took that time off it would help. I’d go for a lot walks. I’d go brush the horses. I started making every part of every meal from scratch just because I had nothing else to do. It was really frustrating.”
After about six months, Strobel got fed up. “I just got to a point at two years [post accident] where I was so stressed and so over it and been to so many neurologists and so many doctors that I thought, ‘I think I’m just going to have to deal with this for the rest of my life,’ ” she said.
“So, I just kind of gave up hope that I would really start getting better. And to be honest, when I did that, I started to feel better. I think I got 50 percent better by just not worrying about it anymore,” she continued.
With that decision, and some relief, Strobel decided it was time to ride again. “I found an eventing barn in Marlborough called SH Equestrian. I have a great trainer called Lelo Reeves-Curtis and am half leasing a great little Welsh-Thoroughbred pony called Shovel [Courage Under Fire,]” Strobel said. “He’s 23, but he doesn’t act like it. I really like him because he’s challenging to ride, but not in a way that he’s going to buck me off or anything. I feel safe on him.”
She may feel like he’s not going to buck her off, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable. At their first schooling show together, her first since the accident, Shovel got a little excited and bucked her off in a moment of pure joy on cross-country, one jump from home.
“Everyone was so shocked because they’d never seen him do that before! But he’s never done it since,” she said.
Strobel landed mostly on her feet and in fact found the incident comforting. “I think I actually needed a fall. I needed to fall off and be OK to really feel like I was back,” she explained.
This summer, Strobel made her return to recognized shows at beginner novice finishing third at Riga Meadow (Conn.) and earned a triumphant win at Millbrook Horse Trials (N.Y.) in August. “It just felt really good. I was like, ‘Yes, I’m definitely back now,’” Strobel said.
Having riding back in her life has made a difference in all of the ways you’d expect. “It’s been great. I’ve been so much happier,” she said.
But an unexpected bonus of being back in the saddle is her headaches; though they’re not gone, they are better. “I feel like riding actually helps them now,” she said. “It really helps take my mind off of it and de-stress. I think getting the exercise, and it making me happy, I think that makes a difference.”
Debilitating headaches are an invisible ailment, and chronic pain can be exhausting. Strobel credits the people around her for helping her cope with the headaches, which she says she still has about four days a week.
“Overall, if I didn’t have [my husband] and my friends and family it would have been much more difficult to get through everything. And my PhD advisor as well. I don’t think many advisors would have put up with me taking time off and being part-time and not doing my reading and writing. She was really great,” Strobel said.
As for what’s next, Strobel is optimistic. “I’d like to work at a small company where I can run the lab and do similar sorts of research building organs,” she said. “I’m finally at a point where I can see the light at the end of the tunnel for my PhD, and I’m really looking forward to what’s next even though I have no idea what it is! And it’s been great having my little comeback pony!”