If you watched Sophie Tyack jump around to a championship in the modified adult hunters at the Fieldstone Summer Showcase (Mass.) at the end of August, you’d never guess that two years ago she was unable to feel her torso and legs, let alone move them.
Tyack started to experience some pain in her lower back during the summer before she started college at Princeton University (N.J.), but her rigorous schedule of rowing crew in high school made her believe it wasn’t anything to worry about.
The pain increased to what felt like a “cracked rib” during her fall semester, and her new crew coach prompted her to get the scan while she was home over Thanksgiving break.
The MRI revealed that Tyack had a benign growth inside her spinal cord.
“[The doctors] originally thought it was a hematoma, and they were all ready to rush me into emergency surgery, but they realized it wasn’t,” said Tyack, 20. “It’s called a lipoma. They said I’d had it since birth, but it gradually grows, and it hadn’t bothered me before. By the time I had my MRI, it had smashed my spinal cord to 50 percent of its size. They couldn’t believe I didn’t have neurological symptoms.”
She returned home to Hanover, Mass., a week early for her Christmas break, and doctors told her that recovery from the surgery, which would be performed with a laser, would be about a week. Risks named were anesthesia or infection in the incision.
“They have no idea really what happened. I woke up the next morning [after the surgery], and I couldn’t feel or move anything but my arms,” she said. “Originally, I thought they were just asleep, because I’d just been lying there, not moving for quite awhile. But then they asked me to move my foot up and down, and I thought I was, but I wasn’t—I freaked out.”
It turned out that Tyack had suffered a reaction from the titanium screws the surgeons had inserted—she had a crew training trip the following January, and she wanted to be ready for it. However, in order for the screws to be placed, a small piece of her spine had to be removed. The swelling from that act proved to be responsible for her inability to move anything from her shoulders down.
Even after a second surgery to remove the pins and flush out her swelling and a week in the intensive care unit, Tyack’s doctors were still unsure of her future.
An Uncertain Future
“After a week in the ICU, I could kind of move one of my toes,” Tyack recalled. “Originally they said that with the whole thing, I’d just be in the hospital for a week; it wasn’t supposed to be a problem. The doctors would come in, and they just didn’t know anything—they didn’t know what happened, they didn’t know if I would get better. They had no answers for me at all. It was totally frustrating.”
Tyack’s family spent the 2009 holidays at her bedside. Friends came to visit while they were home on breaks from school. Tyack said the support from her friends and family, as well as the fact that everyone remained positive, really helped her keep her spirits up as she started physical therapy. In a matter of two weeks she’d lost nearly 20 pounds, mostly muscle, from having lain immobile.
“I had been lying down for so long; I just wanted to sit up. They said I shouldn’t, but I felt like if I could get vertical, I’d be fine. But when I finally got them to let me sit up, it was a major struggle because I couldn’t move my trunk. I got sitting up on the side of the bed, and I totally passed out.
“I’ve always been really active—healthy,” continued Tyack, who is the captain of Princeton’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team as well as a member of their club field hockey team. “I’ve never really had to go to doctors. Lying in bed, you don’t really notice how much is wrong with you.”
Although she recalled noticing very little day-to-day improvements with physical therapy, promising signs came after a week of working to flex her joints, particularly her knee, in attempt to rebuild connections with her spinal cord.
“They would ask me to bend my leg at the knee, and it would twitch, so it was an improvement,” said Tyack. “[Doctors had told me that] spinal cord cells cannot regenerate, but sometimes they go to sleep for a little bit, so they said the fact that I was getting some [movement and feeling] back was a good sign—and I’d get more back as time passed.”
After 2½ weeks at The Children’s Hospital in Boston, Tyack relocated to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, which has a spinal cord injury rehabilitation program. There she spent time working on specialized machines that helped her spinal cord recall actions like the pattern of walking.
“When I left [Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital] in [February 2010], I had a walker to balance myself,” said Tyack, who began working out at the local YMCA as soon as she was able. “I could kind of move by then, but I couldn’t really feel anything. It was just so bizarre—having the littlest things be so hard—I’d been in pretty good shape before, but I couldn’t put my socks on. Just all of the sudden, the most normal things were just so hard.”
Determined To Get Back In The Tack
And one of those normal things in Tyack’s life was riding. Getting back in the saddle proved to be a struggle, but Tyack was determined.
“I got out of the hospital and the first thing I really wanted to do was see my horse,” said Tyack. She traveled down to Ocala, Fla., soon after being released so she could visit with her horse, Flamenco 135, who was leased at the time to another student of Tyack’s trainer, Tom Hern. “And once I was back at the horse show again, I just kept thinking, ‘I really want to get back on a horse. How long until I can get back on?’ ”