Talia Czapski has learned the hard way just how much one moment can change your life. “You can be minding your own business and come across someone else who just made a poor decision, and that can change everything,” Czapski said.
On June 9, Talia Czapski and barn-mate Brett Anders were driving to Dancing Horse Equestrian Center in Leesburg, Va., for a morning feeding shift when an unlicensed drunk driver hit their car. Anders was not injured in the crash, but the head-on collision left Czapski with a concussion, two broken femurs, a broken hand, a broken foot and a crushed big toe.
Czapski, 22, was immediately airlifted to INOVA Fairfax Hospital for surgery. The 19-year-old drunk driver—who was driving a borrowed car and didn’t have insurance—sustained only minor injuries.
After a three-hour surgery, in which two rods were placed in both her femurs, Czapski stayed in the intensive care unit at the hospital for six days and then spent another two weeks at a rehabilitation center at INOVA Mt. Vernon Hospital. There, she had two physical therapy sessions each day, where she focused on bending her knees, standing, shifting her weight from the bed to the wheelchair and strengthening her muscles.
After about a week in a wheelchair and walker, Czapski graduated to a specialized version of crutches. Since her hand was also broken, the doctors fashioned a platform on the crutch for her elbow to support her body instead of her hand. With walking boots on both legs, she is now able to go up and down stairs on her crutches.
“My hand and foot are lagging behind a bit because there isn’t much they can do for those breaks; they simply have to heal,” said Czapski. “And my big toe is crushed, so it looks like I will be needing to invest in some special stirrups at some point in the future because the doctor said it will not heal completely.”
But during the long and painful process of rehabilitation and recovery, Czapski’s main concern was not for herself but for her mare, “Aria.” A full-time student at George Mason University (Va.), Czapski works two jobs in order to support the horse. She has no way of returning to her job as a salesperson at Wylie Wagg, a dog boutique in Middleburg, Va., until she can stand and walk. With no income coming in, Czapski became concerned that she would no longer be able to support Aria. But she started receiving help from likely and unlikely sources.
Czapski’s friend, Kate Scher, had the idea to start an online fundraiser to help Czapski with Aria’s expenses while she was on the mend. Neither Czapski nor Scher could have predicted the site’s immediate and overwhelming success, however.
“The idea was just to just cover my basic horse expenses until I can work again, and it just grew like crazy! It’s unbelievable,” said Czapski. “Every time I log on [to the fundraising site], I start crying.”
The site has now raised more than $10,000 with Czapski’s friends, family and even sympathetic strangers donating daily.
“It’s really surreal. I remember when [Scher] told me about it, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so cool!’ and I thought we would get like $500,” said Czapski. “Then I logged on a couple of days later, and it was at a couple thousand.
“It’s just incredible that all these people are donating,” she continued. “I don’t know half of them, but somehow they’ve heard about me, and they’re like, ‘I’m in college too, and I have horses, and I know what it’s like [trying to support them].’ It really renews your faith in human generosity.”
Equestrian companies have also joined in the cause. Ecogold supported Czapski by sending 20 percent of the total sale price from merchandise sold in the “Eventing” section of their website the week after the accident to Czapski. Amy Mac Photography and Hidez Company have also donated products and sessions to an online auction that took place on Czapski’s fundraising Facebook page.
It’s made Czapski more confident that she’ll be able to support Aria, her partner of two years. “My friend was vetting her as an upper-level event prospect, and she had a serious heart murmur and some serious lameness issues,” said Czapski. “So eventually [the owners] said, ‘We’re done. We don’t want this horse anymore.’ So my friend’s trainer called me and said, ‘Hey you want a free horse?’ ”
Despite Aria’s health issues, Czapski was determined to bring the mare along and compete her in local hunter/jumper shows and eventually horse trials. The pair trains with Lee DiGangi with the goal of competing in recognized events in mind. But it takes some effort to keep Aria sound enough to compete.
“It’s just a lot of maintenance,” said Czapski. “I do a lot of preventative work. I’m up to my eyeballs in poultice and ice. You know, we would go for a trot set, and she would get iced for basically the rest of the day. I’ve also started her on joint supplements.”
Soon after making the transition from the hospital to her mother’s house, Czapski ventured to the barn to visit Aria for the first time since her accident. “I thought she was going to be spooking at the crutches but she was like, ‘OK, whatever’. She even let me put my weight on her as I hobbled around. It was so nice to see her again,” said Czapski.
Although her doctors have not given her a definite timeline for when she can ride again, Czapski hopes to get back in the saddle as soon as physically possible. “Hopefully my strength will come back soon, and I will be able to bend my knees, because right now I still can’t bend them all the way, which would make jumping in stirrups really interesting!” joked Czapski. “But hopefully that will improve with physical therapy and before long I’ll be able to climb back up on a horse.”
Although the road to recovery will not be an easy one, Czapski has approached the entire process with a cheerful disposition. “Just make good choices behind the wheel, because you never know who you’re going to effect. That’s what I really learned from this,” Czapski added.
“I feel completely overwhelmed and undeserving,” she said. “It’s awesome to know that my story has touched so many people.”