Name: Susi Hupp
Occupation: Pediatric cardiac intensive care doctor
Last March, Susi Hupp was on her way to the barn with a friend when her doctor called with results from her biopsy. Hupp pulled into an empty parking lot to hear the news.
“I knew with the physical symptoms I had that cancer was a possibility, so I was prepared for the worst,” said Hupp. “But when I went in that morning, the doctor had been like, ‘I don’t think this is cancer,’ and so I had that kind of green light, thinking maybe this is going to be OK. Then when he called back, he said, ‘Never mind, this is cancer. Lymphoma.’
“My friend and I sat in the car and had a cry together, but you know, I’m an ICU doctor,” Hupp continued. “I said, ‘OK, what’s next?’ Make an appointment, start a treatment plan, one foot in front of the other. So, after we had our cry, we went right on out to the barn and rode our horses anyway. That’s kind of my personality. ‘OK, I have cancer. OK, what’s next?’ ”
Hard On The Heart
Hupp works at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in the Sibley Heart Center Cardiology ward. She starts her day at 6 a.m. visiting kids with acquired or congenital heart disease as they prepare for cardiac surgery. Flanked by a team of students, trainees and nurses, she reviews the plans for each operation and recovery. She fields questions from families, whom she’ll continue to update throughout the day.
By the time she hangs up her white coat around 8 p.m., she’s physically and emotionally spent.
“It’s hard seeing any kid sick—it’s a kid,” Hupp said. “But when you deal with sick kids, you also deal with families—parents, siblings, grandparents. It adds an extra layer of complexity, and a lot of times, it means having hard conversations. There’s also an added emotional toll in that a lot of our kids are there for weeks, sometimes months. Parents have to go back to work, and we see that stress, too. The kids really become part of our family at the hospital. We get pretty attached.”
Solace At The Stable
Hupp restores her strength at Zorik Michaeli’s School of Horsemanship in Woodstock, Georgia. She describes herself as a “wannabe eventer,” squeezing in rides before dawn, after dusk and during her lunch break. She grew up riding on her family’s hobby farm in Ohio, mostly bareback and western. Stymied by a limited equestrian sport scene, she traded horses for junior high athletics.
She didn’t take up riding again until after earning her MD from the Creighton University School Of Medicine (Nebraska).
“While I was doing my fellowship at Duke [University (North Carolina)], my roommate Elsa Friis had a horse, and she decided she would let me try to ride it,” Hupp said. “I had never been in an English saddle before, and she put me on Beau, a fourth level dressage horse who she was retiring. I didn’t die, and she decided that since I didn’t die, I could continue riding him.”
After a year, Friis gave Hupp the gelding. Hupp brought him with her to Dallas in 2015 when she accepted her first faculty job at Children’s Medical Center. They competed low-level dressage until 2019, when progressive lameness forced her to euthanize Beau.
She moved to Atlanta a few weeks later.
“I had some friends from North Carolina who had started a church in Alpharetta,” Hupp explained. “They called me when they made the decision and basically were like, ‘We want you there with us.’ I’d been involved as much as I could be from a distance, but as soon as I found a job in the area, I took it.”
Long Story Short
Finding fellowship on the local horse circuit was harder.
“I felt like I was starting the riding process all over again, just trying to find a barn and people to ride with,” Hupp said. “It was very rough for a while. I went to a few barns, fell off in a few lessons. Finally, I found a trainer, Lauren Eckardt, who I liked who helped me find a lease and, eventually, the horse I have now.
“I had a certain budget, like most of us do, and I knew that in that range I could get older or younger,” Hupp continued. “I decided I wanted younger, so long as I could find one super sane and super sweet. I really wanted to just grow together. My trainer found a horse in Florida named Long Story Short, which I feel is like my life’s line. I flew down to see him alone, and I was so nervous that when I got in the saddle, he just refused to move. It was like he was saying, ‘No, no. You need to take a breath.’ ”
Hupp brought “Geoffrey” home in the last months of 2019. They spent a few weeks getting to know each other in the saddle, but at 4 years old and 17 hands, he needed time to grow, so she put him out to pasture for the winter.
In February, Geoffrey strained a ligament in his back, almost a month to the day before Hupp’s cancer diagnosis.
It’s Been A Year
Lymphoma is considered one of the more treatable cancers, which helped Hupp stay positive through chemotherapy last spring. Her former roommate, Friis, came to stay with her while she finished the last year of her Ph.D. in psychology at Emory University (Georgia).
With her immune system compromised, Hupp relied on Friis and others to keep her safe as coronavirus infections spiked.
“I was lucky that Elsa lived with me during that time and did the grocery shopping and took care of the essentials,” Hupp said. “My church set up a meal train for me, and we had dinners delivered two to three times per week the entire four months of chemo. For the most part, we had no social interactions with anyone. We really didn’t go anywhere, and no one came to the house. I wore a mask absolutely everywhere, including at the barn whether I was in the barn or outside in the ring.
“I was also so lucky I had moved to Zorik’s barn, which has just the loveliest people,” she added. “Even when Geoffrey wasn’t riding sound, they made sure that I had multiple horses to ride all through chemotherapy. They would ask when I wanted to come out and just clear the barn for that time period, since my immune system was completely compromised. A lot of times I’d show up, and there would be a horse tacked up, and Zorik would just tell me, ‘Go get lost in the woods. Don’t come back for a while.’ ”
When Hupp returned to work, the continued presence of the coronavirus made every procedure a little more stressful, but her schedule was no lighter than usual. Still, Hupp and Geoffrey managed to enter their first dressage show in September.
Promptly thereafter, Hupp broke her foot.
“I was running a slack line at a rock-climbing gym when I fell off and did not stick the landing,” Hupp joked. “We were right at the point where Geoffrey was going really well, and I had recovered enough from the chemo to feel like I was back in riding shape. I was thinking we could get ready for the spring season over winter and really go out and be amazing.
“Now, I haven’t ridden in three months,” she said in early January. “I tried riding with the cast at first, but it turns out it’s really hard to ride in a cast. Like, really hard.”
Just Keep Crashing
Hupp admits that even without cancer, an injured young horse or a broken foot, finding a balance between a demanding medical career and riding is challenging. It helps to know she’s not the only one making the effort.
“I’m a part of the Physicians Women’s Equestrian Group, which is an international group on Facebook with more than 1,000 members,” Hupp explained. “The rules are you have to be a physician, and you have to ride or be a horse show mom. We have people from all disciplines sharing stories about their lives, their successes, or just that they went to a show and didn’t die. When there are shows going on, people will post where they’re going, and we try to always get some of us together, socially distanced now, of course. But there are also just daily check-ins where someone starts the post and everyone throws in how they’re doing. It’s been really helpful this past year especially, just to go on and check-in with others, and have other people who kind of know what it’s like in these shoes check in on me.”
The group had to skip their annual New Mexico ranch retreat in 2020, but Hupp is already looking forward to it in 2021.
The break finally healed in Hupp’s foot, and her doctor declared her riding sound, albeit with some pain. Hupp is hoping for fewer surprises this year, but she’s not expecting smooth sailing, either.
“My motto during chemo was, ‘Keep crashing,’ ” she said. “I had it written on the neck strap I use for jumping, too. It’s a reference to the crash of rhinos. Rhinos can only see 30 feet in front of them, yet they run at full speed, not worrying about what lies at 31 feet. I want to live like that, running full steam ahead into life, taking what comes at me.”
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