Shana Storms remembers little of Sept. 5, 2001.
The then 25-year-old from New Jersey was at a job interview at a Spotsylvania, Virginia, farm with a woman who was breaking and retraining horses for resale. While riding one of the horses, Storms experienced a catastrophic fall.
“I have no memory of that day at all,” she said. “Honestly, I think if I remembered what happened, I would never ride again.”
She was flown by helicopter to a trauma center in Washington, D.C. Soon after, back in New Jersey, her mother learned that Shana had been read her last rites.
“I knew this couldn’t be happening; it was like a bad dream,” said her mother, Judy Storms. “I was in a trance.”
When Judy arrived, Shana was comatose and hooked up to life support. The nurses explained that Shana’s helmet saved her life, but Shana had experienced a traumatic brain injury. They warned Judy there was a high probability her daughter would never wake up.
But after reading Shana’s MRI, the neurosurgeons gave a different perspective: The damage was substantial, but they thought she could recover.
Shana’s corpus callosum, the part of the brain that connects the left side of the brain to the right side, was irreparably damaged, and she had severed the myelin sheath, which facilitates nerve communication between the two sides of the brain.
“The neurosurgeons kept repeating that the brain is a huge unknown, and that we know more about the ocean and outer space than we do the brain,” Judy explained. “They believed Shana would be fine; it would just take some time. I hung onto the hope in their words. I vowed that I would stay with Shana as long as it took.”
Judy, who is an eighth-grade teacher, had 300 sick days stockpiled, and she used them to do just that. For weeks, Judy spent all her time with her daughter, talking to her and braiding Shana’s long hair.
Five days after the accident, on Sept. 10, Shana opened her eyes for the first time.
“At that moment, I felt on top of the world,” Judy said. “It was Shana’s first real step away from the brink of death and away from spending her life in a coma.”
Shana was in what doctors call an “active” coma: awake but unresponsive. Judy recalled how terrified Shana looked, glancing wildly around the room and not comprehending what was going on. Only her eyes wandered about. The right side of her face was paralyzed, and her right eye did not close or blink on its own. She initially was unable to communicate and was diagnosed with aphasia, which affects a person’s ability to speak, listen, read and write.
Neurosurgeons believed Shana could recover to a functional capacity with extensive neurological, speech, cognitive and physical therapies, so she began speech therapy and early physical therapy within a week. With Shana situated in a large lounge chair on wheels, Judy wheeled her all over the hospital and outside to the courtyard.
Judy continued to advocate for her daughter, trying anything and everything she could to get Shana to respond.
“I sometimes wondered what happened to the other comatose patients who had no mother beside them, who had no advocate watching out for them every hour of every day,” Judy said. “A comatose patient is so utterly helpless, but I had a fierce determination to do all I could for my daughter.”
The first major breakthrough occurred when Deb Lindeman, Shana’s trainer and good friend, came down from New York, to visit with her corgi.
“Deb put the corgi right into Shana’s lap, and the reaction was incredible,” Judy said. “For the first time, Shana actually responded; it was her first real interaction. She petted the dog. Shana still did not recognize me, but she recognized her favorite corgi.”
Phone calls from friends also helped, and after countless calls where she would just nod along, eventually she said, “Hi.”
From the hospital, Shana moved to the Winchester Rehabilitation Center (Virginia). Soon, she was able to walk with someone holding onto of a 4-inch-wide canvas belt she wore. “We walked everywhere,” Judy said. “She walked as if she was in a trance, not looking left or right, not appearing to have a goal or direction. She just walked.”
Shana began to speak a little bit, though her words were incoherent and slurred at first.
“She was improving faster than any of the doctors expected,” Judy said. “She could pick up a fork with her right hand, was attempting to write again, and she could walk. These were all huge improvements.”
Once Shana was discharged in late November, they returned to New Jersey. “We drove through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and I remember thinking about the Pennsylvania National Horse Show,” Shana said with a laugh. “My mind always went back to horses!”
Back In The World
Shana’s first forays back into the broader world were for things like therapy appointments, organizing books at the library a few days a week, and visiting the tack shop. There, she’d spend a couple days each week organizing things and socializing.
In addition, Shana sat in on a public speaking class at a local college, which led her to enroll in several online classes. “Before that class, I sounded like a drunk,” she said. “I hated that about myself; I wanted to fix that.”
As Shana grew frustrated with her therapy, she asked to visit Lindeman’s Harmony Acres Farm in Orange County, New York. Hoping it would provide motivation, Judy agreed to take her. They arrived to a “Welcome Home Shana” sign in the barn, and everyone was there to greet her. That the barn visit was one of the best medicines for Shana. Her motivation returned; she began doing her therapy work at home and making plans for when she could go back to the barn.
In March 2002, Shana sat on a horse for the first time since her accident and was led around at the walk. “I had no fear, I was so happy to be back on a horse again,” Shana said. “I absolutely loved it.”
By June, Shana and Judy purchased Fernie, a mare she’d ridden before the accident, which gave Shana even more reason to be at the barn. “She was a jumper, and she was a little crazy, but I loved her,” Shana said. “She was such an angel; she would do whatever I asked.”
It took Shana several years to regain control of her life. At times, Shana admits that the journey felt hopeless. Her right eyelid and lip remained paralyzed for a while, and the most difficult skill to relearn was walking normally.
“2001-2002 was rough,” she said. “I always thought I lost myself; it was like my old self was gone. I had to face that I was never going to be ‘the old me’ again. I always felt like no one was going to accept me for who I was.”
Although she still wanted to be a professional rider, Shana began to see that her dream was no longer realistic.
“As I started to ride more, I realized that I didn’t have the same coordination or skills that I had before,” Shana explained. “I couldn’t put things together. I could ride, but not well enough to make my living off of it. So I decided it was finally time for me to attend college.”
In the fall of 2003, Shana enrolled in Orange County Community College (New York), which lead to a job with Mental Health Association of Orange County as a skill builder and case manager. There, she learned about soldiers who had suffered TBIs.
“It immediately piqued my interest because for the first time, I felt like I wasn’t alone in my fight,” she said.
In 2009, Shana graduated from Pace University (New York) with a masters in psychotherapy. She practiced as a therapist in New Jersey and New York for several years, and rode and showed a bit with hunter/jumper trainers Lisa O’Neill and Julie Becker, competing in the 2013 Marshall and Sterling 2’6” Adult Equitation Finals (New York).
She moved to Reston, Virginia, in 2014, where she opened her own psychotherapy practice a year ago and rides in nearby Middleburg.
“I have a lot of patients who meet with me remotely, and I see one person face-to-face,” she said. “So many people are looking for help.”
For some, a long road to recovery can seem daunting, but Shana likes to remind others that it is all about mindset.
“If you’re on this journey, please don’t give up,” Shana said. “Always be willing to ask for help. Keep pushing yourself past the self-defeating thoughts. When you’re telling yourself you can’t, you can.”
Ultimately, Shana’s accident and journey led her to her passion for, and career in, mental health services.
“I feel like everyone always needs someone to talk to,” she said. “They need someone who they can relate to and has been through the same or a similar experience. It helps people feel better, it helps them heal.”
“I wish there was some sort of group for head injury riders who continue on riding after their injuries,” she added. “I think it would be really beneficial.”
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org with their story.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct location of Harmony Acres Farm, the name of Storms’ jumper mare, and add the name of trainer Julie Becker, who helped Storms at the 2013 Marshall and Sterling Finals.