In the fall of 2018, Kimberlee O’Cain ran into a bad streak of luck.
Then 27, O’Cain prided herself on her good health. She worked as an assistant trainer at DeCesari Equestrian in her hometown of Tucson, Arizona, teaching hunters, jumpers and dressage. She held a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and had completed her first marathon in July. Her warmblood gelding, Rufio, had just recovered from a tick-borne illness, and together they were showing in the 1.15-meter jumpers, with hopes of bigger.
Then a sudden onset of stomach pain sent O’Cain to the emergency room, where doctors performed gallbladder surgery. The recovery took several weeks, and O’Cain, who suffers from bipolar disorder, sank into a mental health crisis that landed her in the hospital again in early November.
Shortly after her discharge, her fever spiked to 108.4 due to sepsis, which she had apparently contracted as a result of a blood draw during her last hospital visit.
“The ER doctors told my mom, ‘You need to get the rest of the family to the hospital because she isn’t going to make it,’ ” O’Cain remembered. “They were all shocked that I survived, especially without brain damage.”
O’Cain returned home knowing she was lucky to be alive. She had no idea the worst was yet to come.
“I’d been out of the hospital maybe five days when I started having issues,” O’Cain said. “I started walking kind of funny, like I had slippers on my feet, and I noticed my hands were getting really weak. I went back to the same hospital, but I couldn’t get a diagnosis. Went back the next day and the next day after that. Still nothing. It got to the point where I couldn’t get up out of the chair on my own; my hands were so weak I couldn’t even grab onto a blanket, and I was having such severe lower back pain that I couldn’t tolerate sitting or lying down.
“Basically, I would just stand at the counter in my house and pace, all day and all night,” O’Cain continued. “It was torture. And it was terrifying. It seemed like all of a sudden, my body was completely giving up on me.”
By the time she got an appointment with a neurologist in December, she relied on a walker and was having trouble breathing.
She was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré AMSAN, a rare and serious variant of Guillain-Barré syndrome that causes a body’s immune cells to attack the nervous system, eventually causing total paralysis if left untreated. A spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis, and doctors immediately began prepping her for intubation. She spent the next six days receiving IV treatment, celebrating Christmas in her hospital bed with a breathing tube in her throat.
“When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t realize the extent of how long it would take to recover,” O’Cain said. “I thought, I’m an athlete; I’m fit. This’ll be a piece of cake. Two months, I’ll be back.”
Thirteen months later, O’Cain says she’s still not 100 percent, and she’s been forced to reconsider almost everything she knew about herself.
She always planned to be a professional equestrian. She started working with her first green project pony at the age of 8, and by 11 she was succeeding on the HITS Arizona circuit with her Pony of the Americas, Officer Spot. She struggled academically, so after high school she took a job at a Summerhill Arabians, where she trained Egyptian Arabians for western performance. She moved on to Al-Marah Arabian Farms, where she worked several years before taking a job working for dressage trainer Laura DeCesari in 2015.
“Honestly, I felt pretty comfortable in the position I was in,” O’Cain said. “I started out as a groom, got to do some riding, and eventually became assistant trainer. I really enjoyed the dressage and gained a huge appreciation for it. But we also had about eight clients that jumped, so I got to work with those clients and ride their horses. I’d kind of played around with the idea of starting my own business, but I was honestly happy where I was.”
All that changed after her diagnosis. DeCesari had to replace her, so O’Cain lost the job she’d spent a decade working toward. She hoped to move back to a place of her own after a few weeks rehabbing with her parents but quickly realized that wasn’t an option. She fell often, and when she did, she couldn’t pick herself up.
At one point, the nerve pain returned to her hands with such a fury that her only relief came from plunging them into buckets of ice water, often for hours at a time.
“I don’t think there’s a word strong enough for how difficult it’s been mentally,” O’Cain said. “I’ve always had bipolar disorder, and adding on the physical made it to where I couldn’t cope with the mental stuff how I used to. It used to be if I got depressed or antsy or manic, I’d go for a run. But I can’t run anymore. I had to find new ways to cope.
“I eventually found that I could get by if I could go out to the barn at night and just sit in Rufio’s stall because there’s just something about a barn. When it’s totally quiet at night you can hear the horses munching and sneezing,” she continued. “Rufio just stands over me, and I have him there, and that’s where I find an inner peace.”
She started visiting Rufio on her first day out of the hospital, and her friends kept him in work. But she knew she wasn’t ready to try riding on her own. She read about a nearby therapeutic riding center, Steady Strides, that she reached out to, and their lift got her back in the tack in March. By June, she started using the bed of her truck to clamber onto Rufio.
“That’s really how I got my legs back, the riding,” O’Cain said. “It was the one place where I felt like nothing had changed. I had to do all these weird things to be able to work around Rufio, and he was always so careful with me. I would sit down next to him and put his giant feet in my lap to pick his hooves, and he would just rest them there. He wouldn’t move.”
Though her professional ambitions haven’t changed, O’Cain’s perspective has. She has one horse in training at Royal Star Equestrian where she boards, and she hopes to add more clients, but she also enrolled at Pima Community College, where she’s earning a degree in communications.
“Horses are everything I’ve ever wanted to do, but horses are always going to be there,” O’Cain said. “The past two years have really made me think about what happens if you can’t work with them, where are you then? It’s a profession that’s hard on your body as it is, so having something that you can do when and if your body fails you, I think it’s not a bad idea.”
Now at her healthiest point since her first stomach pang 18 months ago, O’Cain, 29, will reenter the show arena this spring, but she admits she’s grown cautious about making future plans. She knocks on wood whenever she talks about her hopes for her business, her recovery or Rufio, without whom she says she could never have recovered physically and mentally. She even carries a rabbit’s foot totem for luck.
But luck, too, is a matter of perspective.
“[It] depends on the way you look at it,” O’Cain said. “I’ve been really unlucky with some of my diagnoses, but at the same time, I’ve survived quite a bit. There were several things I probably should have died from. I’m still around. I might be disabled, but I’m not planning on always being disabled. So maybe I am a little bit lucky.”
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.