Lexington, Ky.—Aug. 11
Tasting the salty hints of summer coming through, Julia Sipp just had a few more days left of school before classes no longer disrupted her riding schedule. The 11-year-old had some big plans for her two ponies, Land’s End Lady Slipper and Sparkle, that included the Vermont Summer Festival, Lake Placid (New York) and of course the USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky), and she was ready for those plots to commence without interruption.
Monday, May 20, ran as smoothly as a day could as teachers prevented her from Mor Linn Farm in Walpole, Massachusetts, until the late afternoon hours. But as usual, once released, she found her way to Cormac and Catherine Kennedy’s farm.
But on Tuesday, May 21, Sipp came home from a field trip with a headache and a fever. Her mom Sharon Sipp took her to the pediatrician, who said it was just a bug. But by Sunday, May 26, Sharon saw her worst nightmare realized as Julia’s fever spiked to extreme levels, causing her to suddenly start having seizures. She was immediately admitted to the Boston Children’s Hospital ICU with swelling in her brain and spine.
“Before this, completely healthy, rode six days a week at her barn. Nothing—just completely out of nowhere,” said Sharon. “Monday the day before, she was riding her horses. A week later she was in the ICU with tubes coming out of every bit of her and in a coma.
“And they had no idea what it was,” she continued. “They did like a spinal tap and sent off that spinal fluid to University of California, San Francisco and it screens about a thousand different types of viruses and diseases that it could be. So it takes two weeks to get those results.”
While waiting for the results, the doctors put Julia in a medically induced coma for three days, as they fed her body every antibiotic and steroid they could to rid her of the unknown virus and reduce the swelling in her brain. When her body started to respond, they took her off the monitor, but she didn’t open her eyes for another two days.
“They took it all off, and you kind of just sit there and wait,” said Sharon. “And it’s excoriating that waiting period because you expect them to just open up their eyes and “Where am I? What’s going?’—and talk. And it took her probably two and a half to three days to open up her eyes. She couldn’t talk. She couldn’t breathe on her own. And then eventually she just became a little bit more aware over time what was going on. And as parents we were kind of advocating, ‘Take the breathing tube out so that she could try—she’s a little kid, she’s afraid,’ ”
The results from California showed that Julia suffered from a rare tick borne virus called Powassan. First discovered in Russia, the virus has slowly made its way to the United States, first in the Great Lakes region and now in the Northeast. The younger the patient is, the better chances of recovery since there is no treatment for the virus. The antibiotics the doctors gave Julia in Boston allowed it to work itself out of her body. But the answer didn’t necessarily solve all problems.
“She was at Children’s for two weeks and lost her ability to walk, talk, swallow,” said Sharon. “Her right side had swelling, like the nerve endings from her spine had swelling that affected her right side of her body. So her arm was pretty dead—like no use out of it. And she was a righty.”
After the hospital Julia then went to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital (Boston) for two weeks, where they worked to help her regain her speech and motor abilities.
“My husband and I went to visit her, and at that point she was still unable to speak and had no use of the right side of her body,” said Catherine. “This was in late June—not that long ago.”
But as soon as Julia regained her voice, she had one thing on her mind to say.
“All she cared about, from the minute she was able to form words, the one thing she remembered was that she’d qualified Sparkle and Lady Slipper for Pony Finals,” said Catherine. “She said, ‘I want to go ride my pony.’ That was it.”
“The whole time all she’s talking about is when she’s going to ride again, and her ponies—it was heartbreaking,” said Sharon. “And during that time, we were supposed to go to Vermont to horse show as well as Lake Placid, and we had to call those off. So she was very determined that she’d still go to Pony Finals.”
With a specific goal in mind, Julia blew doctors away with her fast recovery. She left Spaulding on July 1. And a week later, she was able to be ponied around at a walk.
“She would walk around, and we would help her and walk next to her—one of the girls in the barn or her sister,” said Catherine. “Everyone really rallied together. We have a really close group of kids and juniors at our barn, so everybody pitched in. She’s a very quiet kid to begin with. She’s not gregarious. She’s very quiet and reserved. She would just quietly come to the barn and brush her pony and walk around on her pony.”
“I think it came more naturally to her. She didn’t think anything of it,” said Sharon. “It was just who she is and for the rest of us watching from the tack room, we’re crying. The barn is her happy place and it’s just, you go to school, you go to the barn for two hours a day, you come home and have dinner. It’s just her way of life. She’s a quiet child by nature and not very boisterous or anything. I think internally she was just really happy.”
After a week of walking, the neurology team gave her a stamp of approval to continue on doing whatever she was doing before.
“She was lucky, she was so strong from riding horses going into that her body was pretty strong,” said Sharon. “She kind of picked up right where she left off. It was amazing.”
“My husband, who is far more willing to take a chance than I am, was like, ‘OK, let’s do this,’ ” said Catherine. “They started slowly doing some flat lessons. This was over a very short period of time. Pony Finals was weeks away. They started jumping some small courses, then we did week 5 at [HITS-on-the-Hudson]. She went in and did the pony division, and she did great.”
Julia won her first class back in action in Saugerties, New York, the USEF Pony Medal, with “Lady,” proving she was ready to trek to Lexington, Kentucky, to compete in the small pony division. While a small mistake in the under saddle put her in the middle of the pack, Julia and Lady jumped a stellar over fences in the Walnut Ring. If there was ever a moment on course when things could go awry, Lady took charge, taking care of her person.
“This pony would jump through fire for her,” said Catherine. “She’s the kind of pony who’s like, ‘OK we’re going to move up here kid, we need to make this line work.’ Julia knew the pony had given 110 percent to her. It was really wonderful.”
And coming out of the ring after completing the course, quiet Julia threw her arms around Lady in appreciation.
“First of all, I want to say to Lady that I really do love her,” said Julia. “It was like a dream come true.”
“It was just a relief. I don’t want to show—I don’t want to start crying before the under saddle or the model. So for me, it was over. We had done it. She had done a great job. She got around. It was just a release of emotion of how far she’s come too to that point,” said Sharon. “[Coming out of the ring] she was like, ‘Why do you think the first judge gave me such a low score?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. It’s not important, it’s just you did it. Just be happy.’ And then she wanted to watch everybody else, and it was exciting. And then asked if we could come back again next year. How can you not say yes?”
“I don’t like to throw around the word miracle, but it was about as close. Six weeks previous doctors weren’t sure if she’d ever be able to walk again,” said Catherine. “I have clients who are doctors, and they were like, ‘There’s no way she can go to Pony Finals,’ and boy she proved all of us wrong.”
The Chronicle will have reporters on-site at the Kentucky Horse Park to cover all of the action and bring you stories, news and photos from USEF Pony Finals. Check in at coth.com and make sure you’re following us on Instagram and Facebook. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of the Sept. 2 issue for more in-depth stories from the winners.
Important Links: USEF Pony Finals official website | Results | The complete schedule of classes and social and educational activities | Live streaming from USEFNetwork | All of the Chronicle’s coverage