By Eddie Donnally, The Paulick Report
“A man does what he must—in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures—and that is the basis for all human morality.” John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage
“I’m determined to fight and not give up,” she said from her apartment in Phoenix, Ariz. “Doctors never flat out told me I’d be paralyzed the rest of my life, but I accepted it to some degree. But I have said from the beginning that I will walk again.”
For paraplegics, the shocking new and complicated lifestyle of being wed to a wheelchair is virtually always balanced with hopes for a divorce. Reality versus hope is a theme common to us all. Yet, catastrophically injured former jockeys, who measure themselves by their physical and mental ability to get a racehorse to the finish line before others wearing identical goggles, soon learn this balance is precarious. And to radically tip either way is brutal for body and mind.
On March 11, 2014, Von Rosen finished second aboard Quarter Horse Panchita Bonita at Turf Paradise in Phoenix. “I don’t remember the race,” she said. “But I remember galloping out thinking the mare had run a huge race. The next thing I know, I’m lying on the ground. I couldn’t feel my legs, but the strange thing was it wasn’t scary. I knew what had happened, and I accepted it. I always have. I think people don’t know how dangerous this sport is.”
While there is no exact data this writer could find, the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, which supports riders with many kinds of catastrophic injuries, has since its founding in 2006 assisted some 71 permanently disabled jockeys. Approximately 70% (49) have suffered paralysis or other spinal cord injuries severe enough to end their careers. This in a group barely larger than the number of players in the NFL.
Hours after the accident, a seven-hour emergency surgery dealt with her leaking spinal fluid. Two days later, another surgery stabilized her spine. Her T5 vertebra was severed. Medically termed “complete,” its healing at this point in time is virtually impossible, according to most doctors.
“I knew mine was complete, but maybe I just blocked it out,” she said. “I did a lot of visualization and visualized myself walking to the barn. From the beginning, I said I’d still walk.”
For Von Rosen, determination seems built in. Intelligent and personable, she is also known as a hard worker and independent. She worked on a breeding farm in her native Germany before moving to Italy, France and England, where she exercised horses at several major tracks. She gained a job as a vet tech at prestigious Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., became an assistant trainer, and then decided to become a jockey, first riding at bush tracks in South Dakota in 2001. As a seasoned veteran, she raced chiefly at Turf Paradise and Canterbury Downs, riding 5,000 races and winning a respectable 666.
Von Rosen, now 43, soon moved to Denver’s Craig Hospital, renowned for helping those with severe spinal cord injuries. She refused counseling along with anti-depressants. “I didn’t like it there,” she said. “They are good at getting you independent in a wheelchair, but I wanted to do other things, medically.”
Those things included the homeopathic medicine practiced by her father—a doctor in her native Germany— acupuncture and the stem-cell therapy that reportedly in 2011 healed a paralyzed donkey. She said Craig Hospital doctors were not cooperative, with one saying homeopathic medicine would interfere with the blood-thinners they prescribed.
“So much of this injury is psychosocial,” she said. “If you take away things I believe in, how can I get well? If it helps me, why take it away?”
After two weeks, Von Rosen moved back to her home and family in Germany where she underwent rehabilitation at a facility in Frankfurt while her father treated her with everything from reflexology, raindrop therapy (aromatherapy and massage with essential oils), and electroacupuncture — a form of acupuncture where a small electric current is passed between pairs of acupuncture needles.
Last September, she spent six weeks at Dr. Osvaldo Font’s Pain Clinic in San Juan, Puerto Rico, receiving controversial electroneuromedular treatments. Long acupuncture needles are inserted deep inside the spinal cord, then connected to an electrical stimulus strong enough to cause sharp pain in previously unfeeling extremities. Several Latin and South American doctors perform this treatment, and claim that in some cases, it restores nerve connections inside injured spinal cord tissue. The practice is not yet approved in the U.S.
“The needle goes in deep,” said Von Rosen. “It hurts in the places where I can feel pain and it’s dangerous. I can’t yet feel pain in my legs which would be great. But it’s helped. I’m starting to get my pelvis to work. There is no sensation yet, but I can still feel things inside. I can feel things move. It’s hard to explain, but I believe it will help me walk again.”
She had treatments in Puerto Rico again in June, went back to Germany, moved to Phoenix last fall and plans to receive the same treatment in September.
In the meantime, her day-to-day battle goes on. It’s a battle familiar to many. Former jockey Jackie Fires, a paraplegic since a horse he was exercising fell on him in 1977, said the first year after the injury is the hardest. “Your whole life changes,” he said. “You have to learn to live all over again. Your legs are gone so you have to use your hands and arms for everything. It’s like being born again.”
For Von Rosen and other former jockeys now paraplegic, this new birth is often painful. There are high risks for developing dangerous urinary tract infections and pressure sores from sitting so much. And there are catheters to deal with, something Von Rosen said means getting up in the middle of the night to empty the catch bag.
“I still have pain in my upper body; my back actually. One of my ribs won’t stay in place, and I have spasms in my legs when I move in my sleep. The pain wakes me up.”
Doing things most of us take for granted becomes lengthy, often impossible. “Just certain things you can’t do,” she said, “like taking the dog for a walk, going into the kitchen and throwing together something to eat, getting ready and going out the door in twenty minutes. Everything takes so long. It’s frustrating to do the little things you never thought about before.”
For Von Rosen, life has been reduced to dealing with her injury and healing from it. She gets up at 9:00 a.m., when various friends show up to help her get into the Swiss-made exercise machine her father purchased to help build her muscles. She spends hours on it each day. Three days a week, she goes out for physical therapy. She does standing exercises in a special frame at least a half-hour twice a day. She also hooks up her Acuscope, a device reported to have pain management properties.
She recently took time off to attend a day held in her honor at Turf Paradise, something she said was rewarding; most rewarding because she stood in leg braces for the world to see. Her voice turns cheery when she talks about the Doug O’ Neill-trained Get Back Anne, who raced at Santa Anita, and a thoroughbred weanling named Running for Anne.
She does not feel forgotten. Ten months after her injury, friends still show up at her apartment to help in many ways. Because she does not yet have a hand controlled auto, they take her to physical therapy, help her shop, and assist with dishes and laundry.
“I’m grateful and thankful for all the people around me to help me get through this; to my family in Germany and my family in racing.”
While grateful, she’s dislikes needing the help. “I’ve been lucky because the support is still there,” she said. “But the hardest part is having people take care of me because I’m so independent. It’s frustrating because everything takes so long. But it’s something I just have to bear.”
And yes, sometimes there are tears. “Some days I feel alone and cry.”
For Von Rosen and others like her, that delicate balance between hope and despair, lament and positive affirmation, giving in and going on is daily fare. She currently resides at the intersection of perspiration and aspiration.
Jockeys know the risks and accept them. Still, the exhilaration of being atop a half-ton racehorse, traveling inches apart at 40 MPH, with a paycheck, adulation and another “win” beside your name waiting at the finish line, is something never easy to give up. When it’s snatched away too soon and replaced by a permanent lifelong injury, it’s traumatic.
The same courage needed for the former is essential in the latter. Despite the daily battle, frustration and sometimes sadness, Von Rosen is not about to give up. Encouraging words are helpful, she said. Active on Facebook, she relishes chats, post comments, and especially prayers.
The “why it happened?” remains a work in progress. “I know there is meaning in what happened to me. I think God had a reason, I just don’t know what it is. I do know that whatever happens, there is a purpose out there for me. I am going to get out of this chair. I don’t know when, but I will.”
Rev. Eddie Donnally, a former Eclipse Award winning writer and author of the bio, “Ride the White Horse,” is one of five former jockeys who founded “Jockeys and Jeans,” dedicated to raising awareness of the dangers of race riding. The inaugural Jockeys and Jeans event last winter at Tampa Bay Downs raised more than $22,000 for the Permanently Disabled Jockeys’ Fund, and the second event is set for May 30 at Indiana Grand Racing and Casino.