“When I rode, I was screaming”: the rider who had only 48 hours to live in 2018 returns to the saddle

  • A rider who had 48 hours left to live four years ago but who defied the odds to get back in the saddle, said each time she got on her horse: “I find myself”.

    Lisa Hartley was left with 19 per cent heart function after a devastating bout of sepsis in 2018, which came weeks after undergoing major surgery on her ‘ruined’ spine.

    “In 2018, my world fundamentally changed,” she said. H&H.

    The first sign of sepsis was severe swelling in Lisa’s legs, but “I was a typical equestrian and was like ‘don’t worry about that,'” she said. “Then I started taking my temperature and went to a walk-in center. They took a look and said ‘You’re going to a big A&E.’

    “My whole body was shutting down and overwhelmed with blood poisoning. It started two hellish years.

    Lisa was put into a coma as the systemic swelling affected her heart, brain, lungs and liver.

    “I was given 48 hours to live; my family was called and told me that I probably wouldn’t stay overnight,” she said. “Two weeks later, I was walking.”

    Lisa spent nine weeks in the hospital, then the sepsis returned a few days later. She had to return to intensive care and spent several weeks in hospital.

    “When I got home, my whole life must have changed,” she said. “I had to learn to walk and talk again before leaving the hospital, and I had lost six stones. I don’t know how many blood transfusions I had, but my body kept rejecting things. They would stabilize my heart and my lungs would fail, it would be sorted, and then my liver would not function properly.

    “Luckily my liver and kidneys are fine now, but my heart was so tight it was only working at 19%, which it still does.

    “I was 41 and just got out of a 17 year marriage, and they told me I was terminally ill. They said they would do anything they could to save my heart , but they had no hope.

    When she finally returned home, Lisa had caregivers visiting her three times a day.

    “My best friend was a zimmer executive,” she said. “I still have it, in the garage, and it reminds me that I’ve come a long way.”

    Lisa had to undergo major surgery to implant a pacemaker and defibrillator in her heart. Since it was too risky to give her a general anesthetic, she watched as the surgeon opened her heart to fit the equipment.

    “I was lying there watching him pull my heart out of my chest,” she said. “I said to the doctor, ‘I need this; I know it’s not working very well but can you put it back!

    “When it was in place they had to test that the defibrillator was working and I never felt anything like it – I was lying down and the doctor said ‘After three’ but he did it on two and I sat down instantly – in the perfect driving position.

    The defibrillator works automatically if it’s needed if Lisa’s heart fails, and she said it did and saved her 11 times. And that allowed him, among other things, to get back on board his 27-year-old traditional cob Monty.

    “I told my cardiac nurse that I didn’t want to be here anymore; I had everything prepared,” she said. “She said ‘Let me go and make a phone call’.”

    The call was to St Barnabas Hospice, who have since helped with physio, mobility and support. Lisa came back to Monty about a year ago.

    “I hadn’t ridden in just under two years, and that was the only thing on my mind,” she said. “As soon as I ran into him, I burst into tears. There’s a photo of me sitting on top of him, absolutely screaming, because I didn’t think I could ever do that again.

    “He looked at me like, ‘For the love of God, mum, get a hold of yourself’, but every time I ride him, it’s like I find myself. You get lost when you have health issues, but at horse; being with your best friend in the world is priceless.

    Lisa doesn’t ride as much as she’d like, partly because her trailer was stolen while she was in intensive care, so she feels she’s lost the freedom to take Monty on the go – ” It was sickening because I wouldn’t be able to afford another one; I thought ‘For God’s sake and then,’” she said.

    But the time spent with Monty and his other traditional cobs Missy and Harley is what keeps her going.

    “They’re my little bit of sanity in a world that’s gone crazy,” she said. “My tomorrow is not promised so I have to make the most of every day. Nobody’s promised tomorrow but one day my battle for health will catch up with me, and Monty isn’t getting any younger so we have to enjoy the time we have, do what we absolutely love.

    “I hope sharing my story will help people and raise awareness that there is help and support out there. Places like St Barnabas – I don’t think they realize how much care they provide affect people, that’s all – and the financial and other support that is available if you know about it, but also, I want people to know that it’s okay to not be okay.

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  • Earnest L. Veasey