By Dan Roark
I had the good pleasure last Saturday morning of taking pictures to document Tonya actually getting on and riding a horse. Something she could only dream of for the last eighteen years. Which is, considering the timing, a wonderful Thanksgiving story and I am fortunate enough to share it with you.
I met Tonya in the summer when she began coming to New Hope. I wanted to do a post about her. She was in her all-terrain vehicle – “the tank” – which moved her up so she could groom the horses. This was before the heat wave. I had planned to meet with her the next week to do an interview, so I didn’t take a picture. Then, due to Tonya’s setbacks and the weather, that second meeting didn’t happen until Saturday. But I wanted to illustrate the timeline of her relationship with New Hope.
Tonya is a medically retired disabled Air Force veteran. She worked in aircraft maintenance on fighters and C130s. As she says, “it was a blast!” She expected to do that until she retired. That all changed on October 31, 2005. Having dinner with family, she became paralyzed on the left half of her body. They went to the emergency room at a civilian hospital that – fortunately – had a neurologist on call that night. After a not so quick MRI, the doctor told her he was 98% sure she had multiple sclerosis (MS).
Tonya couldn’t believe it. She was straight from deployment, the most fit she had been since boot camp. How could she be sick? The Air Force agreed, saying it was impossible – she didn’t fit the “mold” of someone with MS. After three spinal taps and too many MRIs to count, even the military had to admit it was MS.
“This led to the hardest moment, being removed from a job I absolutely loved. And did quite well in, too. I recovered quite quickly from the paralysis in the hopes of staying in [the Air Force]. But that was not in my cards. Eventually, I was given a medical discharge. I was basically told, “we’re sorry, but we can’t use you any more now that we’ve broken you.”“
Then came August 2010. That afternoon, after running three miles and walking in heels all day at her civilian job, she ended up in the ER. The last thing she remembers is handing her phone to the wife of the plant General Manager, and asking her to call Tonya’s mom. Tonya woke up days later, paralyzed from the nose down.
Tonya had been on breathing machines, heart machines, and just about every machine in the ER that keeps the body alive when it stops taking on that job itself. Over the next few months, with her mom by her side, she went through intensive in-patient physical therapy to try to regain some of the movement in her upper and lower body. During this time, the VA told Tonya she should spend less time trying to get out of the wheelchair and more time getting used to it.
“Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with me or my mom. This was a very dark period of my life and I wanted to quit many times. I would cry to my mom when I couldn’t do something. She would reply “I know baby, but do it anyway.” After re-learning how to eat, drink, talk, write, and basically everything else again, my journey brought me to the doors of New Hope. I have gained so much from my time spent with the horses and the staff at New Hope. When I first rode up to the pasture, I had no idea what to expect.”
“There I was in my all-terrain vehicle – affectionately called “the tank,” wondering what I could possibly do with these wonderful horses and what could they do for me. I had discussed equine therapy with my Wounded Warrior Project representative, but I didn’t know anything about it. But up came Sharla with the most beautiful horse I had ever seen, Cyclops. A one eyed horse that stood heads above me, and won my heart in seconds.”
“You see, as a disabled person, I am constantly being reminded that I’m disabled. From the way people look at me in the wheelchair, to how hard it is to do basic things, that most people take for granted. But Cyclops, he had no idea what disabled meant. He let me drive my wheelchair right up to him and began licking me and the wheelchair. Two licks on the joystick and I learned to turn the wheelchair off real quick when he was around. Cyclops didn’t care that he only has one eye, that I was in this weird contraption that took me from sitting to standing while strapped in it. All he wanted was my attention and time.”
“That first 45 minute session was the most amazing hour plus I had ever had. Between Sharla’s compassion and teaching ability, and Cyclops’ patience and calm acceptance, I didn’t even think about the fact that I was standing in my wheelchair for that long. In fact, it was the first time I could remember since my diagnosis, that I hadn’t thought about that diagnosis. I left that day feeling calmer, and accepted, and in general a better head space than I remembered being in. Every time I go to New Hope, I leave in a better space, whether I’m grooming Cyclops, bathing Daisy Mae, or giving treats to Beau, the acceptance and calming effect these amazing animals have on me is a true blessing. My anxiety becomes non-existent, and my mind quiet. I find myself smiling more and more on my visits too. Sharla has been by my side through this journey and will remain so as I next try to walk with my all-terrain walker in these upcoming weeks that will hopefully lead to me riding soon.”
Tonya told us this story live on screen at the New Hope Gala on October 12. She has worked incredibly hard, so much so that she came up to New Hope numerous times last week to do necessary exercises to prepare for Saturday. You can see her huge smile as she arrives at New Hope with her walker. Everyone of us had smiles pinned on our faces as we shared Tonya’s joy at achieving her dream and goal of riding a horse! And the timing of it being near Thanksgiving was lost on no one.
Happy Thanksgiving to your family from the New Hope family!
Ride on and ride for hope.