By Lauren R. Giannini
You can say that Devon Gibson is very lucky, that she lives a charmed life, that the stars were in alignment the day a horrific fall left the rider-trainer paralyzed from the neck down and that her recovery borders on the miraculous. All of these statements are correct, but even Devon, who is extremely articulate, finds herself groping for the right words to express what’s in her heart and her mind.
“My recovery is like one in a million or in a trillion – I feel as if I survived going over Niagara Falls without the barrel,” admitted Devon. “If you think of all the fences I’ve jumped and the crashes I’ve had, but I never broke like this. I had a cracked collarbone once and, when I was 10, I broke a bone in my foot when a horse stepped on me. I never ever spent time in a hospital. I had a great experience when I was in the hospital, but I never want to go back.”
Devon, based in southern California, has 25 years of experience, winning in hunters and jumpers, coaching gold medal NAYRC winners and teaching riders of all ages and levels, both competitive and pleasure. She is known for her friendly and outgoing personality, her dedication and devotion to the horses and helping her students to do their best and have fun, but the horses always come first.
On February 22, 2013, while showing in a hunter classic in California, Devon’s horse “scissored” the jump with his legs and flipped over, which catapulted Devon to the ground face-first and her body “scorpioned” over itself, essentially breaking her neck and lower back.
“I was lying there, conscious and in shock, paralyzed – I couldn’t feel my arms or legs – thinking, is this what my life will be?” recalled Devon. “I love what I do. I love teaching and I love love love riding. That day, all the stars were in alignment.”
Paramedics, stationed only two miles from the show grounds, arrived quickly. One of them was up-to-date about spinal injuries, not a standard protocol for rescue squad personnel in California, and they immediately ice-packed Devon’s spine. They called for a medevac helicopter, which just happened to be refueling at the airport located next door. Seven minutes later, the medevac delivered Devon to a hospital in the Coachella Valley with a relatively new level II trauma unit and neurosurgeons specializing in spinal cord injuries.
Devon had fractured C-4 and C-5 and also L1 in her lower back, destroyed all supporting cervical ligaments and demolished the disc between C3 and C4. The fractured cervical vertebrae caused the paralysis; however, the spinal cord injury was “incomplete” – bruised and swollen, but not permanently damaged.
“The surgery involved inserting a rod on each side of my neck towards the back with a screw in each vertebrae to stabilize C3 to C6 – it’s very short there, maybe two inches,” Devon explained. “They did a laminectomy of C3 and C4 – took out part of the vertebrae to reduce pressure on the cord. The surgeon felt I had a 95 percent chance for a full recovery – thanks to the paramedics and the helicopter. So I ran with that.”
Even with the two rods, Devon has side-to-side movement, although she admits that tilting her head backwards feels awkward, rusty but not painful. Her back is still stiff. She has trouble looking backwards when walking, but can look both ways over her shoulders.
“I spent two weeks in the hospital, then moved to an acute rehab center for five weeks,” she recounted. “I spent three-and-a-half weeks at home before I went back to work to teach – I did in-home physical therapy, Rehab Without Walls. I qualified for that and they got me very mobile around my house and living area. I started teaching and driving again at about 10 weeks. My last visit was at 12 1/2 weeks with the occupational therapist to get me on my horse. It’s been six-and-a-half months. I can trot in two-point with my head up. I’m not jumping yet, but I’m cantering.”
The horse gods smiled on Devon, but this whole process has taken its toll. Therapy started off with a bang, like boot camp, but the therapists assured her that she could do everything they asked. She worked hard, determined to eke out every iota of that 95 percent chance of recovery prognosticated by her surgeon. It wasn’t easy.
“I lost 100 percent of my muscle tone,” recalled Devon. “I lost 28 pounds – I had been 148 and I’m 5’8”. When I saw myself, I was literally a bag of bones, the skin hanging off my arms and legs. They said your muscles start to come back in about six weeks, but I started filling out my clothes and seeing real improvement at about the four-month point.”
Although Devon is single, she never ever felt alone. “Every day, even after a long day at the horse show, which was a 40 minute drive to the hospital, people were coming for lunch and dinner, keeping me updated about the show, making me laugh. They even fed me at first, because I couldn’t use my hands for about 10 days in intensive care,” she said. “One very dear friend, Jeff Nunns, lives with me and became my savior. Because of Jeff, I was allowed to go directly home. He took care of me and my dogs and cats. He did the horse laundry and all the billing. My customers made a meal project – every other night for the first four weeks I was at home they would either come in with dinner or leave it at the door. I was never alone.”
Then & Now
Devon started riding at five. On Sundays, she accompanied her father to visit her grandmother and afterwards they went to a nearby “hack stable” and rented horses to trail ride. Devon’s mother, who also rode, encouraged her. Four years later, Devon got her wish: a Quarter Horse named Emma Peel.
“Emma was my first horse, and I was serious about showing, but only did local stuff until I was about 18,” recalled Devon. “That’s when I hooked up with Rob Gage and Judy Martin (who coached, among others, Lisa Jacquin). Judy has helped me with jumpers for years. When she sold her facility, Sea Horse Riding Club, I worked for the new owners until 2004. They gave me the training part of the business and I operate Miraleste Farms LLC out of Sea Horse.”
Devon’s clientele ranges from short stirrup pony kids to adult amateurs. One lady, 62 years young, competes in the 1.0 meter jumpers. Devon’s enthusiasm fills her days with about 12 lessons, on the flat and over fences. “What gives me goose bumps is when somebody gets it,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s a short stirrup kid or an older rider. When they jump down a line and they finally understand how it works, rather than just doing it – that’s one of the greatest moments.”
By the time this issue is in print, Devon will have started trotting poles to get back the feeling for jumping. All in all, she was “lucky” – a word she finds pitifully inadequate to describe how and why she survived a catastrophic crash without permanent disability – and she knows that she was blessed to have people rally when she needed their support, especially the USHJA Foundation who helped defray her medical expenses.
“Horses keep me young, they keep me healthy,” Devon said. “I’m in a transitional stage, and recovery is taking all my effort. I know I want to get back into the open hunters and grand prix jumpers. I want to teach and train. I am eternally grateful to all the people who helped me get through what could have been a life-changing experience. I am truly a walking example of how it takes a village. Everyone from the surgeons to the therapists to my friends and clients all said: get better! I’m just doing what I was told to do.”
About the writer: Sidelines’ Lauren R. Giannini is an award-winning “wordsmith” specializing in stories and photos about the equestrian world. Crazy about horses her entire life, she lives in the horse and hunt country of Virginia. Lauren’s motto is “write, ride – not necessarily in that order!”