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‘After I bought on, I used to be howling’: rider given 48 hours to stay in 2018 returns to the saddle

  • A rider who was given 48 hours to live four years ago but has defied the odds to return to the saddle, said every time she gets on her horse, “I’m finding myself again”.

    Lisa Hartley was left with 19% heart function after a devastating sepsis attack in 2018, which came on weeks after she had undergone major surgery on her “crumbling” spine.

    “In 2018, my world basically turned upside-down,” she told H&H.

    The first sign of the sepsis was significant swelling of Lisa’s legs, but “I was a typical horse person and thought ‘Don’t worry about it’,” she said. “Then I started running a temperature and went to a walk-in centre. They took one look and said ‘You’re going to a major A&E’.

    “My whole body was shutting down, and being overtaken by the blood poisoning. That started two years of hell.”

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

    “I was given 48 hours to live; my family was called and told I probably wouldn’t make it through the night,” she said. “Two weeks later, I walked.”

    Lisa spent nine weeks in hospital, then the sepsis returned days later. She had to go back to intensive care, and spent more weeks in hospital.

    “When I came home, my whole life had to change,” she said. “I’d had to learn to walk and talk again before I left hospital, and I’d lost six stone. I don’t know how many blood transfusions I had but my body kept rejecting things. They’d get my heart stabilised and my lung would fail, that would be sorted then my liver wouldn’t work properly.

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

    “I was 41, and had just come out of a 17-year marriage, and they told me I was terminally ill. They said they’d do what they could to save my heart but they weren’t hopeful.”

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

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

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

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

    “When it was in, they had to test the defibrillator worked and I’ve never felt anything like it – I was lying down and the doctor said ‘After three’ but he did it on two and I was sitting bolt upright instantly – in the perfect riding position.”

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

    “I told my heart nurse I didn’t want to be here any more; I had everything ready,” she said. “She said ‘Let me go and make a phone call’.”

    The call was to St Barnabas hospice, which has since helped with physio, mobility and support. Lisa got back on Monty about a year ago.

    “I hadn’t ridden for just under two years, and it was the only thing in my mind,” she said. “As soon as I got on him, I burst into tears. There’s a photo of me sitting on him, absolutely howling, because I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do that again.

    “He was looking at me like ‘For god’s sake, Mother, pull yourself together’, but every time I ride him, it’s like I find myself again. You lose yourself when you’ve got health issues, but riding; being with your best friend in the world, it’s priceless.”

    Lisa does not ride as much as she would like, in part as her trailer was stolen while she was in intensive care so she feels she has lost the freedom to take Monty out and about – “That was a sickener as I won’t be able to afford another one; I thought ‘For god’s sake what next’,” she said.

    But the time spent with Monty and her 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 isn’t promised so I have to make the most of every day. No one’s tomorrow is promised but one day my health battle is going to catch up with me, and Monty’s not getting any younger so we have to enjoy the time we have, doing what we absolutely love.

    “I hope sharing my story will help people, and to raise awareness that there is help and support out there. Places like St Barnabas – I don’t think they realise how much the care they give affects people; it’s everything – and the financial and other support that’s available if you know about it. But also, I want people to know it’s ok not to be ok.”

    You might also be interested in:

    “I’m here now and I’m not going back; I’m living days I never thought I’d see, and I’m going to

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