Horserider severed two arteries and had a stroke when throwing head back

Keen rider Harriet Cooper was trying out some new horses she was thinking of buying but when she went to mount one it reared, causing her to throw her head back.

She had no idea at the time, but that action sliced open two of the arteries in her neck, eventually causing a stroke.

She only found out what had happened two weeks later – and doctors said she got to the hospital just in time.

Harriet, from Essex, explains: ‘I never thought I would have a stroke. I thought it just happened to old people and I was only 30.

‘Although I felt unwell, I was still able to talk and move around and I never imagined that was what it could be. It took two weeks before I felt unwell enough to seek help.

‘I want others to be aware of the symptoms. Mine were quite mild and could easily have been dismissed but I’m so lucky the doctors realised what was going on and took it seriously.’

After the incident on 25 September 2019, Harriet, now 32, was slightly shaken but felt fine and thought nothing more of it. Driving home, her eyesight was slightly blurred but it soon settled.

She carried on with work and day-to-day life without any real signs of anything being wrong but gradually started to feel worse.

She says: ‘I just stared to feel a bit off but I put it down to stress. I’d just had to put my last horse to sleep and thought I was just a little tired out.’

Two weeks after the incident, she was again looking at horses when she noticed that she wasn’t reacting to things as quickly.

She says: ‘I just felt like I was a lot slower. The horse managed to bite my hand and I just hadn’t pulled it away, like I normally would.

‘The vet was there to look at the horse for something called a vetting, like an MOT, and I had to get someone else to trot it up and down. I just couldn’t do it and was having to lean on things. It was all a bit odd.

‘Unfortunately, I found out the horse failed the vetting.

‘I headed home and while I was driving again, the vision problem came back but I managed to get back.

‘It was then that things started to get really bad. I think the whole process had raised my blood pressure and it was causing blood to clot on my brain, but I had no idea.’

Harriet starting vomiting, struggled to walk around and had a lot of pain in her head. 

She thought she might have an ear infection and never imagined it would be a stroke because of her age.

Trying to sleep it off, she headed to bed and the next day, felt slightly better so headed to work in London on the train.

‘I was struggling to eat anything but I thought it would be ok,’ she says. ‘I got to work and was struggling to look at the computer screen but I had two important things I had to deal with that day and I thought I would just get on with it and get home and rest.

‘I got the train back that evening, managed to eat a little and then went to bed. 

‘The next day, I was meant to meet a friend for lunch and I just felt awful. It was like I had a massive hangover without drinking anything. I was really disorientated, couldn’t walk properly, couldn’t really do anything.

‘I rang my friend and said something wasn’t right and I needed to go to hospital.

‘I knew I wasn’t well but I didn’t think it would be anything really serious as I was able to function.’

Her friend was worried and came to take her to hospital. At A&E, she was asked about any accidents and happened to mention the horseriding incident. 

She was taken for a CT scan to check her spine but expected to be able to go home that afternoon.

The results showed that one of the divisions of the carotid artery was severed and doctors said she was lucky she came in when she did.

Everyone has two carotid arteries, which then split into two in the neck, making four.

She says: ‘I was admitted to a stroke ward and they told me I had brain damage. I was shocked.’

Initially, the plan was for her to be transferred to another hospital for an operation to stop the bleeding but another scan the next day showed that she had actually severed two of the four arteries.

‘I was a bit of a medical mystery,’ she says. ‘They hadn’t had that before and have the patient be functioning like I was.

‘They decided that because of the damage that had been done and because I was still able to talk and walk around, even though it was difficult, they would keep me under observation and see what happened, rather than take the risk of potentially making things worse with surgery.’

She needed hourly observations and blood thinners to try to stop the blood clotting on her brain. 

‘I found being in hospital quite difficult,’ she says. ‘The rest of the patients were much older. I’m used to being busy and independent. I decided to push myself to show them I was well enough to leave.

‘Looking back it might have been too soon. There was one point I had a heated conversation with my sister on the phone and nearly collapsed. After that I tried to rest a bit more and be a better patient.’

She stayed in hospital for a week before going home to continue her recovery, with four weeks of rest and then slowly trying to return to normal life.

She says: ‘It was hard. I did find it had an impact, even if I was mostly ok. Just things like I would go out to walk the dog and at first I really struggled but when I found things challenging I just pushed myself to get better at it.

‘Now, just over a year on, I feel like I’m not as sharp as I was – I’m clumsier than I was before. I notice my coordination was not great for a while. I also find I struggle more with spellings and typos and stuff like that.

‘Another thing was that I had really heightened emotions. Before I was a very professional person but I found I would get angry about things that are minor or would cry easily. That has got better over time though.’

Recently Harriet has started a new job and feels that she is at a point where she can move on from the stroke.

She says: ‘When I first came out of hospital, I was working and I was doing ok but I was using all my energy doing just those things. I feel like I am at a point where I am thriving again.

‘I’ve had to listen to my body a lot. I got a new horse, named Mr Bean, in November after coming out of hospital and I realised that stuff I used to find easy was much harder but I realised I had to keep going and it would get better over time.

‘I do feel very lucky because doctors couldn’t understand how I was so well despite the level of damage.’

Having her horse and her dog where a big part of her recovery as they gave her a way to continue to get stronger.

She decided to do some charity fundraising with a dressage event with her horse and ended up winning the event.

Now she is fundraising for the Stroke Association and wants to raise awareness of the symptoms to help other people recognise them and get help quickly.

She says: ‘The research they do is what saved my life. I am glad that they looked at that and realised that surgery might not have been the best thing for me considering my condition.’

Harriet is part of the Stroke Association Hope After Stroke Christmas appeal. For more information, visit their website.

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