JULIE TEW

A tu­mour on her spinal cord changed this even­ter’s life for­ever. She tells Julie Hard­ing about nerve dam­age, bat­tling de­pres­sion and be­ing told she’d never walk, let alone ride, again

Your Horse (UK) - - Interview -

JULIE TEW IS CRY­ING. Two nar­row par­al­lel streams course down her tanned cheeks. Sit­ting cross-legged on a work­top in the kitchen area of her tack room, she grabs a tea towel and pats her face dry. Tem­po­rar­ily. Still they f low. Th­ese aren’t the kind of tears shed by a (briefly) des­o­late Andy Mur­ray on los­ing Wim­ble­don in 2012. Those were quickly dried and re­placed 12 months later by beam­ing smiles. The event rider’s tears sym­bol­ise two decades of un­seen and largely un­known (be­yond her im­me­di­ate fam­ily) pain, dark­ness, de­pres­sion, anger, inse­cu­rity, frus­tra­tion and dis­ap­point­ment — but, on the flip side, euphoria. Her com­ple­tion of Burgh­ley’s cross-coun­try course in Septem­ber af­ter so much hurt felt like win­ning Wim­ble­don — or maybe bet­ter? “I couldn’t be­lieve it. I still can’t. I had just proved to my­self that I was as good as I had been be­fore,” she says in be­tween the tears. Be­fore the dis­cov­ery, in 2000, of a small tu­mour on her spinal cord, Julie was a nor­mal, ac­tive, fear­less, am­bi­tious teenager with an ab­nor­mal tal­ent in the sad­dle. The 21-year-old had al­ready amassed a col­lec­tion of sil­ver­ware from suc­cesses at pony and young rider level event­ing and dreams of fu­ture Olympic out­ings looked likely to be ful­filled. The growth, the size of a 50p piece, first gave no­tice of its pres­ence at the Young Rider Fi­nal trial at Hart­pury in 1995. “We had to stay overnight to trot up the horses for the se­lec­tors in the morn­ing. That morn­ing I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t move. I had hor­ren­dous pins and nee­dles down my left leg into my foot,” Julie re­calls. “They told me I had to see the doc­tors. The day af­ter­wards, I was fine. “A year later it hap­pened again. It lasted a cou­ple of hours; aw­ful sciatic pain all down my left leg. Over time it started to get more fre­quent and I’d end up in bed for weeks at a time. But I had no pain when I was rid­ing.” GPs and sur­geons felt they were search­ing for the prover­bial nee­dle in a haystack. They could see noth­ing. Even an MRI scan high­lighted only an “in­signif­i­cant cyst”. But Ian Sabin, mo­tor­bike fan, fel­low adrenaline junkie and con­sul­tant neu­ro­sur­geon at The Welling­ton Hospi­tal in Lon­don, dug deeper and found the cyst to be a be­nign tu­mour. That was the good news. The bad was that its sur­gi­cal re­moval could cause paral­y­sis. “When Ian told me, it went in one ear and out the other. I ig­nored the fact that I could end up in a wheel­chair. It was Fe­bru­ary and I told him the event­ing sea­son sea­son started in March. He said, ‘you’re not com­pet­ing’. But I’d just bought a horse from Aus­tralia; I re­fused the oper­a­tion and told him to put me on med­i­ca­tion so that I could com­pete. “I started tak­ing four gabapentin a day, but it makes you sleepy, so my way of solv­ing that was to take two at night. I also took tra­madol, which gave me spots on my knees, but I didn’t care as long as I could ride. I told Ian I would come back in Oc­to­ber. He agreed only on the con­di­tion that I had reg­u­lar scans and if the tu­mour grew I’d have to have the oper­a­tion im­me­di­ately. It was sheer luck that it didn’t.”

Laugh­ter. A 44-year-old Julie can see the folly in her 26-year-old self. Back in hospi­tal, the tu­mour was fi­nally re­moved, along with three ver­te­brae. The pro­ce­dure was deemed a suc­cess. Julie would be home in 10 days. But then she tried to get out of bed. Stand­ing was as im­pos­si­ble as fly­ing to the moon with a rocket belt. The sur­geon was shocked at the sever­ity of the nerve dam­age. “An­other doc­tor said I would never sit on a horse again,” says Julie. “They hoped to get me walk­ing with a stick at best. I didn’t hear them. I turned to Mum and said, ‘I will walk and I will ride’. “The doc­tors thought I was crazy, but I did agree to stay in hospi­tal and then do six months of re­hab. I got around in a

“When it came to my first trip home, we lied about hav­ing wheel­chair ac­cess in our his­toric cot­tage that had steps every­where”

wheel­chair and found my­self be­ing taught ba­sic skills like how to make a cup of tea. I re­mem­ber say­ing to them, ‘why are you do­ing this’? I won’t need it.”

The med­i­cal pro­fes­sion had rarely en­coun­tered a Julie Tew; some­one with a barely imag­in­able drive to see be­tween a horse’s ears from the el­e­vated po­si­tion of its back. “I pushed my­self ev­ery day. I started to get more mo­bile. Mum was in­cred­i­ble. I started walk­ing with her hold­ing on to me. When it came to my first trip home, we lied about hav­ing wheel­chair ac­cess in our his­toric cot­tage that had steps every­where. “Some­how I man­aged. On the first day I was lifted on to a really quiet horse and led around the arena. I was ter­ri­fied as I couldn’t feel my feet and I couldn’t bal­ance, but it was the best thing that could have hap­pened. I felt lib­er­ated. I’d been told I wasn’t ever go­ing on a horse again and here I was on one, five weeks af­ter the oper­a­tion. “Back in hospi­tal, I told the nurses and they said, ‘good on you. We get peo­ple in here who want to give up’. They found the fact that I pushed my­self ex­hil­a­rat­ing. I made them teach me to walk in heels — I was go­ing to a party — and I walked out of there six weeks to the day af­ter my oper­a­tion.” Life re­turned to nor­mal; days filled with hack­ing, school­ing and com­pet­ing horses. Ex­cept nor­mal it wasn’t. Painful, ex­haust­ing and mis­er­able were more like it. The grey Sir Rose­lier (‘Lumpy’), now 26 and hap­pily munch­ing hay in the loose­box next to the tack room, helped Julie to make the tran­si­tion from terra firma to fly­ing huge, solid fences. “I felt really safe on him and knew he would look af­ter me. I did have a run of good re­sults with my horses, but they could have been bet­ter. I rode at four-star level and was longlisted for the Olympics [in 2008 on Look Out], but for me it wasn’t good enough.” The tears flow again. “I was never the same on a horse and I be­came an­gry. I was tricky. It was anger at the re­al­i­sa­tion that I would never be the same again. I took it out on fam­ily and friends in an un­healthy way.”

Ableak gloom of de­pres­sion reached a cli­max three years ago. “I had a break­down at Burgham Horse Tri­als. By this time I had slowly started to open up about how hard things were. I con­tem­plated giv­ing up quite a few times. If it wasn’t for Claire [Meal­ing, her head girl] and mum and dad [Vicky and Brian Tew], who never pres­sured me, I don’t know what I would have done.” Rob Bor, a psy­chol­o­gist (see panel, far right), worked to di­min­ish the dark­ness. “Men­tally I felt in a bet­ter place — like some­one had flicked a switch. I fi­nally ac­cepted who and what I was. It had taken a long time, but I no longer wor­ried what other peo­ple were think­ing. The fact that I’ve got to this point is mas­sive. “The de­pres­sion hasn’t hap­pened for 18 months, al­though I’ve had low pe­ri­ods.” The years, though, are march­ing and the tough toil that goes on back­stage wreaks havoc on a frag­ile con­sti­tu­tion. “I don’t think I’m phys­i­cally and men­tally strong enough to fight this any more. I want more from life.” But for Julie’s new-found fans, who rooted for her in Septem­ber when she came clean to the na­tion via the BBC, shar­ing the se­crets of the health bat­tle that few friends even knew of, fear not. She hopes to be at Bad­minton next May. Julie and her bay geld­ing Sim­ply Sox are now the Bob Cham­pion and Al­dan­iti of the event­ing world — and peo­ple want more. Against the odds sto­ries really don’t come bet­ter than this one — an equine re­turnee from in­jury (Sox also has chronic arthri­tis in both back fet­locks) and a se­ri­ously phys­i­cally com­pro­mised rider.

So what, af­ter a wait of a quar­ter of a cen­tury, got Julie (al­most) through the tough­est horse tri­als in the world? “I was in this amaz­ing place, feel­ing good men­tally and phys­i­cally and Sox felt in­cred­i­ble. That gave me a huge amount of con­fi­dence. I couldn’t sleep the night be­fore the cross-coun­try. I felt alive. “But I was in­sanely ner­vous on Satur­day morn­ing. I jumped a few prac­tice fences, but my legs were frozen. I was ter­ri­fied, think­ing ‘what am I do­ing?’ Then Sox missed at a roll top and clam­bered all over it. I got a grip of my­self and my nerves went.” In a stu­pen­dous round — and bear­ing in mind that no one has ever com­pleted Burgh­ley be­fore with 90% nerve dam­aged legs — they cleared all 30 fences. “Over the last three, I was really weak. If Sox had tripped, I would have fallen off.” The Tew fam­ily was en­gulfed by tears. So was Julie’s team. So was the horse world. Peo­ple Julie had never met were af­fected. “I’ve been so moved by the mes­sages peo­ple sent me.” But Julie and Sox were no shows at Sun­day morn­ing’s vet in­spec­tion. “Sox had a haematoma on his back leg and I won­dered if he’d hit the roll­top in the warm-up. It wasn’t re­motely pos­si­ble to present him at the trot up, so I with­drew him that night. I couldn’t face any ques­tions, so I loaded him up and we went home. A week later he was sound as a pound.” Look­ing for­wards, when re­tire­ment can no longer be post­poned, Julie Tew may breed horses, help to run the fam­ily farm — the Tews own 300 acres of Glouces­ter­shire farm­land — and watch other peo­ple go event­ing, maybe on a horse she part owns. “What­ever hap­pens, I’ll al­ways look back on that day at Burgh­ley. It will see me through.”

De­spite Julie’s phys­i­cal pain and Sox’s chronic arthri­tis, they jumped clear around Burgh­ley this year

Fam­ily, horses and the yard helped Julie through the darkest days

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