Young woman battles to get back in the saddle after both legs lost in car accident
November rain pelts the stable roof as a russet thoroughbred trots in circles, his heavy steps carving into the arena ground. Alongside his tracks are the smooth lines left by Santanna Marrocco’s electronic wheelchair.
By the time she finishes exercising Eddie, the imprints of their unlikely friendship are all over Brampton’s Northside stables.
Two years ago, as she lay in hospital reeling from news she lost her legs, Marrocco’s first thoughts were of Eddie. Doctors said she would not ride him again. She worried she would never even see him, touch him, care for him.
Eddie was Marrocco’s Christmas gift when she was 15 and he was 3. Her parents paid for half, and she worked part-time to cover the rest.
A former racing horse, Eddie is skittish, startled by something as innocent as a feather. His previous rider found him difficult, unpredictable. But Marrocco and Eddie clicked, she gained his trust.
After the crash, she feared he would spook at the sight of her.
“I thought it would be impossible, that he’d never let me near him in the chair,” said Marrocco, 26.
The accident kept her from the stable for a year. During her absence, Marrocco’s parents checked on Eddie.
“We would go to the barn and he would recognize our voices, but he would be looking through us, thinking ‘If you guys are here, she’s gotta be here somewhere,’ ” said Marrocco’s father, Rick.
With time and more awkward visits, both adjusted. Eddie learned to lower his head so Marrocco could put on his bridle. She can now tack him up, lead him around the arena — “things I never thought I’d ever be able to do again.”
They are victories, small but vital to the biggest goal: riding.
The black SUV was heading towards her on a slick King Township road, and Marrocco couldn’t get out of the way.
It was Dec. 9, 2010. Marrocco and her mother-and-law, both florists, had just finished an arrangement at a client’s home. As they pulled out of the driveway onto the 8th Concession Rd. near Nobleton, they were in a fender-bender with another vehicle.
The cars were damaged but no one was hurt. Marrocco called her husband and father-in-law to the scene. Before long, several cars were parked along the road.
Darkness set in and snow was falling as they waited for police. Marrocco and others were walking about, in and out of cars.
Suddenly, two cars came around the corner. The driver of the first braked and slid.
The second car, an SUV, attempted to swerve away from a crash but lost control. He hit Marrocco, throwing her four metres then running her over. She was dragged six metres as the car careened into a ditch and hit a fence.
Moments passed before anyone realized Marrocco was trapped. When she heard her husband yell for her, she replied weakly. He rushed to her side and began digging her out.
The snow all around her was stained red. She would lose more than half her blood.
The phone was ringing and ringing. Dr. Valerie Krym, an emergency room physician, set down her snow shovel and went inside her home off 8th Concession Rd.
It was her husband, another Sunnybrook physician. He’d heard there had been an accident nearby. He wanted to know she was safe.
Krym hung up, walked down her driveway and saw flashing lights. Numerous ambulances indicated it was serious. Her car in the shop, Krym speed-walked the one kilometre to the crash.
She arrived to find one of the worst trauma patients she’s ever seen. One of Marrocco’s legs had been mostly amputated. The other was “in pieces.” Her pelvis had been crushed. Her blood pressure was critically low.
The ambulance dispatcher instructed paramedics to go to a nearby hospital. Krym knew it would not have the resources to save Marrocco’s life, that she needed a trauma centre. She ordered the driver to go to Sunnybrook.
As they sped through rush hour traffic on the 401, Marrocco asked Krym if she was going to die.
“I told her ‘not on my watch.’ ”
Marrocco was twice resuscitated in the hospital. She recovered from cardiac arrest, extremely uncommon when blood loss is the cause.
Hours later, she went septic. Doctors had to repeatedly remove infected tissue from her legs. She lost inches that would have made it “a million times” easier to use prosthetics, Marrocco said.
“There was a minister in the waiting room,” said Rick Marrocco. “I told him, ‘you’re here in case my daughter dies. I can’t have you be here because I can’t think about that.’ ”
In the weeks that followed, Marrocco was in and out of surgery. She would spend months in hospital, more in rehab, then return to her Bolton home, her life transformed.
Today, she does weekly physio and can use prosthetics. She’s busy every day. A new normal has been established.
She has never heard from the driver of the SUV.
“I’m not mad at him, but I want to know that he thinks about me, that’s all,” she said.
Family and friends have pulled her through. Her husband, Dan Brodie, whom she married two years before the accident, admits “it’s been tough.”
He wed a “typical Italian wife who loves to cook,” Marrocco said, joking that he ate McDonald’s for eight months.
“We’ve stayed strong,” she said. “We’ve worked through it.”
Marrocco wants to get back on a horse, but it will be risky. One fall could leave her paralyzed, or dislodge metal rods, piercing an organ.
She’s commissioned a custom-made saddle. The craftsman she’s working with has built something similar for paralyzed riders, but he will alter the design because she can control her lower body.
She’s been practising the new positioning she’ll take on the horse, strengthening her muscles with an exercise ball.
“I’m too young to be stuck in this stupid chair.”
The saddle could cost up to $10,000, so family and friends are hosting a fundraiser Sunday to help.
The downside is that even with the saddle, Marrocco has decided she will not ride Eddie. She’ll borrow a horse that is calmer and shorter. It’s just too dangerous to ride her skittish companion.
Long-time friend and rider Tracy Formanek has taken Eddie over, and Marrocco is forever thankful he is getting “the love he deserves.” Marrocco now coaches Formanek and other riders at the stable.
Eventually, she will buy her own mild-mannered horse, keeping Eddie all the while.
She’ll house them at the stables she’s determined to build. That’s been the dream all along, and she has no plans to give it up.
Information about the fundraiser for Santanna Marrocco is at www.backinasaddle.com