Throughout her rehabilitation from paralysis at Kennedy Krieger, the dream of one day riding horses again kept Krystal motivated.
Krystal Greco had been an avid horseback rider since she was a small child. But one afternoon when she was 14, a searing pain in her back changed everything.
The physical therapists are always encouraging me, challenging me to do what I can…Being able to ride a horse again was pure joy.
“It was a normal Sunday afternoon,” Krystal wrote in a blog post for CNN about her experience. “As usual, I had woken up late. I was showering and started feeling some cramping in my lower back, which wasn’t uncommon because I was being treated for a stress fracture in my lumbar spine. I was out of the shower and partially dressed when it happened—the explosion of pain.”
Within minutes, Krystal lost all feeling in her legs and collapsed to the bathroom floor. She screamed for her mother to help, and her parents carried her to the car. As they raced to the hospital, Krystal repeatedly tried moving her legs to no avail.
After x-rays and an MRI, doctors told her she had a ruptured disk, which had bruised her spine. She underwent emergency surgery to decompress her spine, but despite the surgery, she remained paralyzed from the waist down.
Krystal was transferred to Kennedy Krieger’s International Center for Spinal Cord injury, where she underwent intensive inpatient rehabilitation for eight weeks. “It was very challenging,” she recalls. “I was doing intense therapy, learning to re-use my body, doing all the daily things that people take for granted.”
During rehabilitation, Krystal learned how to be independent, and physical therapy helped rebuild muscle strength and nervous system connections.
Despite her progress, Krystal missed horseback riding. “It was a huge letdown not to be able to ride,” she recalls. Her therapist told her about a therapeutic horseback riding facility near her home. So one autumn day, after she was discharged and had gained enough strength, Krystal rode a horse for the first time since her paralysis. It took the help of two people supporting her from the side and another leading the horse, but for Krystal, “It was pure joy. I was beaming from ear to ear,” she recalls. “I was ecstatic.”
She continued her outpatient therapy at Kennedy Krieger and the therapeutic horseback riding, and after about five months, something remarkable happened. While at an evaluation at Kennedy Krieger, she was able to move her legs for the first time.
Riding a horse and gaining movement in her legs were not the only goals Krystal achieved: She also earned her driver’s license. And in June, Krystal walked across the stage with braces and a walker at her high school graduation, an emotional moment that she had been working toward for months. Her physical therapist assistant, Lisa Warwick, feels proud to have played a role in helping her reach her goals. “I feel like a proud parent,” she says.
“The physical therapists are always encouraging me, challenging me to do what I can,” says Krystal. “They exude positive energy every time I see them.”
Now 18, Krystal plans to continue her therapy at Kennedy Krieger and go to college for a double major in equine studies and business. Next on her bucket list? Joining the Paralympic team and competing in dressage.
Krystal has some advice for others facing a disability: “Don’t let it get you down. There’s always a way to adapt a sport or activity to a disability.”
“Having a spinal cord injury doesn’t have to mean an end to the hobbies and sports that you love—it just means having a view from a different angle,” she says.
Krystal was able to achieve three big goals this past year—horseback riding, walking across the stage at graduation, and getting her driver’s license. We definitely had a role to play in that. I feel like a proud parent.
Lisa Warwick, physical therapist assistant at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury