October 16, 2017

Back in the Saddle – With Expert Care, Natalie Taggart Recovered from a Brain Injury

Natalie Taggart is a longtime equestrian who is well versed in the skill and safety of the sport. However, as any rider knows, horses and terrains can be unpredictable. At the Biltmore Challenge Endurance Ride in May 2015, this became a life-changing factor for Taggart.

Twenty minutes into the 50-mile endurance race at Biltmore Estate, her horse tripped, causing Taggart to fall off. When she did, the horse came down on the left side of her head. Fortunately, Taggart was wearing a helmet, and the site of her fall was near a service road. She was taken to Mission Hospital where she was placed in a medically induced coma. She remained there for 12 days and was then transferred to CarePartners for another few months of care.

Transitioning from Trauma to Recovery

Taggart’s initial prognosis was “fair.” Over time, however, she slowly began improving — although with many hurdles to clear.

“The CAT scan showed numerous white dots depicting tiny bleeds that could eventually be absorbed, but there was no guarantee as to how many, if any, would heal or when they would heal,” said Taggart. “According to my mom (Joan Taggart), in the ICU, I was comatose, and breathing by machine, with tubes and IVs hooked up to my body. When doctors decided to take me off of the breathing machine, I was able to breathe on my own. But I was unable to walk, talk or feed myself. All I did was sleep.”

“When transferred to the inpatient floor, I made continual progress,” said Taggart. “I began to understand some words, therapists exercised my legs and arms, and eventually a ‘paci’ was inserted into my trachea so that I could ‘speak’ a few words.”

The stages Taggart went through were typical of someone who has suffered a traumatic brain injury. As she improved, she was transferred to CarePartners, where she would receive three weeks of inpatient care and three months of outpatient care. Although she was making great strides, she had a long road ahead of her.

“Depending on the severity of the injury, patients who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury can experience both cognitive and physical difficulties,” said Wesley Fowler, MD, neurosurgeon and partner at Carolina Spine and Neurosurgery, an affiliate of Mission Health. “Sometimes these are temporary; sometimes they are permanent.”

Natalie Chapin, PT, physical therapist with CarePartners, said the most obstacles that patients with traumatic brain injury face in the rehab setting are balance deficits, fatigue, cognitive impairment, memory issues, strength and endurance loss, agitation and overall decreased functional independence. “The tricky thing with brain injury is it can be highly variable,” said Chapin, Taggart’s physical therapist.

While outcomes from traumatic brain injury can be unpredictable, Dr. Fowler said Mission Health excels at setting patients up for success. “We have a multidisciplinary teamwork approach here that is really beneficial to our patients,” he said. “For a small little western North Carolina town, our hospital is pretty phenomenal in that respect. We see more blunt trauma cases here than I saw when I was in residency in Chapel Hill, yet everyone works so well together in both the acute process and the recovery process.”

Making Strides

During the first few days of rehabilitation, Taggart was unresponsive to questions and attempts to participate. She slept a lot, sometimes falling asleep during therapy. She also said she would recall information from her childhood — such as her childhood address and phone number — in response to questions about her present life. Over time, however, she regained her memory and began relearning skills, including how to walk again.

Taggart, who is a guitarist and a clog dancer, as well as a horseback rider, said her fine motor skills were also severely affected by the injury. “I had to start from scratch with those areas that had been such an important part of my life,” she said.

CarePartners worked to help Taggart regain basic skills, while also motivating her toward achieving her own specific recovery goals.

“Typically, patients with traumatic brain injury receive 4.5 hours of intensive physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy each day,” said Chapin. “We focus on each patient’s deficits and really try to target interventions that will get them as independent as possible. In physical therapy, we focus on retraining the neuromuscular system in a way that maximizes a patient’s ability to relearn everyday skills.”

Taggart, who is a special-needs teacher, was used to motivating others, but in recovery, she had her own cheerleaders. She said the professionals at CarePartners never waivered in their goal to help her get well. “Throughout my stay at Care Partners, the genuine care and attentionfrom staff was instrumental. I experienced true encouragement from all of my therapists at different times, most memorably through their support, patience and sense of humor as if they were family,” she said.

Chapin said Taggart played a big role in her own recovery as well. “I loved watching Natalie improve on a daily basis,” said Chapin. “She was a quick learner and persevered, even when it was difficult. She was very motivated to get better and get back to her active life as a teacher, clogger and horseback rider.”

A New Beginning

Taggart’s hard work at CarePartners paid off, affecting not only her physical recovery, but her mental and spiritual recovery as well.

“I remember the first night after being discharged from CarePartners, I said ‘I’m going to be better than before!’” said Taggart. “This fueled my recovery, which I saw as a new beginning.”

Taggart also received amazing support from family and friends, including a GoFundMe account and regular visits during which some of her friends played guitar and fiddle music for her, and others brought in a service therapy goat. The community, including her local YMCA, also came to her aid.

Taggart said that despite her enormous gratitude and appreciation for all that her doctors, therapists, friends, family and community did to support her, the most important factor in her recovery was her faith. “My peace, gratitude and love for this life only got stronger after being given a new beginning, and my faith was the cornerstone of my healing.”

Exactly a year following her accident, Taggart was back in the saddle again, and she is now back to riding regularly, as well as clogging with the Green Grass Cloggers. “I have come to embrace the present moment since that is truly all we have,” she said. “This accident was a blessing in that it renewed my gratitude for all that has been given to me.”

To learn more about CarePartners rehabilitation programs and services, visit carepartners.org.