Rebuilding My Life After Breaking My Neck
Issie McLachlan Clark of IMC Sports Therapy is a BSC Hons Sports Therapist, freelance groom and rider, racehorse exercise rider AND a broken neck survivor.
She shares her incredible story below...
When I was asked to write a blog about my story, I was terrified, mostly because I have never written a blog before, but also because I had no clue how to begin telling a story that continues to teach me things about myself every single day. But the lessons I’ve learned it that time have been so valuable that I want to do my best to share them, so here we go!
I’ve been a keen equestrian for over 20 years with a background in dressage and eventing, but on retiring my horse when I was 18, I took a full-time role working on a point to point and national hunt racing yard. Racing fast became a huge passion, and I still work as an exercise rider 5 seasons later. My role on this yard transferred to part time when I left for university and I was extremely lucky to be able to return to it during every university holiday as a break from my studies in sports therapy. The Christmas holidays 2018 had been like any other, and 3rd January 2019 began like any other day, our third lot of the morning saw a large string of riders and horses completing interval work in a steep open field, my horse had been a little keen but not in any way that I wasn’t used to. As we turned at the bottom of the hill to complete another interval, he saw an open line and took off. It took everything I had to attempt to pull him up and eventually had to haul him round to the side instead, the result being a full U turn moving down the hill with no change in speed. The laws of physics gave me no hope and I was flung off to the side. I don’t remember landing but remember becoming aware of shooting pain in my arm that later turned out to be nerve pain. A and E confirmed concussion but couldn’t find evidence for the broken arm I thought I had. My original positivity at this was short lived as X-rays and MRIs revealed a fracture to my neck instead. I had fractured the left facet joint on my 6th cervical vertebra, causing it to shift forward, leaving the entire stack above this point unstable. One wrong move could have paralysed me. I underwent surgical stabilisation and was discharged wearing a Miami J spinal collar.
So began the longest, most uncomfortable 3 months of my life. I was allowed in positions upright or lying flat. I couldn’t turn, balance myself or see up or down (stairs proved challenging!). I had sustained nerve damage in the accident and lost significant sensation in my left arm and hand. Every day became a countdown to when the torturous collar could be removed. In the meantime, however, I needed a focus. Every day I would go for a short, slow walks on flat ground, I would see the sun, eat good food, and threw myself wholly into my studies. I refused to let my life be put on hold just because I was stationary physically! My lecturers sent me all of my theory content to engage with from home, I used this to gain as full an understanding as possible of all my practical content as well. The collar was removed in April 2019, I returned to university and had private tuition for all of my practical content and miraculously completed and passed all of my end of year exams, despite missing an entire semester.
I embarked on my summer feeling physically weak and vulnerable, and still in contact with my doctors. My focus shifted to how and when I was going to return to the saddle. The doctors had been reluctant to answer any questions about whether I would ever ride again, and I rightfully guessed that it was because they didn’t think that I would. To me that wasn’t an option.
Passing my second-year exams refuelled my motivation. If my efforts had achieved that, why couldn’t I achieve anything else? I was blessed to have left the accident as relatively unscathed as I did, so for this reason, I felt I owed it to myself to seize this second chance and start to rebuild my life. This began with interactions with a rider specialised osteopath, she helped me to recognise the postural changes that had developed on account of the changes to my spine. I knew that this was paramount to my body’s ability to stabilise itself and the quality of the movements I would be able to produce so this became my new priority, working on physical stabilising strength and alignment.
I returned to the saddle on 2nd June 2019, which was also my 21st birthday. It was the greatest moment of my life, my old faithful eventer stepped out of retirement and looked after me on my maiden voyage while I beamed from ear to ear!
However, this feeling quickly changed. No one will ever understand how devastating it felt when the one place I had always felt confident, that had been consistent my entire life, and where I usually knew exactly what I was doing, suddenly felt totally alien. My damaged nerves meant that my left side just didn’t respond to the instructions I gave it, and to top this off I had to get to grips with the fact that my spine was now partially made of metal, it was never quite going to align itself in the way it used to, and I now had to learn how to use a completely new body that possessed completely different features.
I’m very lucky that I already had the kind of knowledge required to start to combat this. I was very demoralised by the notion that I may never ride in the same way again, but I couldn’t give up on trying, especially when I had achieved so much already. My newly acquired knowledge from my degree gave way to my new journey, and I put them into play by hitting the gym! 2 solid months of rehabilitative strength and conditioning training, coupled with accumulative hours in the saddle as I slowly got stronger saw me strong enough to return to the gallops in August 2019.
I had experienced first-hand the benefits of a positive mindset and physical training. These experiences feed hugely into my work as a sports therapist. I’m beyond passionate about using my knowledge to help people who are experiencing injuries similar to mine, and never lose the feeling of elation when I see them reach the end of their journeys.
My riding continues to be a work in progress as I still learn to use my new body with its altered movement patterns and sensation. But on the whole, I am relatively unscathed by what could have been a completely life altering injury. I credit this to the incredible team of NHS doctors, nurses and surgeons who cared for me, but also to my own commitment to regaining my life. I continue to work on myself physically with consistent gym work, and maintenance work like stretching and mobility exercises. I still frequently spend early mornings on the gallops, ride a number of horses for freelance clients, and completed my BSC Honours degree in Sports Therapy in July 2021. Every day is a blessing, one I’m honoured to be able to take forward into a new career helping other people experiencing the same thing.
Breaking my neck was the scariest experience of my life, but it also defined it. Every time life throws rubbish my way, I remember that things always come brighter the other side, but only if I’m the one to get myself there.
Get in touch with Issie for help with your fitness goals: Insta - @imc_sportstherapy