After devastating accident, woman gets back in the saddle

Story highlights

  • In August, Emily Fuggetta was on horseback when she was struck by a truck
  • The impact killed her horse and caused Fuggetta to lose her leg
  • Fuggetta is learning to walk with a prosthetic leg

(CNN)From the top of a picnic table, Emily Fuggetta steadies herself against a large black horse, takes a deep breath and starts to panic.

She slowly slips her right leg -- a prosthetic limb of metal and plastic tucked into a brown leather boot -- over the massive animal and freezes, half on, half off the saddle. For several minutes, all she hears is the pitter-patter of chilly February raindrops on the barn roof mixed with the pulsing sound of her own heart racing.
    It was 10 months ago that Fuggetta was last on horseback -- when mounting a horse was simply a matter of grabbing the reins, throwing her foot into a stirrup and swinging herself over the saddle. With a light kick, she and her white-and-red-spotted horse, Sammy, would be off, galloping down a forest trail or traipsing through the scenery of rural Oregon.
    Unable to shift her weight onto the horse, terrified of leaving the ground, she looks to her side toward her friend, who holds the horse's reins and tells her it's time to make a decision. "Get on or get off."

    A tragic accident

    A self-described "animal nut," the 27-year-old once spent much of her free time in the saddle, riding with Sammy through open fields in the company of her friends and their horses. Often in tow was her pit bull, Tina, who joined them at the barn or came along for hikes through mountainside trails or under forest canopies. Her Facebook newsfeed was a proud barrage of pictures of Tina and Sammy and their adventures together. "Anyone who knew me knew how much I loved my animals," Fuggetta said.
    On a balmy day in August, a devastating accident dramatically changed the course of Fuggetta's life. She and several friends, all on horseback, left the barn and were headed to a nearby restaurant when a driver barreled into her and Sammy.
    The impact sent them flying. Fuggetta landed in a drainage ditch, her leg bent behind her, almost torn from the socket. She called out for Sammy repeatedly, but the horse had died instantly.
    Doctors amputated the leg below the knee. They told her she faced a long, arduous road to recovery, full of surgeries and multiple skin grafts. They assured her she'd regain mobility but would have to relearn how to walk. She said none of it compared to the pain of losing Sammy.
    "I'd never really cried about the fact that I lost my leg. It never really felt like something that I couldn't get over," Fuggetta said. "Losing my leg was like I had lost something. But losing Sammy, that was like losing someone."
    A few days after her accident, tragedy struck again. Groggy from pain medicine, Fuggetta sat up in her hospital bed as her mother entered the room, hugged her and took her hand. "Tina's gone," her mother said. Her beloved pit bull had died suddenly after an undetectable mass on her liver erupted.
    Stunned, Fuggetta sat back and began to sob. "I just didn't understand. Tina had nothing to do with any of it," she said. In the course of one week, she had lost her leg and both of her animals.
    "I had been a rider and an animal mom, and those aspects of my life were a huge part of my identity," Fuggetta said. "It was like I had lost everything that made me who I am."

    Finding a new normal

    For the first few painful weeks bound to a hospital bed, Fuggetta would spend some nights crying, achingly frustrated with grief. But during the day, surrounded by friends, she said, she never felt hopeless. With an outpouring of support from her fellow riders, family and even acquaintances, she was overwhelmed with love.
    Her hospital room filled with flowers, books, cards and tributes to her late animals. Friends from the equestrian community would hang pictures of her animals on the wall and brought stuffed horses that resembled hers. Other friends made collages and scrapbooks covered with pictures of her pets. A friend of a friend even sent her a watercolor portrait of Sammy.
    "I think posting about my animals every day on Facebook made other people feel like they knew them too," Fuggetta said.
    The support never waned during Fuggetta's month in the hospital, followed by more time at an inpatient rehabilitation center. At any given time, the desk in her room was covered with a variety of paper cups from friends who would stop in to bring her coffee and chat. It was her community, she said, that saved her from despair.
    "They let me feel the loss but also got me to picture my life in the future and realize that this was an interruption, not a fundamental change to who I had been," she said.
    As time passed, she began to feel more like herself again. She got to know the other patients around her, involved herself in the clinic's activities and decorated her room to resemble the bedroom she had back home. She insisted that her friends bring their pets along to visit her and one day turned the rehab clinic into an impromptu petting zoo as the facility allowed a team of miniature horses to visit.
    "She was always having fun," said Jean Powrie, a physical therapist who worked with her. "I think her attitude was a big part of why she healed so well. She never gave up, and it was amazing to see."
    On Halloween, Fuggetta tied a gag gift -- a fake plastic severed leg -- to her wheelchair.
    From there, Fuggetta's mission became finding a new normal. Three months after her accident, she moved back home with a wheelchair. Two months later, she was fitted for a prosthetic limb, which she practiced walking on every day. At some point, she expects to be back on her own two feet, with the help of what she calls her "robot leg"; it's just a matter of time.
    Soon after she returned home, Fuggetta welcomed a new dog into her life: K.J., a 55-pound, one-eared brown pit bull who was rescued from a dogfighting ring in northern Florida. Fuggetta wrote proudly on her Facebook page, "We're both missing a piece."
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    Eventually she returned to work, tending to the children's section at a Portland bookstore. She admitted that she's limited in what she can do on the job. She can't reshelve books or quickly move around the aisles. But she wouldn't give up. To allow the accident to disrupt her work life "was a lot more power than I wanted to give it."
    There was another place where she needed to return: the barn. Though her chest tightened each time she passed Sammy's empty stall, she was grateful to be a part of her equestrian community again, around horses and the owners who were like family.
    But there was something missing.
    "The world wasn't going to be quite right until I rode again," she said.

    Back in the saddle

    It's February in the barn. Fuggetta's right leg is planted on the ground, and her prosthetic leg dangles over the horse's back. She knows she must decide whether now is the time. As desperate as she is to reclaim a fundamental part of her identity and get back into the saddle, she's also terrified. Can she trust this horse to carry her through? Can she trust her body in this new, more challenging form?
    Fuggetta glances around at the dozen or so people around her who are cheering for her. She takes a deep breath, shifts her weight onto the horse and picks her foot up into the stirrup. With a light kick, she and the horse move forward into a trot, riding circles around the arena.
    Smiling, she grips the reins and relaxes into the seat of the saddle, grateful to be on horseback again.