Jill rides againby Cathy Wurzer, Minnesota Public Radio
At a horse show near Cannon Falls this weekend, one woman's dream will come true. Jill Krimmel of Buffalo, Minnesota, was a familiar face at Saddlebred horse shows across the region. But four years ago this month, Jill suffered a devastating blow to her health. Doctors weren't even sure she would live. But after an amazing recovery, Krimmel is back in the saddle.
Delano, Minn. — Jill Krimmel says the first sign that somethine was wrong came when she started having a horrible headache.
The headache came on suddenly, as Krimmel was riding her horse during a lesson at Centre Point Stables in Delano, Minnesota. Her instructor, Judy Jensen, recalls what happened that day some four years ago.
"She said, "I don't ever get headaches,'" says Jensen. "And she said, 'I think I feel like I'm going to throw up.' And I said, 'Well, slide off.'"
"So I stopped the lesson, I came in here and I started vomiting like crazy," says Krimmel. "I wanted to go home and lie down. But Judy made me go to the hospital, and I'm so glad she did. She saved my life."
It turns out Krimmel had a brain aneurysm. The National Stroke Association says Jill's symptoms were typical of an aneurysm -- a sudden blinding headache and violent episodes of vomiting, then a loss of consciousness.
"The doctor came out and told us that 80 percent of the people that have an aneurysm in that portion of their brain don't make it to the hospital," says Jensen. "And of the 20 percent that do make it to the hospital, 80 percent die within the first 24 hours. I couldn't even stand up because all I could think of was her -- I thought she'd died in my car."
Krimmel had surgery, but a few days after that she suffered a debilitating stroke. It came as a complete surprise, because the 36-year-old woman had no risk factors for stroke.
In the hours and days after the stroke, doctors were not even sure she would live. Krimmel was in a coma for a few months.
"We'd go up there, and her arms and feet were all curled up and everything," says Jensen. "And we'd work on them, and keep telling her that if she was ever going to ride again, she had to straighten them out and exercise them, and she cried. And she really wasn't aware that we were even there."
After a time, Krimmel's friends at the barn figured maybe visits from her horse would help bring her around. So they would truck him over, where he would not only visit Krimmel, but the other residents at the nursing home too.
"We got her to touch him and stuff like that, and I swear that's when she started coming out of her coma," says Jensen. "And from then, the progress has been sometimes slow, but it's always been steady forward, and we've never seen her go backward."
It was many, many months after that breakthrough that Krimmel learned to walk and talk again. As she became stronger, she found horses and riding were the best medicine for her recovery.
"It helps my legs to be stronger, and my balance. And it helps me mentally and psychologically, because I enjoy it so much," says Krimmel.
With Judy Jensen coaching, Krimmel is back riding. They have jerry-rigged a special stirrup for Jill's stiff left leg, to keep it in the proper position when she's in the saddle.
Krimmel has progressed so much that she's ready for her show ring debut, four years after her stroke.
"We've got to make sure that we warm him up a little bit," says Jensen as they get Krimmel's horse ready for a ride.
Because Jill's horse died during her recovery, she's now working with an elegant 22-year-old Saddlebred horse named Custer. Ironically, Custer is a survivor of a neurological condition that affected his spinal column.
Now that Custer has made a complete recovery, he's ready to take Krimmel into the show ring.
Jensen says that physically, Krimmel is doing well as a rider.
"You'll see that she keeps his head set nicely. Her hands have not been affected, which is kind of nice seeing as she was a dental hygienist and can go back to it," says Jensen. "So the only real huge problem is her left leg. She's got kind of an unsteady gait when she walks, and a lot of that is going to be taken care of by therapy."
"Four years ago, when she had the aneurysm and shortly thereafter, the stroke, they didn't think she was going to live, much less walk, much less ride, much less show. So, it's just been a real miracle," says Jensen.
"I didn't know if I'd ever be able to ride again, but I sure knew that I wanted to try," says Krimmel. "I didn't know what I'd ever be able to do again."
It's been said that horse people are pretty tough. Krimmel says that's what helped her get through her ordeal.
"Absolutely," she says. "You have to be tough to show horses, because sometimes you fall off and it hurts. But you have to get back on and keep going."
It's an apt metaphor for Krimmel's life.
Krimmel says in addition to riding, she is ready to go back to work, as a dental hygienist.
- Morning Edition, 06/02/2006, 8:24 a.m.