'I will always fight this illness and I will always win' - Talented young showjumper Sara-Jane Tracy
When talented young showjumper Sara-Jane Tracy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she was told she would never ride competitively again. She was determined to prove that assessment wrong — and she did
Three years ago, when I was 28, my life changed forever when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).
When I got the news, I thought for a brief moment that my life was over. It felt like all of my dreams, and everything that I’d worked for throughout my twenties, had come to nothing.
Multiple sclerosis means ‘many scars’. It affects the motor, sensory and cognitive functioning of the body. It is the most common debilitating neurological condition affecting young adults in Ireland. It is usually diagnosed between 20 and 40 years of age. Three times more women than men are diagnosed with MS and there is no known cause or cure.
It was hard to understand why this had happened to me. Before I fell ill I had studied law and qualified as a barrister, but my real passion in life was horses and the sport of showjumping.
So in 2012, I bit the bullet, loaded up my car, got on a ferry and headed to Germany to try and make a go of it. I spent the next three years, mainly in Holland, working as hard as I could and learning as much as possible while living my dream and competing full-time.
Then, in July 2014, I lost the sight in my right eye after a bad tummy bug. I was diagnosed with optic neuritis and continued on with my life, but I just knew something wasn’t right.
Although my sight came back, from this point on my health just seemed to deteriorate. I had back pain and felt permanently exhausted, but because I led such a busy lifestyle, I thought it maybe just came with the territory. Little did I know there was actually something seriously wrong. Things got worse, right up to the point where I was hospitalised and finally diagnosed. I had no feeling from the waist down, no power in my legs, I had a dropped foot and shooting pins and needles going down my spine into my legs. I had no use of my right hand at all, I couldn’t write, hold my phone, dress myself or basically do anything without help.
I had to accept that my life had changed totally and I moved back home to Kill, Co Kildare. My sister, who is a primary school teacher, said my writing wasn’t even as good as a four-year-old, and she spent hours teaching me how to hold a pen and write again. I also had the MS hug which feels like you are being choked around your ribcage. My balance was so bad I couldn’t walk unaided or have a shower. My mum used to have to shower me while I sat in a chair and even staying in the chair was a challenge.
I had no control over my bladder and my brain just did not function anymore. Things were bad.
I was devastated to be told I couldn’t ride competitively anymore because it would not be safe, given all of my symptoms. And that’s the moment I thought my life was over. Without horses, it wasn’t worth living.
So I decided, no, I will prove them all wrong. And I began training really hard to learn how to control my body again. I started to work with Brian Murray, who is a strength and performance specialist based at IT Carlow. After I left hospital, he took over my rehab and working with him was the foundation that led to me being able to walk around normally and, in turn, get back to doing what I love doing.
He changed my life by teaching me about conscious proprioception — how to be aware of my body and how it moves — and taught me to adapt and accept my new body. Without him I never would have achieved this.
In April 2016, I returned to competitive showjumping and that was thanks to my hero and guardian angel — my uncle, the showjumper Edward Doyle. Without his support, patience and encouragement, I wouldn’t be here today.
Getting back on a horse was not straightforward. I had this new body to contend with which, at the best of times, did not like cooperating. The lack of feeling in my hands and legs and my balance issues were a continuous battle for me. It was like learning how to ride all over again.
Even the simplest thing like getting up on a horse is a momentous task and something I can never take for granted.
I have to take an extra moment to ground myself and ensure I have control over my body and my balance before attempting to mount.
In November 2015, and again in November 2016, I received my immune suppressant drug to try and halt the MS. All drugs come with side effects and this drug was very strong, so the risks were high.
In April 2017, I suffered kidney failure and was diagnosed with Goodpasture syndrome, which is another auto-immune disease. I spent a long time in hospital, but after being so critically ill and nearly dying, the time passed by very quick. Today, I am on dialysis three days a week and when I am disease-free for six months, I can get a kidney transplant.
Life for me now is very different than it was just a few years ago. There are times I feel like I am just existing, but not really living.
But I can still ride, even though I was told that I couldn’t get back in the saddle before having a transplant.
Thankfully, with the unwavering support of my family, I managed to defy the odds and a few weeks ago I competed in my first show in nearly a year.
It is a total struggle physically, but horses are what keep me fighting.
I am not going to lie — I cry after every show at the moment because I am so frustrated with my body. If having to contend with the MS symptoms was not enough, I now have the added struggle of being so unbelievably weak.
When I am in the ring, I feel like I am gasping for air because kidney failure affects your lung capacity and also your body’s ability to carry oxygen to your other organs and muscles.
I feel very lucky to be back riding, but I am a perfectionist at heart, so I find this constant battle with my body very frustrating.
But the support from my uncle Edward and my Dad and brother helps — they really understand how I feel, they keep me so positive and give me so much encouragement and support to keep fighting. It takes an army to keep all the broken pieces together.
Since being diagnosed with MS there are days I feel as though I have lost everything. Firstly, everything I had worked so hard for and dreamed of, and then my health.
I sometimes do not even recognise myself anymore — it feels as though my body is not my own.
But there is one very important thing that I have learnt along the way. Anything is possible when you put your mind to it. MS may have thought it had me, but it does not. I will always fight it and I will always win.
• As part of the campaign for MS research and vital services, MS Ireland is calling on people to help Kiss Goodbye to MS throughout the month of May. They are inviting people around Ireland to ‘go red’ and Wear, Dare and Share: wear red or hold a ‘red day’, dare to get sponsored for an MS Ireland sky dive, and share with friends and family to spread the word. Please text KISS to 50300 to donate €4 and nominate others to take part. For more information, visit kissgoodbyetoms.ie.