Mind over Matter

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By Sherry Metzger

Ashley Bucy uses the power of positive thought to beat the odds.

In 2002, a single mother of two young daughters arrived at an emergency room seeking treatment for what she thought was strep throat. Her illness was shrugged off as the common cold, and she was sent home. She returned to the emergency room two more times, and each time she was sent home. When her body went into septic shock from the untreated infection, 29-year-old Ashley Bucy landed in the emergency room again-this time struggling for her life.

Bucy, a competitive equestrian from Olalla, Washington, who was working toward a master's degree in psychology while tending bar at night, couldn't have imagined how drastically her life was about to change. She was medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and says she "died" four times along the way. She was given a 1 percent chance of survival. Bucy spent a month and a half in a coma, while her tiny 128-pound body swelled with fluid to over 300 pounds and became riddled with sores.

"I'm so lucky," she says now. "When I think about all that happened to me, I think it's a miracle that I'm here. Doctors at Harborview did everything they could to save me, even some things that may seem bizarre, such as using pigskin grafts."

Though doctors incredibly were able to save Bucy's life, decreased blood circulation to her extremities necessitated the amputation of her legs, several fingertips, and part of her right arm. "My feet came off first," she says. "I remember the exact date-August 15, 2002-because it was my dad's birthday. I was blessed enough to have a surgeon cut off my legs who was interested in saving my knees." Bucy, left with only one quadriceps muscle, no kneecap or patellar tendon on the left side, was told she would never walk again.

Ashley Bucey and Crimson Stardust
Ashley Bucey and Crimson Stardust

With this prognosis, Bucy wondered how she would care for herself and daughters, let alone pursue her competitive horse racing goals. Yet Bucy decided that she would fight for her dreams. Even as she lay in a coma she says, "I remember seeing people around me, hearing them talk or play me music, and I tried to speak to them, but couldn't communicate. I describe it like trying to find a particular frequency or vibration that would get me back to my children." Bucy's will and determination gave her strength to endure multiple surgeries and years of arduous physical therapy.

She amazed doctors with her healing progress, which she contributes to endless hours of meditation. "When I woke up [from a coma], I had nothing but time to meditate," she recalls. "I broke my body down into parts for hours at a time, and I would will [them] to work. I refused to believe that my life would be over; I truly believe in the power of positive thinking."

As her body relied on a dialysis machine to function for her failing kidneys, Bucy imagined miniature armies focused on "fixing" her kidneys. Miraculously, her body started to reject the machine as her kidneys began to work on their own. "Everything started working again," she says. "I began picturing myself walking again, but my legs, unlike other body parts, felt very foreign to me. It took me two years to learn to walk again."

At first, it was very difficult and painful for her to wear her prostheses because they tore her delicate, grafted skin. "The first two years were hell," she says. "The pain was almost unbearable, but I was very determined to get my life back. I remember thinking, 'It's got to get better, or I don't want to be here.' "

Bucy's Prosthesis
Bucy's Prosthesis

Though dealing with pain is still a daily part of her life, Bucy takes steps toward her dreams every day. With custom-made prostheses, Bucy is able to care for her daughters and two horses on the property she owns. "I had to relearn everything from brushing my hair to buttoning my pants, but now I can even drive my own Chevy hauling a horse trailer!" she says.

She credits much of her success to her prosthetist, Greg Davidson, CPO, Preferred Orthotic & Prosthetic Services, Federal Way, Washington. "Greg is a phenomenal prosthetist," she says. "Other prosthetists gave up on me and told me I'd just have to walk with a locked knee. But when I lost a [prosthetic] leg in my first horse race because it slid right off my sweaty limb, Greg worked with me to make my legs work for riding."

Davidson is pleased to see the progress Bucy has made. "It is difficult to convey in words how special [Bucy] is and the physical challenges she faces on a daily basis. With no knee extensor strength on her left side, she had to walk with joints that locked her knee in extension. Incorporating a Horton Stance Control Orthotic Joint™ allowed her to walk normally, and watching her walk and move about now, it is very hard to tell she has any physical disabilities."

Competing with able-bodied individuals is important to Bucy. "They don't even mention that I'm disabled," she says. "People say, 'Wow, she's a good rider,' rather than focusing on what I don't have; it's about how I'm doing in the sport."

When the oldest endurance horse ride, the Tevis Cup, takes place on August 1, 2009, 35-year-old Bucy plans to accomplish a goal she's had since childhood-completing the 100-mile ride from Lake Tahoe, California, to Auburn, California. She'll have only 24 hours in which to do it, and she'll also be the first bilateral amputee to attempt the grueling race. Though Bucy and her mare, Crimson Stardust, have already qualified for the Tevis Cup with enough points and more than 350 race miles, she says they'll wait until 2009 to be safe. "Tevis is a gnarly race," she says. "Only half of the horses that enter actually finish. I have a great crew working with me, but I'm waiting to find just the right partner who can keep up with my horse and me for safety reasons."

Bucy currently rides 38 miles a week to keep her eight-year-old Arabian racehorse in shape, and they compete in ten races a year. The two were honored in September with the award for the "Most Courageous Horse and Rider Team" during the 50-mile Pacific Northwest Endurance Ride, Lakeview Ranch, Odessa, Washington, a race in which they placed second. "It was very exciting," Bucy says. "We got lost, but we kept working to finish the race." Though Crimson Stardust didn't like Bucy's prosthetic legs at first, the team has learned to work together. Davidson is shaping a pair of soft legs for Bucy that will be less painful for the mare.

While preparing for the Tevis Cup, Bucy says that for now she's living her dream every day. "Life is very different now, but I'm so lucky that I get to do what I love," she says. "I get to be with my kids and my horses. When something like this happens, it's not the end of your life. Of course you go through stages of grief, loss, and anger, but you learn that life is good; it's a blessing. I have a new life now, a path I didn't predict. I find time every day to smile and be grateful."

Sherry Metzger, MS, is a freelance writer with degrees in anatomy and neurobiology. She is based in Westminster, Colorado, and can be reached at  sherry@opedge.com

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