Kennewick horseman helps daughter recover from encephalitis

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldNovember 22, 2012 

— Roxanne Trunnell moved up the steps on unsteady legs.

Her dad held onto Touche, the Dutch Warmblood horse Roxie has ridden for years. But Touch was a little jumpy, and Roxie's balance is shaky. She took a tumble from the platform she uses to climb onto the saddle, hitting the dirt below.

She didn't stay down long.

Roxie, 27, of Kennewick, soon was guiding Touche around the Finley arena. She looked comfortable, happy.

Riding feels the same as it used to, she said.

That's one of the things she likes about it -- and probably one of the things she's thankful for today.

Riding and her family.

Roxie almost died about three years ago when she developed encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, brought on by a virus doctors could never diagnose. She lapsed into a coma and may have suffered a stroke.

The recent college graduate who was making a name for herself at dressage riding competitions couldn't talk, walk or even sit up. She spent weeks in the hospital and in-patient rehabilitation.

She's been working ever since to regain her old life and forge a new one -- with help from her family. Her parents are Sid and Josette Trunnell, and she has two older sisters and an older brother.

Sid in particular is a near-constant companion. The former Hanford Patrol member who now is retired takes his daughter three times a week to the Finley ranch where her horses are boarded so she can ride. They walk in the park and work out at the gym. They go to physical therapy.

"We're always out with the walker or the crutches," Sid said. "We get out and do something every day."

Earlier this week, Sid and Roxie headed to the ranch. Sid pulled out Roxie's riding helmet, then fetched Touche. He guided Roxie up the steps of the platform he built so she can reach the saddle. He watched her take the reins.

Roxie and Touche made circles around the arena to warm up. Sid stood by a wall out of the way, his eyes on his daughter.

"We tried to get all three of the girls into horses," he said. "The other two said they were big, smelly animals. But Roxie has been riding since she was 10."

Riding helped Roxie with balance issues she experienced after coming down with chicken pox and developing encephalitis as a toddler. (Her mother, who works as a nurse practitioner, said her daughter's two medical crises could be connected.)

After her most recent illness, Roxie wanted riding to remain part of her life. She began working with Lindy Cogswell of Happy Horse Riding School in Burbank about six months after leaving in-patient rehab.

Roxie knew in her mind what to do -- how to ride a horse. But at first, her body wasn't cooperating.

"Sometimes, it felt like we weren't making any progress," Cogswell recalled. "But every time we discovered something she couldn't do, we'd figure out how to get her to do it."

Even when the weather was bitter cold, Roxie would show up wanting to ride.

"Roxie, oh my -- she had no fear," Cogswell said. "She fell off a couple times but always was willing to get back on. She always was willing to try everything I asked."

Roxie made enough progress that she and her dad now travel to Walla Walla a few times a month so she can work with an upper-level dressage trainer. The Kennewick woman has her eye on para-equestrian competition, perhaps the Paralympics.

She's also working on her education. Roxie is nearly done with a master's in psychology and may pursue a doctorate.

She acknowledges the past few years have been difficult.

"(I've) had to change the way I live," she said.

But her illness has taught her to be more patient, she said.

The way she's handled it has been a lesson to others. Roxie doesn't sink into self-pity or spend time asking, 'Why me?,' " her mom said.

She demonstrates that "you can do anything if you try," Josette said. "To me, she's an inspiration."

Sid is, too. He's made helping Roxie his new life's work, Josette said. Father and daughter are so much alike, she said -- both blazing ahead, determined, undaunted.

While Roxie has made significant strides in the past three years, no one can put a time frame on the rest of her recovery, she and her parents said.

She's hopeful.

And when she's with Touche, she seems happy. She fed her horse carrot after carrot at the ranch this week, smiling when Touche nuzzled the bag for more.

In the saddle, Roxie looked confident. A little dusty from her fall but graceful.

Like she was where she wanted to be, where she belonged.

-- Sara Schilling: 509-582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com

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