12-year-old vows to get back on horse after traumatic brain injury

KENNEWICK -- Tears fill Emma McCord's eyes inside a stable on the outskirts of Kennwick as she is reminded of the limitations her traumatic brain injury has caused.

The 12-year-old buries her face in her mother's armpit for a moment. She quickly reappears with a smile and begins to laugh as she remembers how lucky she really is.

"This turned me into a big crybaby," she said, wiping tears away with her gloves.

Emma was thrown from her horse, KC, on July 26 after finishing the best barrel race of her life at the Benton County Fairgrounds. KC got spooked as she came around a blind corner and a SUV pulled out.

The horse jumped out of the way and threw Emma, who wasn't wearing a helmet, to the ground. Her head snapped back onto the unforgiving concrete, fracturing her skull and causing bleeding in her brain.

"Her brain ricocheted inside of her head and hit the front left side of her skull," said her mother, Kara Osborne, after the accident.

Emma was flown to the intensive care unit at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. She slowly started to recover as doctors worked to control the swelling in her brain. Within five days of the accident, she was able to eat and drink on her own.

She remained at Sacred Heart for almost three weeks before she was released to a Spokane rehabilitation center. She spent less than a week at the rehab center before doctors told her she could go home to start speech therapy.

Doctors emphasized to Emma to stay off horses and not participate in contact sports for a whole year, Osborne said. The fall was the seventh-grader's second known concussion and another, doctors said, could be deadly.

"The brain injury is what it is. It's there," Osborne said. "The doctors just felt like as long as we took care of her, things would stay the same and heal."

Emma had trouble remembering what objects were and what words meant after she returned home, Osborne said. When she started therapy, she couldn't identify a picture of a tomato. Specialists worked with Emma on her motor skills and her word recognition.

Within weeks, Emma slowly started to regain her cognitive skills and get back to the active lifestyle she lived before the accident. She started school on time in September, going for half days at first before transitioning to full days more recently. She even has resumed helping her grandmother and friends take care of KC.

Emma's family say they have noticed thta she is much more outgoing and open since the accident. Her progression so far has them optimistic she will make a full recovery.

"The doctors were pretty certain the accident was life-altering and could incapacitate her for life," said Emma's father, RB McCord. "When we heard that, we all kind of lost it together. To look at Emma now and see where she is, it's a total miracle."

For all the progress Emma has made, there are still many frustrating and difficult days, she said. The hardest thing has been not being able to ride KC. The girl who grew up playing soccer and staring at a horse picture on a bedroom wall is now forced to watch some of her favorite activities.

While most of Emma's cognitive skills have come back, she still gets lost in conversations and forgets common words.

"It has been hard. My friends have been great," she said. "Knowing that people have done so much for me helps."

The support Emma has received from the community during her recovery has inspired her to want to help others, she said. She hopes people learn from the accident that wearing a helmet while riding can save a life or prevent serious injury.

Emma is scheduled to see a neuropsychologist Friday to learn more about her injury and the effects it could have on her later in life, Osborne said.

"Emma learned a hard lesson," her mother said. "She has finally come to terms with the 'why did this happen to me?' We have explained a lot of times we have big challenges in life we have to deal with. She has had to get hers out of the way early."

Emma has every intention of getting back on KC and continuing to race and ride for the rest of her life, she said.

Back inside the stables, with KC just feet away, she is quick to shout out the date when she is technically allowed to get back on the horse.

When July 26 finally comes, the first thing Emma will do is put on a helmet and hop on, she said.

Emma casually shrugs off the idea that her injury, or the possibility of another concussion, will keep her from riding.

"I know I will," she said. "If my mom says no, I will sneak out of the house."