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For Kim Smith, two photographs taken 20 minutes apart on March 6 capture not just the briskness of time but the frailty of life and the need to savor every moment.
The first picture was snapped at 5:41 p.m. by Smith as her daughter, Tabitha Hale, sat atop her horse at her Lula home, reins in hands and smiling broadly as she basked in the late afternoon sun.
Then, at 6:01 p.m., after a call to 911, Smith took a photo of Tabitha “lying face-down on the gravel and blood running out of both sides of her ears.”
“That is how quickly time can change everything,” Smith said.
There would be other photos documenting Hale’s recovery from the near-fatal horse riding accident. The ordeal has been a long one, involving two surgeries to fix a skull fracture and therapy sessions.
And though she has since returned to normal routines, including her job as an administrative secretary for the city of Oakwood, recounting the ordeal is difficult at times. Hale gets choked up as she reflects on the experience and the impact it has had.
“I feel like I have a purpose and a plan for my life,” she said during an interview last week at her northwest Hall County home, where she, along with husband Jacob, are raising four boys ages 2 to 14.
“I’m not quite sure what that is yet — I’m still discovering that.”
Recalling the accident also is impossible in places. Details aren’t just foggy — they’re gone.
Piecing it all together, with the help of family telling her what happened, Tabitha said she and Jacob had gathered at her mom’s place on the day of the accident. At the time, the couple was just learning to ride horses.
Tabitha stayed behind as Jacob returned home with the kids. She and her mother were getting set for a ride.
“I don’t remember getting on the horse. I don’t remember putting my saddle on or anything,” Hale said. “I don’t remember being in the ICU.”
“She’s got the gift of not remembering,” Smith said. “But unfortunately, I remember.”
During the ride, the horse simply bolted, throwing Hale to the ground, Smith said.
“The horse spotted the barn, and he just wanted to be back up there with the rest of his buddies,” she said. “I was just screaming (to Hale), ‘Hang on!’ She goes around a curve and out of sight, and by this time, her horse is outrunning mine by far.
“When I came around the corner, she was lying face-down (on the ground). I jumped off my horse and ran up to her, and she was nonresponsive. I just held her in my arms and called 911.”
At one point, Hale “got up on all fours and looked at me, and I could tell something was wrong. She didn’t recognize me and just started flailing her arms, panicking like she was afraid.”
Her daughter lost consciousness again “and I couldn’t get her to respond from that point on,”
Smith said. “Then, the paramedics showed up.”
During the ordeal, Smith called Hale’s husband and told him what had happened.
“She was upset and emotional and didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “She told me to get to the hospital as fast as I could. … I just thought it was going to be a concussion or something, and she’d be fine.”
He knew she was in deeper trouble when he walked into her emergency department room at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.
“She looked like (former boxer) Mike Tyson had beaten her up,” Jacob Hale said.
It was then the family learned the back of Tabitha’s skull was fractured and there was swelling and bleeding on her brain. Right before she was whisked into emergency surgery, Smith said she looked at the surgeon and asked him, “She’s going to be OK, correct?”
“He was like ‘I don’t give false hope,’” Smith said. “They didn’t know if she would come out of the surgery or not. I was told by a nurse if she did come out, she would probably not be walking or talking — but she could possibly learn to do all those things again.”
Tabitha has logged her own thoughts about the ordeal in a journal.
She writes that during surgery, doctors removed part of the right side of her skull, then took her to the intensive care unit, where she was put on a ventilator and placed in an induced coma.
“Once again the doctors reminded my family that I may not walk, speak or know who anyone was when I woke up,” Hale said. “I came out of surgery fine — I just wasn’t breathing on my own.
“At this point, doctors and nurses were already calling me a miracle and word was spreading very fast about what happened to me through the hospital.”
The next day, she opened her eyes and responded to the squeeze of her hand.
Smith said the day after surgery, a nurse ran an object along the bottom of Hale’s foot and tapped on her toes.
“We take for granted that we can move our toes,” Smith said. As her daughter responded to the nurse’s actions, “it was like seeing her walk for the first time again.
“Apparently, she wasn’t paralyzed because she could wiggle those toes.”
Two days after the accident, Hale started breathing some on her own.
“By lunch that day, I was (taken) off the ventilator and didn’t just speak one word,” Hale said. “God let me say a complete sentence: ‘Do not ever let them do that to me again.’”
And she recognized everyone in her room, as well as visitors as they arrived.
Hale was released from the hospital after 10 days, but was on strict orders to restrict activity.
She initially was told she would have to wait 6-8 months before doctors could put the skull piece back in her head. Instead, the second surgery took place 6 weeks later.
Hale also was told she would need a year to fully recover.
However, on June 17, 3 ½ months after the accident, she was able to return to work with no restrictions.
“She’s a walking miracle — a true testimony of the power of prayer,” Oakwood City Manager Stan Brown said. “Her recovery has exceeded all our expectations.”
City Clerk Tangee Puckett had a similar sentiment.
“Tabitha is truly a walking miracle,” she said. “The power of prayer is very powerful, and she is a very strong-willed woman who has shown this through her recovery.”
Hale’s mother also has seen her personal faith strengthened by the ordeal.
“It’s just been amazing that God has chosen us as a family to see him work a miracle,” Smith said. “We are blessed as a family and honored that, for some reason, we were chosen for this journey.”
And while life is back to normal, with the tasks and routines of work and family, one thing has certainly changed for Hale.
While she’s OK being around horses, she’s reluctant to ride again.
“I just don’t have that desire,” she said.