Return to the saddle is matter of survival for East Tennessee woman

A mysterious illness threw a competitive horseback rider from the saddle and getting back on turned out to be a matter of survival.
Jessica Thoma suffered a mysterious illness that forced a triple amputation.
Published: Jun. 23, 2020 at 7:12 PM EDT
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CROSSVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Everything about what’s inside a barn is what Jessica Thoma lives for. The sweet smell of a horse. The rich scent of leather. The mustiness of the hay. Even the one chore most despise, “Cleaning the stalls, that’s the best feeling there is!”

For as long as Jessica can remember, the best seat in the house has always been on a horse. Sugar, a paint mare, has been her partner for years, “We’ve done everything together that you can think of: trail rides, jumping, dressage, barrel racing. Even though we were bad at it!”

Jessica told WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara that the obsession started as a little girl, courtesy of her mother.

But every good rider will tell you, you’re bound to fall off. And when life threw Jessica from the saddle, she wasn’t sure how she’d get back on.

Like a runaway horse, a mysterious sickness took off inside of Jessica’s body in 2017. It started as a rash with hives, rounds of nausea, loss of vision, and progressively got worse. Eventually, Jessica was too sick to work. By the time doctors caught up to the rare autoimmune disease, vasculitis, it was too late.

“They thought they had pinpointed it was an autoimmune disease but it turned out to be the wrong one, so I was sent home. Then just a few days later I was rushed back to the hospital again. That’s when everything hit the fan and body parts started dying,” said Jessica.

On her return visit to the hospital, Jessica said she had a 105-degree temperature and came dangerously close to brain damage.

As her left arm and both legs began to die, Jessica documented the journey in a series of Facebook Live videos.

“I’m going to show you guys my feet. This is what vasculitis does, it takes away the blood flow from your extremities,” she explained. “It’s literally just inflammation of the blood vessels, they constricted and caused outer extremities to die and a lot of my internal organs were affected as well.”

As the days wore on, and her limbs continued to die, the reality sunk in that Jessica would become a triple amputee.

Jessica Thoma after her triple amputation.
Jessica Thoma after her triple amputation.(WVLT)

After the amputations, Jessica returned home where depression sunk in. “There are some days I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to go to work, because I didn’t want this to happen and I didn’t have a choice. You know?”

But because horses were relying on Jessica to be fed, groomed, and exercised, she chose to get out of bed. And because it costs money to care for the animals, she chose to return to work at Tractor Supply.

“They definitely give me purpose; they’re the reason I get up in the morning. I’ve got to feed them. Make sure they have water, they have hay, and I work for them. To take care of them,” said Jessica.

Horses proved to be the lifeline that pulled Jessica from her bed to the barn and from depression to determination. That determination manifested itself five months after her amputations.

Cell phone video documented the day Jessica and Sugar competed at a dressage horse show at River Glen Equestrian Park in New Market. Her mom was behind the camera asking questions, “How are you feeling right now getting ready to go in the ring for the very first time since you’ve been out of the hospital?” Jessica grinned into the camera and said, “A mixture of pretty excited and pretty darn nervous!”

Jessica competed against able-bodied riders and won her dressage test. “Oh god. I wish I could do it again. I was on cloud nine that whole day just being there in that environment,” she beamed.

Jessica Thoma won blue ribbons at her first horse show since undergoing a triple amputation.
Jessica Thoma won blue ribbons at her first horse show since undergoing a triple amputation.(WVLT)

The style of riding is best described as a ballet for horses and requires a high level of coordination and cooperation between horse and rider to complete a series of precise movements at different gaits. A rider uses their seat and core to control the horse and block or propel movement. Jessica said losing three limbs required her to become even more balanced and dependent on those aids.

The thrill of the horse show and the joy of returning to the saddle taught Jessica that sitting on top of a horse puts her on top of the world. “Horses before were kind of a commodity. I had them, I loved them but I didn’t need them. Now they’re a necessity. I have to have them,” she said.

These days, she’s not just riding for herself. She’s riding for everyone who needs a reason to gallop full speed ahead.

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