Against All Odds

Equestrian star learns how to ride a different life

By Rebecca Carr
Photographs provided

Freezing rain had already started to pelt the ground that November day in 1992, a sure sign of an impending Nor’easter. But the driver of the sturdy black Saab maneuvered the hills of southwestern New Hampshire with an incautious sense of invincibility that only a 17-year-old could muster. The driver was anxious to get home to unwind from the pressures of high school’s final year and the rigor of the nation’s top horse shows. A little rain and snow was not uncommon that time of year, and it wasn’t going to stop Jennifer Miller Field, noted star of the elite equestrian circuit that stretches along the East Coast from Palm Beach to the Hamptons.

Jennifer’s skill and competitive drive had helped her navigate the most prestigious equestrian rings, including Madison Square Garden, at the tender age of 12. At the Grand Prix level, she cleared courses of jumps as high as 5 feet, 3 inches and spreads of up to 6 feet, 7 inches. She won blue ribbons at shows across the country and Canada, including the Pennsylvania National Horse Show and the Washington International Horse Show. She planned to graduate high school early, compete in Europe and then vie for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

The scene of Jennifer Miller Field’s horrific accident in 1992, after her car slid on ice and into an oncoming 18-wheel tractor-trailer in New Hampshire.

But equestrian skills don’t count for much on a wintery road in rural New Hampshire. Not long after she pulled out of the Dublin School campus, Jennifer’s car hit a sheet of black ice and skidded into an oncoming 18-wheel tractor-trailer. The energy from the impact was horrific, collapsing her seat and thrusting her head back through the driver’s side rear window. Shards of glass pierced her head as the bumper of the truck crashed through the passenger side window, shredding that side of the car. The last thing Jennifer remembered before spiraling into unconsciousness was the haunting, piercing sound of crashing metal.

Then it was blackness and nothing — and nothing more for two months.

In an instant, Jennifer Miller Field’s life as the beautiful, smart, dedicated equestrian on the rise was slammed shut. Jennifer had suffered a “diffuse closed head injury,” which meant that her brain was damaged all over. Such a severe traumatic brain injury would forever alter her life.

Doctors told Jennifer’s mother, Joanne Field, that if she woke from the coma, she would not walk, talk or live an independent life. The dream of becoming an Olympic equestrian was no longer a possibility for the descendant of the legendary Marshall Field & Co.’s luxury department store empire and the revered political dynasty of New Hampshire’s Bass family. Only awakening was.

Jennifer’s world became one of relearning the skills learned as a toddler, basic skills that many of us take for granted — speaking, eating, standing, sitting and then, miraculously, walking. Jennifer not only woke up but overcame severe cognitive and physical obstacles to rebuild an independent life. And she did it with a determination that had been honed through years of tedious, disciplined work to become an award-winning equestrian.

Jennifer and Joanne have recounted her recovery in a new book called “From Blue Ribbon to Code Blue: A Girl’ Courage, Her Mother’s Love, A Miracle Recovery.” The book chronicles their journey to find innovative ways to help Jennifer’s rehabilitation and their turn to alternative medicine and holistic healers to take her past what medical science could do. Remarkably, the book also describes how Jennifer’s recovery came to include the development of a one-woman theatrical show about her experience called “A Distant Memory,” motivational speaking appearances and the establishment of a foundation to help others who have suffered severe brain injuries afford alternative therapies.

Jennifer, now 41, leads a life in a different sort of limelight, a life far away from the cloistered and privileged equestrian world that she once dominated. In addition to her book and speaking events, she has expanded the reach of her foundation to work with the Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services of Connecticut to help veterans heal through equine, agriculture and educational management. Jennifer was recognized for her work with the Hero Award at the All American Inaugural Ball hosted by the Virginia Republican Party during the inauguration of President Trump.

Jennifer is not bitter about the accident or the dream that was snatched away from her. She is almost philosophical, seeing the accident as a gift.

“On that cold, snowy November day in 1992, I was given a second chance at life,” she writes. “I began a journey that would reshape my body, my mind, and my spirit. I worked harder than I ever could have imagined. Today I have grown into a person that I love. When I look back, I do not know or recognize the person that I was. I am so different, and I have been so humbled. I have been given this second chance at life, and I am determined to honor this incredible gift.”

Jennifer Field clears a jump on Swan Lake, a Selle Francais mare that her trainers found in France.

Nov. 17, 1992: Power forces intervene

“There is no such thing as chance, and what seemed to us merest accident springs from the deepest source of destiny,” wrote the German dramatist and poet Friedrich von Schiller in the 18th century.

Those are the words that Field has clung to over the past 25 years. There were people and circumstances that fell into her path on the day of the accident that were intended to save her.

One of them was Bill Beynon. An off-duty volunteer fireman, Beynon happened to be nearby when the emergency call crackled over his CB radio. Beynon raced to the scene. When he got there, Field’s head was so severely twisted that she could not breathe. Beynon knew he had to act fast to free her airway. He pried open the door and moved her, violating the cardinal rule of not moving accident victims, to get an airway open.

Emergency workers then cut the roof off the car and hoisted her out, taking her to the closest hospital. One of those workers just happened to be certified to intubate patients. And by chance, the small, rural hospital just happened to have a rare, life-saving drug called mannitol, which reduces swelling in the brain. Without that drug, and without the emergency technician and Beynon coming to the scene and moving her against the rules, Field may never have survived.

“Although many people don’t believe in angels or even destiny, I have to believe that in the midst of this terrible tragedy, certain events speak to angelic presence,” Jennifer writes. “Why was Bill the fireman listening to his CB radio at that moment? Why did a small hospital have mannitol on that day? Why was it that the emergency medical technician assigned to the ambulance that day was the only person in the area certified to intubate a patient, a procedure essential for my survival?”

Joanne was at the vet with their dog, Feather, a miniature poodle, on her way out of town when the receptionist told her she had a call from the Monadnock Community Hospital. Her daughter had been in a car crash but was still alive. She was being transferred to larger Concord Hospital. “I literally dropped everything on the floor and ran for the car.”

When she arrived at the hospital, Joanne found Jennifer in a deep coma, a metal clamp holding her skull together and a medical team pumping air into her lungs because she could no longer breathe on her own. She grabbed the gurney rail and screamed again, “Jen, I am here, and it’s going to be OK. Fight, Jennifer, fight!”

Looking down at her still daughter, Joanne refused to let the dire medical predictions register. “I felt like I was teetering on a tightrope both emotionally and physically, swaying this way and that, barely balancing and at some moment somebody might say the thing I couldn’t hear and I’d fall,” she writes.

Jennifer Miller Field, pictured with her mother, Joanne.

Joanne had always been interested in alternative medicine. Now anxious for solutions for Jennifer, she reached out to psychics and had “energy work” done on Jennifer while she was in the coma. One psychic told her that Jennifer was hovering over her body and not sure if she would come back because her body was so destroyed. To entice her daughter to come back, Joanne gathered all of the people who mattered in Jennifer’s life at the hospital. They took shifts holding her hand and talking to her about the memories they shared. Joanne brought artifacts from her old life — Feather, the dog, some clipped mane from her horse, Swan Lake, her saddle, even some manure. She played her favorite song, “Brown-eyed Girl,” again and again.

Joanne rarely left her daughter’s side, always believing she would wake up. She refused to give up hope and literally moved into the hospital to be by her daughter’s side. Then, one day, she saw her left eye open. She called for a nurse, but Jennifer’s eye shut before she could see it. The nurse was doubtful, telling Joanne she understood how much she wanted this to happen.

Joanne insisted that her eye had opened. Sure enough, it opened again. This time, she did not wait for the nurse. She ran through the intensive care unit to the waiting room to tell the friends and family. She knew in her heart that her daughter was on her way back and that the beginning of the journey of recovery had started.

Jennifer’s first memory of waking up from her coma was in a blue padded room looking up at her childhood friend, Kristin, and an unfamiliar-looking boy who she later learned was her boyfriend Matt, the one she was racing home to see on the night of the accident. In many ways, Jennifer could not grasp the enormity of what had happened. The accident had stripped away her memory.

“My brain was so damaged, I really was not present in my own body for months,” Jennifer said about emerging from the coma. “Even though I was awake, I really wasn’t awake. The one memory I had was turning over in bed and wondering what happened to me. Where am I? I was almost walking through life in someone else’s shoes. My mind could not comprehend what was going on. I treated it as if I were in another competition. I was in the ring. Instead of riding my horse, I was now working on myself. I never cried. I never got depressed. I just focused on what was in front of me.”

Joanne started to look for rehabilitation centers to take her daughter to the next level. Visiting the rehab centers was one of the most painful things she has ever done. “When I saw the giant steel and chain machines that would be used to lift her into a bathtub, it became crystal clear how severe her accident had been and how terrible the consequences. I couldn’t reconcile the memory of my beautiful daughter sailing over jumps and this girl who now was crumpled in a wheelchair facing a seemingly impossible journey. How were we ever going to do this?” She wondered.

Even finding a rehab center that would take Jennifer proved to be a challenge because her condition was so severe. At the time, patients with brain injuries like Jennifer’s were considered “wrecked for life.”

Ultimately, she was accepted at the Northeast Rehabilitation Center in Salem, New Hampshire, because Dr. James Whitlock, director of the center, saw something in Jennifer that stood out. She responded to people — a sign of interactivity. She was young, and she had been a strong competitive athlete. These were all good signs for recovery, he noted.

When she arrived, she was in an “awakening state,” still on a feeding tube and not walking. Three months later, she could walk without an aide and was able to talk and remember daily experiences.

“I call her the poster child for what we do,” Whitlock said about the experience treating her.

In 1993, Jennifer moved to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, widely considered the premier center of its kind. At this point, her right arm was not moving, and the hope was a different approach might bring a breakthrough.

And that breakthrough began to happen there. Jennifer worked on opening clothespins with her right hand and then clasping them onto an upright ruler. Her right arm was still mostly paralyzed from the coma. It was a huge challenge. Her muscles were moving against her will. When she finally could do it, she felt like she had won a riding competition. Each clothespin felt like a blue ribbon.

Getting Back On 

When the Fields returned to New Hampshire from Chicago, Jennifer went to see her horse. As she approached the barn, Swan Lake, as if on cue, stuck her head out the window. Jennifer could tell that she recognized her. Suddenly, memories of the ring started to flood back.

“I was completely overcome by emotion as I reached up and touched Swanny’s nose. I had this overwhelming feeling of excitement at the thought of riding again,” she said.

Her mother could see the desire in her daughter’s eyes. Jennifer’s doctors advised against riding, saying it was too risky. But Joanne thought it help speed her recovery.

When she mounted Swanny, she could not feel the powerful animal beneath her. She had no sensory memory or knowledge of how to control the horse. She fell and had to be rushed to the hospital. Again, the doctors advised against riding.

Jennifer refused to accept defeat. She mounted Swanny again despite the risk. She fell again. This time, she recognized that she was not going to be able to ride again. It was not worth the risk.

“I was never going to be the person I was on a horse again. For me, that was too difficult. I couldn’t go out and win or become the Olympian I dreamed of becoming. It was too difficult. I didn’t want to be a trail rider. It wouldn’t be fun for me. What I really loved about riding was the competition and the blue ribbon, and that was over.”

The hunt for alternative therapies

In the early 1990s, the search for ground-breaking healing methods was largely through word of mouth. E-mail was in its infancy. Google had yet to be invented. And forget about YouTube tutorials.

Over the course of the past 25 years, Joanne has led her daughter all over the world in search of cutting-edge therapies, from neuro-biofeedback to vision therapy. Joanne considered everything from live cell injections to acupuncture to neurofeedback to movement and sounds therapies.

One of the more successful theories that they discovered was the Continuum Movement. Developed by Emilie Conrad in Los Angeles, the theory is that the body is a fluid organism. By combining breath, sound, and movement, Conrad taught Jennifer to move in more fluid ways. During her sessions, Jennifer would close her eyes and go to a place in her brain where she is much more physically agile.

Jennifer also sought help from an alternative therapist in Massachusetts who specialized in brain injury victims. The program of exercise helped her re-experience the developmental states that infants go through to retrain her brain. She lay on a table on her back, and three people moved her arms and legs at the same time to make it seem like she was walking. Then they moved her right arm and left leg while turning her head towards her raised arm and then did the same on the left side. This sort of cross pattern work would help repair the pathways between the left and right sides.

Finding her center of gravity

Over the years, Jennifer learned how to master tasks that would seem small to most, such as holding a pencil or splashing water on her face. And she has mastered large tasks, such as earning a degree in art history from the Wheaton College (magna cum laude).

But the one part of her life that she struggled with was finding the right person who could understand her and all that she had been through

In the fall of 2014, Jennifer met that someone. Bruce Dionne was helping out a dog adoption event at the Burlingame State Park in Rhode Island that Jennifer attended with a friend.

Jennifer had been in nearby Stonington, Connecticut, to work on her foundation’s newsletter and to deliver her “Distant Memory” speech. With Dionne’s own rescue dogs following behind, the pair struck up a conversation that has never stopped.

Fresh from a divorce, Dionne was not interested in dating or meeting anyone, but he recalls being overwhelmed by her beauty, the way her brown hair softly fell on her face. Field was vulnerable too, having had several promising relationships falter. But there was a refreshing openness, a down-to-earth way that Dionne had of making her feel relaxed.

After two decades of medical and alternative therapies to help recover from the accident, Jennifer Field found love with Bruce Dionne while walking a dog at an adopt-the-dog event in Rhode Island.

Two days later, as she stood on stage to deliver her speech, she spotted Dionne in the audience, accompanied by his mother. It touched her that he would bring his mother to hear her story. After the speech, they went to dinner and back to her friend’s house to watch a Hallmark TV movie, one of her favorite pastimes. And, just like a Hallmark movie, they kissed for the first time.

Dionne owns his own general contractor business in Westerly, Rhode Island, where his family has been in the carpentry business for five generations and lived since the early 1600s. He recently sold his treasured Cape Cod-style house there, a house that he remodeled himself, and slowed down his work to devote more time to being with Jennifer in New Hampshire since she can’t drive.

“I don’t throw around the words ‘meant to be’ very often,” Dionne says. “I reserve those for special things, but this really felt meant to be to me. When I started walking with her and heard her story, I was struck by her courage and strength. She had been through so much, but there was not a hint of sorrow or self-pity in her words.”

Dionnne also sees the difficult sides of things. He watches as she sometimes struggles to get a sentence out or to move faster. He sees her at her lowest points when a therapy does not go the way she would like.

“What gets her through? Her love of family and her competitive spirit — whether it is cards or whatever,” he says. “When she is stymied, she redirects. When she falls down, she gets up and keeps going. She is tough. She has spunk. She has grit. She finds another way. That is Jen.”  E