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Falling for you

By Autumn D. F. Hopkins
Chris Dorst
Leigh Nida and then-fiancÚ Scott Johnson pose with Nida's horse, Trooper.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Leigh Nida, a veterinarian at Good Shepherd Veterinary Hospital, was married Saturday in a happily-ever-after "country chic" ceremony to her very own Prince Charming, Scott Johnson. But how Nida got to her fairytale ending is a story of suffering, grit and kismet.

In 2009, while home in St. Albans on a break from veterinary school, Nida fell from a horse, breaking her back in three places.

"I knew something bad was wrong," she said. "I thought I had broken my pelvis. The EMT said, 'Tell me when you can feel this.'" He was running the Wartenberg wheel to check nerve reaction across her foot and leg.

"I was laying flat, so I couldn't see him. They had already put a neck brace on me. I could see my trainer, Jane; she was standing beside the EMT, and her face went white. Then I knew it was something very bad."

Doctors found she had two compression fractures that could be healed by wearing a brace. But more troubling was a third burst fracture that was compressing her spinal cord.

"I could move my legs, but I couldn't feel them. I was hospitalized for 10 days. It happened on a Thursday. I couldn't have surgery till Friday night when the neurosurgeon flew in."

But Nida was determined to get better and to do so quickly. After leaving the hospital, she went home for two weeks, then back to school wearing a back brace and enduring constant pain, "If I didn't go back to school, I wasn't going to graduate on time."

• • •

Before her fall, Nida said she met her "soul mate," Trooper, the horse that would play an integral part in her recovery.

For years, Nida rode and trained at Taylor Made Farms in Hurricane, with owners Jane and Taylor Winsford. The Winsfords had purchased Trooper as a spirited 3-year-old, and it was there that Nida, in her late teens, met and fell in love with him.

"We had a connection that nobody understood. He was a young horse, and he was a little bit wild. My trainers were afraid he was going to hurt me so they sold him. I quit riding for two years because I was so devastated from not having Trooper."

Meanwhile, Nida completed her undergraduate work at West Virginia University and had been accepted into veterinary school at Ohio State University.

Nida said that while in high school she often rode with equine veterinarian Steve Walker. In doing so, she realized her love of animals meant she wanted to pursue a career caring for them.

Eventually she returned to riding. In July 2009, during a ride, the horse Nida was on spooked at something and spun. She lost her seat and fell.

Doctors wouldn't consider allowing her to ride again for five months. Nida wasn't sure she would ever ride again.

Late that autumn, the Winsfords were in Kentucky looking to buy another horse when they walked past a stall containing a skinny, lame, poorly nourished Trooper. Nida had never forgotten her soul mate.

"Taylor said to Jane, 'Don't tell Leigh or I will divorce you.' She was texting me a picture right then." Nida recalled.

Trooper's reappearance in Nida's life gave her something to focus on. After the Winsfords found him, Nida began her campaign to get Trooper back. She was reaching for something to connect with, something to focus on. She said she promised her trainers, "If you get him back, I will never ride him."

Unbeknownst to her, the Winsfords had already purchased Trooper. They gave him to Nida for Christmas that year. Nida and the Winsfords spent the winter rehabilitating him while Nida worked on her own rehabilitation through physical therapy.

"I was scared. Up until that point I had never had any fear of riding. I was fearless. But then, when you have a serious injury, well, I was deciding whether to ever ride again."

Trooper's return and recovery made the difference for Nida. The following summer, Nida showed Trooper, for the first time, at the Summer Challenge of Champions in Winfield. They won their class.

"We just needed to prove it, that he could do it. That I could do it."

Now, Trooper is retired at Taylor Made Farms and Nida said, "We still play, he just doesn't have to show. He hangs out in the barn and gets turned out in the field to eat grass all day."

His wild spirit that so scared her trainers has calmed. "He hasn't put a wrong foot down since we brought him back," she said.

But Trooper wasn't the only one helping Nida recover.

• • •

After the accident, Nida began physical therapy at Universal Fitness in St. Albans, where Scott Johnson worked out regularly. They had known each other since junior high school and now saw each other regularly at the gym. Nida said reconnecting with Johnson was quick.

"We ran into each other one night, he asked me out for the next night, and we've been together ever since." That was in November 2010.

Nida's recovery, however, has not been without setbacks. After the initial surgery, doctors told Nida that, eventually, she would herniate the disks below the original injury site because of the added pressure on the lower disks.

"But I thought 'eventually' meant when I was 40," she said, not a mere three years later. Still, she put off having surgery until January.

"I had let the herniated disk go too long and the nerve was really bruised. So after surgery, when the pressure was released, the bruise spread and it really hurt much worse than I expected. I thought, 'What have I done?'

"But Scott was wonderful. He took care of me. I couldn't even get out of bed. I couldn't do anything. He took off work and took care of me."

Now, Nida said, she is completely pain-free. She works hard to keep herself physically fit training with Majeed Raissi, owner of Primal Training in Charleston.

"He has helped me get a lot stronger, which has healed my back enormously. My orthopedic surgeon says he is to credit for a lot of my improvement since surgery."

• • •

Last August, Nida and Johnson went on vacation to Florida.

"We were taking a walk on the beach and I had walked down farther than him, looking for seashells. He had stopped. When I walked back he had written 'Will you marry me?' in the sand. He did a really good job -- he was shaking.

"He'd asked my mom's permission and the permission of my trainers, Jane and Taylor, who are like second parents to me. He'd even talked to my brother and had taken my best friend ring shopping."

In May, Nida's friends surprised her with a Kentucky Derby-themed bridal shower, complete with hats and horseshoes.

Because of the couple's shared love of horses and the outdoors, they planned their ceremony and reception Saturday at the Maylon House, in Milton, a plantation with a farm feel. The decorations were upscale country chic with mason jars and burlap accents, but with formal gowns and colorful flowers.

For Nida, 29, and Johnson, 31, this happily-ever-after is only the beginning.

Reach Autumn D.F. Hopkins at autumn.hopkins@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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