Mellisa Warden had earned a vacation.
In the summer of 2019, she was balancing her career as a USEA technical delegate and “R” judge with a job working for a local FEI veterinarian. She was also preparing to move up to the Intermediate level of eventing with her Thoroughbred gelding, Deadpool, and running marathons in her free time when she and her daughter flew from their home in Aiken, S.C. to Germany to visit Warden’s husband, who was stationed there while serving in the military.
On a Sunday morning in Berlin, the sun peeking through the clouds, Warden and her family were bicycling through the city when Warden hit a set of tram tracks in the center of a street, flying off her bike. “I thought, okay, my ankle’s sprained. I’ll tape it up, it’ll be fine,” Warden said. “People were running up to pull me out of the road. They got me up, and when I put my foot down so I could balance a little bit, my ankle detached from my leg.”
An ambulance quickly brought Warden to Charité, a leading research and teaching hospital located just a mile from the site of her accident. Doctors discovered that Warden had broken her left fibula in two places and ruptured all the ligaments between her tibia and fibula. After four unsuccessful attempts to set her ankle, she was brought to surgery. “As I was falling asleep,” she said, “they told me there was a 50% chance that I’d wake up without a foot.”
Warden awoke to find that while her foot had made it through the operation, she would need to spend the next week at Charité awaiting a follow-up surgery. “The damage was so bad,” Warden explained, “they just didn’t know what to do with me.” After her second surgery in 8 days, Warden was informed that the damage to her ankle was more severe than her doctors had realized, and they’d had to cut some of her nerves, permanently damaging them. Despite this, Warden wasn’t overly concerned about her long-term prognosis: “I just wanted to return to doing everything again. Except riding bikes. That’s the one thing I never want to do again!”
A few weeks later, Warden and Deadpool headed to the Virginia Horse Trials to compete in their fall CCI 1* event. While walking the cross-country course, Warden found herself caught in a thunderstorm, far from the barns. “There was thunder and lightning, and I couldn’t run, I could barely walk,” she remembered. “I realized things were going really badly.” At only 39, Warden was determined to reclaim her active, athletic life. Fellow eventers connected her with a new orthopedist, who began setting her up with specialists. Few of the doctors were encouraging. “I saw a couple specialists who told me to give up,” she recalled. “One told me I should enjoy being a mother and maybe I could take up pickleball.”
“I had a lot of anxiety,” she said, “realizing how this had affected my entire life. I couldn’t TD, because it was so hard on me physically. I couldn’t work for the vet, because I couldn’t jog horses. I was becoming extremely limited in what I could do.” Her primary orthopedist kept recommending articles for Warden to read, and she began spending five or six hours a night researching her options, including an ankle fusion, a total ankle replacement, or amputation.
In early 2021, a specialist in Savannah told her that while most ankle replacement candidates can get two replacements in their lifetime, Warden’s tibia was so damaged she would only be eligible for one — which would last her about a decade. Warden dove back into research, including reviewing a study by the United States military which suggested that patients with lower limb amputations had better results in returning to activities like work and sports than patients whose limbs were salvaged. Finally, Warden emailed the specialist to say she wanted to pursue amputation. “It was really hard,” she said. “I think I was done.” The doctor replied that he’d described her case to a group of fellow practitioners and they’d unanimously agreed that Warden was making the right choice.
“I don’t think that everything happens for a reason. I think sometimes really crappy things happen, and it’s not your fault, but you can make something out of it that can help others and yourself.”
“It was the first time that I felt I consented to what was going on,” Warden remarked. “It wasn’t that I wanted to do it, it was that there wasn’t a choice to be made and I had to make a choice. So I made one with the hope of the best possible outcome.” Warden’s surgery was scheduled for two weeks later, and she spent the time in the gym to prepare her body for this new challenge — and hosted a Zoom party with friends to say goodbye to “Lefty.” Warden describes the days before her surgery in February 2021 like a true horsewoman, noting that the weekend before her amputation, her new Kentucky-bred Thoroughbred mare Unfolding Blame went clear on cross-country in her first Training level event.
Exactly one month later, Warden was back in the saddle, initially riding a friend’s horse who she describes as “kind as can be.” She moved Unfolding Blame, known as Lucy, into full training with Aiken-based eventer Jessica Schultz, and was back on the mare two months after surgery. “I walked, trotted and cantered in both directions, and I only had one leg,” she said of that first ride on Lucy. “It was amazing, to the point that I was in tears.” Warden has continued riding and even jumping, and described it as an “awkward” transition when she finally got a prosthetic, because she was completely used to riding with one leg.
Warden credits her community with keeping her spirits up during a long period of pain and uncertainty, including an emergency surgery in May 2021, when an infection developed in her residual leg as she was traveling for work. “The people that I’ve needed have been right there when I’ve needed them,” she said. “It’s not about me being strong or determined, it’s about having people there that have your back and can say, ‘It’s going to suck, but we support you, and we think it’s possible.’ And even if they don’t think it’s possible, they’re really good at lying, and I’m grateful for that.”
Today, Warden is pursuing her para-equestrian classifications so she and Lucy can begin to compete in FEI para-dressage once Lucy turns six next year. While she originally hoped to compete Lucy at the American Eventing Championships in fall 2021, she’s put that on the back-burner as she recovers from her latest surgery. Still, Warden can’t wait to return to eventing. “I joke, but I’m quite serious, that I will return at beginner novice and go around with one leg,” she explains. “That’s why we do No Stirrup November. And one stirrup is better than none!” She hopes that Schultz will continue to bring the mare up the levels for her, with a goal of Warden and Lucy eventually competing together at Preliminary.
Warden’s journey has also led her to a new career. During her long nights of research before deciding to amputate her left foot, she discovered the need for prosthetists, and began a master’s degree in prosthetics and orthotics. “I feel like I’ve found my place a little bit,” she explains. “I never, ever envisioned any of this happening. If I was meant to be a prosthetist, I would’ve really appreciated being told that ten years ago,” she laughed. “But through all the bad, something good has come of it.”
“There are plenty of times that I’m not positive. There are days that everything is just terrible,” Warden says, reflecting on the past two years. “I don’t think that everything happens for a reason. I think sometimes really crappy things happen, and it’s not your fault, but you can make something out of it that can help others and yourself.”
“I think that we can thrive despite tragedy.”
Feature photo by Christine Quinn Photography,Read this next: As Riders, What Do We Do When We're Criticized for Our Training Approach?
Written by Jessie Lochrie
Jessie Lochrie is a writer based in Los Angeles whose work has been featured in Longreads, The Outline, The Awl, and more. She spent her formative years galloping ponies through the woods of Massachusetts before receiving a B.A. in Literary Studies from New School University. You can find her in the jumper ring or at jessielochrie.com.