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Colorado doctor gives back to Craig Hospital patients through a place of understanding

Dr. Terry Chase helps brain and spinal injury patients with their physical and mental health after a life-changing experience.

DENVER — Dr. Terry Chase was an active outdoors woman, worked for Outward Bound and was a middle school physical education teacher. In 1988, she went on a 10-mile bike ride in Grand Junction, and that’s when she said her life changed.

“A man who was drunk was driving behind me, hit me, flip me up onto the car,” said Chase, who's from Grand Junction. “I knew it was really bad. He swerved, I hit the ground and I sustained a T12 complete injury.”

Chase was paralyzed from the waist down, and for the next three months, she was a patient at Craig Hospital in Denver that specializes in traumatic brain and spinal cord treatment.

She eventually learned how to regain her independence and use a wheelchair. Chase said she was motivated by her students but was going through a tough time.

Credit: Dr. Terry Chase
Dr. Terry Chase from Grand Junction Colorado.

“Five months after I got hurt, I was back in the fields, back in the gym, I was very motivated that way,” Chase said. “I had my challenges. There were times that were very dark for me, but when I started becoming involved with the horses …the horses really helped me a lot. They helped me be a better human being. They were very accepting of me. It didn’t matter that I was in a wheelchair, and I was part of the herd.”

She said it was that connection with the horses that sparked an idea.

“The horses are very inclusive,” Chase said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in a wheelchair, you’ve got a helmet on, you can’t speak … they’re like, ‘it’s cool’ because they really connect with us on a non-verbal way.”

Credit: Byron Reed

Chase eventually became an admission clinical liaison and patient and family education coordinator for 25 years at Craig hospital. That’s where she said she made a real connection with patients who were going through the same emotions she was going through 35 years ago.

After she got injured, Terry went back to school to become a nurse at the University of Colorado College of Nursing. She also earned her doctorate in nursing in1996 at CU Nursing and became an associate professor of nursing at Colorado Mesa University. In 2010, she started her training in equine-assisted learning and has been helping others for the past 13 years.

Recently, she was in Denver treating Craig Hospital spinal and brain injury patients at the Temple Grandin Equine Center. She said there, the horses give them the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone.

Credit: Byron Reed

“We can stay in a comfort zone, and it's very cushy and easy,” Chase said. “But to bring them here, we partner with the horses, they help us move forward.”

Chase said the horses helped with her mental health and wants to help other patients with the same therapy. She created equine-assisted learning programs for patients, adults and children with disabilities, along with health-care workers.

Credit: Byron Reed

“Having a disability can be very isolating and very lonely, so being with the horses, I knew that I would be accepted,” Chase said. “The world can be a scary place, and so by inviting the patients to this experience in this environment, it gives them a little bit of an edge up on developing those inner skills that are so important for success out in the world.”

Aeriel Schaaf, 15, is one of the patients who participated in an equine-assisted therapy session in Denver.

She was in a single-vehicle rollover accident that threw her through a window. Her mom, Jessica, said Aeriel had hematoma on the front right of her frontal lobe and they removed part of her brain in that spot. She had a fracture in the back of her head and then one in the center of her head going out toward her ears.

Credit: Byron Reed
15-year-old Craig Hospital patient Aeriel Schaaf.

“Her prognosis when they brought her in was, ‘We did not know if she was going to make it from the accident site to the trauma center’ and just every day after that,” Jessica said. “She has been a miracle the whole way … from point A to point B, right here.”

Jessica said her daughter was into horses before the accident, and she’s happy to see Aeriel back with her passion.

“She loves to rodeo, horses are her life, and we have this opportunity to do this today where she can come out and work with a horse,” Jessica said. “I think just her being here and meeting the doctor and seeing that you can do something else with your passion and share it with others.”

Credit: Byron Reed

Chase has been involved in the health and wellness field for more than 30 years as an educator, rehabilitation nurse, psychotherapist and program developer. 

She now does her own consulting work and still enjoys tennis, kayaking, water skiing, cross-country-skiing, bicycling and horseback riding all with specialized equipment.

She said her best hope for her patients is to make a connection so they can facilitate growth.

Credit: Byron Reed

“I want them to move away from here, whether its walking, in a wheelchair, or a combination of both, knowing that they’ve stretched their comfort zone just a little bit more,” Chase said. “I knew I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know it was going to be exactly this, [and] I’m just so thankful for the ability to continue to give back because that’s a big point in my life.”

Click here for more information about Dr. Terry Chase.

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