by Kathleen Adams
Only a few feet separated Yvonne Azeff from the comfort of her seat to the podium where she was supposed to give her speech. But taking those steps was one of the most difficult things the 41-year-old has ever done.
After spending 27 days in coma and undergoing 19 weeks of outpatient physical, occupational, and speech therapies, Azeff was finally ready to announce that she is ready to resume her duties as assistant trainer to John Ward Jr.
Azeff moved stiffly and slowly as she approached the podium at Louisville's Frazier Rehab Institute's Neuro rehab facility Oct. 17. Surrounded by recovery team members and Kentucky Derby-winning trainer John Ward, she said she will go back to work at the barn on a limited basis for the remainder of the fall. By winter, when Ward moves his operation from Kentucky to Florida, Azeff expects to once again be working full-time.
Last January, Azeff suffered a severe brain injury after she was thrown from a lead pony at Gulfstream Park. She was not wearing a safety helmet. Immediately after the accident, Azeff, who helped condition 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, could barely speak, and though she had some feeling in her arms and legs, they were all but useless.
"It would be foolish of me say I'm the same as I was before the accident," Azeff said. "The injury has changed me. I had to learn how to walk, talk, and breathe again."
Dr. Karen Bloom, Azeff's attending physiatrist, said when the assistant trainer arrived at Frazier, she was experiencing symptoms common to patients suffering a brain injury. "She had a lot of problems with dizziness, center of balance, and visual perception," Bloom said.
But Bloom said she is amazed how quickly Azeff is recovering.
"Her sheer will and determination have been crucial in her recovery process," the doctor said. "She came into my office with a walker. She's now driving and walking without a walker. Yvonne will probably still have some problems with memory and center of balance, but she will be able to perform 80% of her job duties."
One thing Azeff won't be able to do is gallop horses. With a touch of sadness in her voice, Azeff admitted she will miss being on the back of a racehorse. "But I've come a long way in nine months, and I'm not done yet," she said.
A horse may have caused her accident, but Azeff credits horses with giving her the inner strength to get past her life-changing ordeal.
"When I was in the hospital and woke up from the coma, there were pictures of the horses all around my room and I saw a picture of myself galloping Monarchos a few days before the Derby," she said. "I thought, 'I will do that again.' "
And without the support of her mentors, John and Donna Ward, Azeff said she wouldn't be going back to the racetrack. "I haven't had to worry about anything," she said. "I've only had to worry about getting better."
Azeff said the accident has forced her to slow down and examine life more closely. She has also developed a new appreciation for others and as a result, wanted to thank another group of people who aided in her recovery: fellow racetrackers.
"They've called me just to say hello and let me know they haven't forgotten me," Azeff said. "They've taken me to out to the track. People make fun of racetrackers, but they take care of their own."