Jenna Goldman ‘18
Lia-Michelle Keane ‘18
August 26, 2017 was a picturesque summer day. Dean Sarah Davies was out for a ride with friends, trotting with her horse, Claudia. A barn and rolling hills served as the backdrop for a routine, leisurely ride before the bustle of the fall semester began.
Davies, who started riding at the age of nine, is an accomplished equestrian. Beginning when she her horse a year and a half ago, she rode four to five times per week. Earlier this summer, Davies and Claudia took home two blue ribbons in shows, and two days before the accident she signed up for another competition in cross-country jumping.
“She is part draft horse so she looks big and stocky, but she is so light on her feet,” said Davies.
The horses were grazing in a field adjacent to the dressage and jumping arenas when Davies signaled for her horse to lift her head up from the grass. Then, out of nowhere, her normally docile horse took off at a bucking gallop. Claudia took the bit in her teeth so Davies had no control to stop her from tearing across the field and leaping the barrier around the dressage ring as she galloped towards the nearby barn.
Luckily, Davies’s years of training took over. She stood up in the stirrups and leaned over her horse like a jockey, desperate to remain on the animal.
“I remember thinking, if I let go, I will fall and I will die.”
As the horse ran full speed toward the barn, Claudia suddenly made a sharp left, and the saddle slipped to the right, causing Davies to fall to the ground.
“I don’t remember falling,” Davies said. “My friends followed behind me, one of them called 911 while chasing me at a full gallop.” Davies was unconscious for two to three minutes before coming to.
She spent the next week in intensive care with a broken clavicle, scapula, seven broken ribs on her right side and a broken tibia plateau (her knee) on her left side. In all, she broke ten bones and sustained a concussion and temporary nerve damage to her right hand.
“It could have been so much worse,” said Davies, “Because of the strength I built up from riding intensively for the last year and a half, I was able to hold on [to the horse] for much longer than I would have if I didn’t have the strength.”
Davies quickly went into surgery to place a titanium plate in her clavicle. “I’m a million dollar woman!” she joked as she discussed the procedure.
After recovering in a rehabilitation hospital for two weeks and at home for four weeks, Davies returned to the Law School. The day before this interview, nine and a half weeks after the accident, Dean Davies was finally cleared to walk without crutches.
When asked whether she will ever get back on the horse, she replied, “Right now, I don’t know.” Davies still has about a year’s worth of recovery left on her knee alone before she will be able to withstand the physical demands of riding.
“Then there is the mental aspect.” Throughout her life as an equestrian, Davies dreaded losing control of a galloping horse. “My biggest fear was realized, and that will be a big mental hurdle for me to overcome.”
There is also the anger and frustration that came with such a devastating injury. “I’m mad at my horse. It is totally irrational, but I feel like she took away something I love,” Davies said emotionally. “Riding was a place I could go to decompress—I am always a ‘future thinker’—and riding helped me stay present.”
Davies applauded the help and support she received from her colleagues. “Lisa and Kate have been tremendous in handling my workload while I was recovering.” Lisa Napier and Kate Duvall kept Davies informed of school happenings, but relieved her of the stress of the day-to-day administration of the office.
“I am so thankful the Law School let us hire Kate. It was so important to have an office that can be fully functional even if one of us is absent,” Davies continued, praising Duvall for seamlessly taking over many aspects of Student Affairs during Davies’s recovery.
Initially, Davies underestimated the amount of time she would need to recover. She said with a laugh, “I called Lisa and said ‘I will be back in the office in two weeks.’”
While describing her experience in the hospital and later in rehab, Davies said, “It was hard to disconnect. I wanted to be there to welcome the incoming first years and be there for my 2L and 3L students.”
“I’m impatient to be better—it’s hard to let other people take care of you when you are usually the one taking care of others.” This is a lesson she hopes to impart to her students: “Many lawyers are not comfortable asking for help, but it is the healthiest thing to do. There is no shame in asking for help.”
That, and to be careful out there: “Three weeks before my accident, my husband totaled his motorcycle. In both of our accidents, we were wearing helmets, and they saved our lives. You can’t plan for such traumatic events.”
“It’s great to be back,” Davies said with a smile. “The doctor cleared me to start going back part-time on a Friday and I was at the Law School the following Monday.”
As positive as Davies remains about being back, recovering from the concussion made going back to work difficult. Even the half days were exhausting: “As soon as I got home I would sleep for the rest of the day. I now feel so much experiential empathy for students with concussions.”
As shocking as the accident was, Davies saw the silver lining in the experience: “When awful things happen, it’s okay to say they are awful—but you need to find what is joyous and good. I forced myself to find things to be grateful for and it helped me through the toughest points in my recovery.”
Davies was appreciative of the outpouring of love and support she received from the UVa Law community. She read each card, email, and banner she received while in the hospital and at home. “At UVa Law we really do look out for one another.”
Dean Davies is slowly but surely marching back to her active self, and encourages all students to stop by her office to introduce themselves or to just say hello!