by Mike Henry

bryce and ian

Bryce and his father, trainer Ian Alderson, have been at the track numerous times since his release from the hospital (courtesy SV Photography)

His head is still swathed in bandages, a reminder of how close jockey Bryce Alderson came to losing his life during a race at Tampa Bay Downs on Dec. 21.

But his boyish smile and optimistic attitude are sure signs the 25-year-old Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada resident is eager to move on with a life he expects will involve working with Thoroughbreds in some capacity.

“I’ve still got a lot of recovery ahead before I decide what I’m going to do,” said Bryce, who suffered a traumatic brain injury and numerous facial fractures when he was trampled by a trailing horse after his own mount clipped heels and fell, throwing him to the turf in a maiden claiming race (his horse was not hurt).

“It’s a lot to think about, and I definitely will miss it if I decide not to ride. I grew up on the racetrack, and I don’t see myself not being around it. I can always get a trainer’s license if being a jockey again doesn’t work out.

“I wish my spill had never happened, but it’s part of the game. When you’re a jockey, it’s not a matter of if you’re going to get hurt, but when and how bad. We’re riding 1,200-pound animals around in a circle, and we’ve got an ambulance chasing us every step of the way. It’s a dangerous sport, but you know that going into it, and you choose to take that chance.

“I’d love to ride right now, but I have to heal first. We’re in no rush.

“We’re doing good. We got lucky.”

Bryce and his father, Thoroughbred trainer Ian Alderson, plan to drive from Tampa to Fort Erie this weekend, where Bryce will be reunited with his girlfriend Caitlin Benner and the couple’s 4-year-old daughter, Chloe. It is a homecoming that seems beyond incredible, given the severity of his injuries.

Both the elder Alderson and Caitlin flew here the night of Bryce’s accident to be with him at St. Joseph’s Hospital. His father has remained here since, while Caitlin spent two weeks at his bedside before returning home to spend a few days with Chloe, after which she hopped on another flight back to Tampa.

Following Bryce’s release from the hospital on Jan. 25, Caitlin went back to Fort Erie, packed up her car and drove back with Chloe because she was unsure how her daughter would handle the stress of flying.

When Caitlin and Chloe arrived at the InTown Suites in Tampa, where Bryce and his father have been staying, their world again seemed whole.

caitlin chloe and bryce

Caitlin, Chloe and Bryce, shown last summer in Toronto, will be together again soon (courtesy Caitlin Benner)

“Chloe’s face beamed like a set of lights,” Bryce said. “We had seen each other and talked through video, but that’s not the same as face to face.

“I hadn’t seen her in almost two months, and she couldn’t really comprehend how bad I got hurt. She started crying because she was so happy to see me, and it just warmed my heart.”

To the couple, Chloe’s tears were a sign she understood how blessed they are that Bryce is well on the road to a full recovery. “It felt like we were back to being a family,” Caitlin said last week from their home in Fort Erie. “She was so excited and happy to see him, and I was thrilled to see them be connected the way they were before.”

The family celebrated Chloe’s fourth birthday together on Feb. 17, a milestone they will always cherish.

“Bryce is back to being himself, and I think what happened has given him an even better outlook on life,” Caitlin said. “I think, to some extent, we didn’t really take the time to cherish some things and the great family and friends that we have, and he’s been given another chance at making the days matter.”

Ian Alderson was watching the races from home in Fort Erie when Bryce was injured. He arrived at his son’s bedside shortly before midnight. “I had prepared myself for the worst, but I still almost hit the floor when I saw his face,” Ian said. “It was unbelievable.”

The impact from the trailing horse’s hoof cracked and bent Bryce’s safety helmet. His nose, jaw and cheekbones were broken, and his left eye was partially detached from the socket.

For Ian, who had his own promising career as a jockey cut short 25 years earlier when he shattered two vertebrae in a training accident at age 19, it was not a question of whether Bryce could ride again, but survival.

“His head and face took the full brunt of the impact from the (trailing) horse,” Ian said. “I’ve heard from different people that when he was loaded into the ambulance, nobody expected him to make it to the hospital.”

Neurosurgeon Dr. Juan Valdivia-Valdivia quickly assessed Bryce’s injuries as life-threatening. “He had traumatic injuries to his face, his eye and his forehead and significant swelling of the brain on the right side, as well as some degree of hemorrhaging of the brain on the right side,” Dr. Valdivia-Valdivia said.

“Initially he was confused but awake, but then he started getting more somnolent. At that point, we decided to take pressure off the brain itself to prevent massive swelling, which leads to death.”

Within 36 hours of Bryce’s accident, Dr. Valdivia-Valdivia performed a hemi-craniectomy, which involved removing a portion of the skull (referred to as a bone flap) about 10 centimeters in diameter to allow the brain to swell naturally outside the limits of the skull.

The bone flap was inserted beneath the skin of Bryce’s abdomen for safekeeping and future reattachment. The operation is not unusual when dealing with such injuries, but Dr. Valdivia-Valdivia said it was crucial in Bryce’s case to intervene quickly.

“I think he was close (to dying) before the surgery. He was almost comatose, and when patients are going in that direction, we need to intervene aggressively because the window becomes very narrow,” Dr. Valdivia-Valdivia said.

The surgery went as well as anyone could hope. “Once the pressure was released, the brain had more room to swell, and that saved his life,” Dr. Valdivia-Valdivia said.

Bryce remained heavily sedated and hooked up to a ventilator for several days after the operation while his blood pressure and other vital signs were monitored around the clock. About 72 hours after the surgery, he began to return to a conscious state, breathing on his own, responding to commands and trying to remove his tubes and get out of bed.

“When we see those signs of the patient becoming purposeful, that’s when we know they are going in the right direction,” Dr. Valdivia-Valdivia said.

A couple of weeks after the hemi-craniectomy, Bryce underwent plastic surgery to repair his jaw, cheekbones and nasal passages. A wire-mesh device was implanted that, as he puts it, “is what holds my face together,” helping the bones to fully heal.

Then, last week, the bone flap was removed from his stomach and reattached successfully to his skull using titanium plates and screws, restoring Bryce’s head to its normal shape. It was the final major step in preparing him to return home to Caitlin and Chloe.

The headaches he had resigned himself to have decreased in quantity and intensity as he returns to the normal level of discovery and wonderment most 25-year-olds take for granted.

“He is almost back to (normal), based on my interactions with him,” Dr. Valdivia-Valdivia said last week. “Parts of his memory might not be 100 percent yet; maybe 90 percent. He’s making jokes, smiling and, according to his dad, he’s almost himself again in terms of his behavior and personality, which is remarkable.”

The response from both the Tampa Bay Downs racing community, friends and complete strangers was nearly overwhelming. Caitlin started an online “GoFundMe” campaign, which raised more than $13,000 to cover Bryce’s medical and living expenses. Tampa Bay Downs paid Ian and Caitlin’s hotel expenses during his hospital stay and provided them a Uber card to cover traveling costs. Members of the Oldsmar jockey colony also chipped in, and several riders visited him during his hospital stay.

The Aldersons also received help and encouragement from Tampa Bay Downs Security Director Deanna Nicol and chaplain Donald Stover. “Deanna helped us with our insurance and everything we needed when we started coming back to the track to watch the races,” Ian said. “Donald was at the hospital almost every day to see Bryce and pray with him. We can’t thank them enough.”

 “The prayers and support we’ve received the last couple of months have been huge,” Caitlin said. “It’s helped us to stay strong because we know we aren’t going through this on our own.”

Residents of the jockeys’ room form a unique brotherhood, since every rider knows the inherent risks they face on a daily basis. They accept the danger as a tradeoff for the thrill of piloting a horse to the wire in front of their competition.

“We’re just adrenaline junkies,” said jockey Gary Wales. “We’re trying to get an opportunity to make a lot of money, and we’re trying to live our dream and be successful. You can’t really think about the danger, because if you think about it, you’ll make yourself scared, and then you’re only going to get yourself or someone else hurt. I think the risk is actually part of getting addicted to it, because it is dangerous and it gets the juices flowing.”

Yet Wales, who was hospitalized after fracturing his L2 vertebra in a 2013 spill that sidelined him for six weeks, acknowledged it took a little time after his return to have the same self-assurance a jockey needs to be at their best.

“For me, when I got hurt, the first couple of races I was a little wary, but then you get over it,” Wales said.

Bryce’s accident happened in the fourth race of a 10-race card, and the mood throughout the rest of the day was understandably somber in the room. The accident probably also increased each rider’s awareness that anything can happen at any time, Wales said.

“You do get to thinking you want to try to ride a little safer, or I did, anyway,” he said. “After something like that happens, you try to make sure you give whoever is inside of you a better shot, or maybe you don’t ride so aggressively.”

Although Bryce had not ridden much at Tampa Bay Downs the last three seasons, he was well-respected as a hard-working, dedicated professional who believed he was a few good horses away from climbing the ladder of success. He had always worked toward becoming a jockey, or at least from the time he was 10 and helped his father feed the horses on their trips to the Fort Erie backside.

“As long as he’s in a race, he believes he has a shot,” said jockey Geovany Garcia. “That’s the way he thinks. He’s a smart rider who will put a horse in the right position and make the right move at the right time. He’s someone the other riders can trust – you know he’s going to be there for you if you need help.”

Garcia began spending time with Bryce when he and his dad started coming to Tampa Bay Downs again in early February. Bryce wore a bicycle helmet to protect his head, which was concave-shaped on one side after the removal of the bone flap.

Garcia was uplifted by Bryce’s positive outlook. “He was still joking around the way he used to. He has been able to accept what happened to him and still be the same person he was before.”

Although Bryce never considered himself especially religious before the accident, he says it has refocused his path toward being a stronger, more loving partner and father. “God has helped me out a lot, and He will always be there to help me. He obviously wants me to be part of Chloe’s life and Caitlin’s and my father’s lives,” he said.

“I’ve been blessed to have a second chance at whatever I’m going to do. He’s given me a great chance at it,” Bryce added. “Obviously it was a bad way to happen, because I went down harder than most. But we’ve been lucky. My doctors have done a great job and I’ve made a fabulous recovery.”

In an age where hemi-craniectomies, titanium plates and wire-mesh implants designed to help repair multiple fractures are no longer that unusual, it was surprising to hear Dr. Valdivia-Valdivia describe Bryce’s recovery as ‘almost a miracle” during a recent telephone conversation – an opinion he did not retreat from in a face-to-face interview.

“When I say it was a miracle, I mean I was quite surprised he was able to do so well after such a severe injury to the brain,” Dr. Valdivia-Valdivia said. “Medically speaking, when patients come to us with such a severe injury, the window we have to intervene aggressively and have a good recovery is very narrow. But when we do intervene aggressively, patients can return to almost normal functions.

“So it was very good that we intervened aggressively. That said, I am a believer, and I believe in divine intervention. I think there is a purpose of everything, and the purpose of him being saved is he has a little daughter, he has a family, and now he gets to go back with them. His daughter is going to have a dad, and that’s huge. As doctors, we are instruments of the guy up there. He’s the one who fixes things, and that was His wish.”

Agree or not, anyone who saw Bryce Alderson lying motionless on the Oldsmar turf course on Dec. 21, his face covered with blood, can’t help but shake their heads and struggle to find the words to describe where he is at now.

Bryce knows it will be at least a year before he can even consider riding again, and it seems a long shot to most people familiar with his circumstances. Another fall could cause the bone flap to become detached from his skull, which could have disastrous results. He has no way to know whether his balance or timing, or even his nerve, will return full force.

When he gets home, Bryce will visit a neurosurgeon and an ear, nose and throat specialist for ongoing exams; he still is experiencing periodic ringing in his right ear and nosebleeds.

But he is willing to accept whatever his future holds, especially since it has returned to its former brightness.

“Riding racehorses is such a rush. Just doing it pushes you to try even harder so you can get better at it and keep going,” he said. “But I really don’t remember anything from the accident until January 12, so I know how lucky I am just to be able to think about what I’m going to do next.”

Caitlin, herself a groom for trainer Steven Cathcart, says being part of the racetrack environment since childhood has given Bryce an abundance of character that will serve him well in any endeavor.

“He’s a strong individual who doesn’t give up. He’s a fighter,” she said. “We saw that through his recovery, even in the toughest times. His strength helped him pull through, and it’s good to see him smiling again.”