No Time for Negative Thinkers
Story by Karen Brown

Sam Madden may be blind, but she sees better than most. When most of us ponder the future, we either can’t see past lunch, or we ignore today’s opportunities to worry about tomorrow. But, this gutsy lady hasn’t got time to waste on lunch breaks or on fretting about what will happen later. She’s too busy making every moment count. “Since going blind from diabetes, I know that everything about today’s plans may change tomorrow.”

Now 43, Sam had owned horses at various times in her life when she was able to afford them, starting as a 13 year old baby-sitting, grass cutting, house cleaning, fence painting, stall mucking, newspaper delivery girl, who made the choice early on to make her dreams happen. As with many of us, adult life led Sam away from the barn, but after going blind at 30, she had an opportunity to visit Camelot Therapeutic Horsemanship, a facility that focuses on independence in all aspects of horse care for the physically disabled.

During her visits Sam cleaned tack, mucked stalls, groomed and bathed horses, and even tacked up the horses. She began riding again and regained her natural seat acquired during her bareback riding days as a teenager. Sam’s renewed passion for horses led her to riding at other facilities where she grew even bolder. It wasn’t long before Sam had mastered the flying dismount, jumping fences, and flying lead changes, bareback as well as with a saddle.

“When I began losing my vision, I didn’t want anyone to know. I refused to use a cane, but I could barely see. One time I walked face-first into an elevator door at my doctor’s office. The guy standing waiting for the elevator thought I was on drugs,” Sam recalls.

“The biggest frustration was my loss of independence. It was overwhelming at first. How was I supposed to do grocery shopping? Read my mail? Pay bills? Do laundry? Test my blood sugar? Give myself insulin injections? Clean my cat’s litter box? Plug things in without getting electrocuted? Know if the colors I was wearing matched? Put toothpaste on a toothbrush? I was depressed at first, then I got pissed - at myself for allowing my blindness to control my life.”

“Taking the bus to my doctor appointments was an all-day affair. One time the bus driver let me off at a bus stop under construction. I walked out of the bus straight into scaffolding and cut my face. Another time the bus driver overshot my stop in the pouring rain, and I had to negotiate my way back across an undetermined number of flooded streets.”
Help sometimes appeared from unexpected sources. “There was the time I was walking with my cane from the doctor’s office to go back home. A homeless woman saw I was having trouble and let me hold onto the shopping cart full of all her worldly possessions to guide me to the bus stop.”

Sam’s first clue that her life would take a different road was at age 17 when she learned she was diabetic. A serious disease, but manageable. Getting into the habit of testing her blood sugar four times a day and eating to maintain sugar levels wasn’t too high on the priority list for this indestructible young woman. She was more frustrated at missing her first mock hunt ride because she was in the hospital. Glycemic control was not very precise when Sam was first diagnosed with diabetes; since then, home blood testing has made it much easier to check sugar levels and keep the body stabilized.

During those first years, however, the diabetes had wrought its damage. Sam was living in southern California working as an executive assistant in the entertainment industry when she first began to lose her sight at 28. It wasn’t long before she was forced to give up her job because she could no longer see the computer screen. Two years and six eye surgeries later, Sam was completely blind.

She lived in a studio apartment in a not-so-great neighborhood in Los Angeles very near Braille Institute where she went to learn skills for blind living. “If I were sighted, I could have walked to Braille in about 15 minutes. But my first day on my own, I wandered around my neighborhood for two hours just trying to find the bus stop. No one I asked for help spoke English. I can’t begin to tell you the feeling of accomplishment I had when I finally made it to Braille Institute... two hours late.”

Her most valuable experience at the Institute was in socializing with other blind people. Through them she began to adapt and cope with the curve life had thrown her. She joined a volunteer “doo-wop” group of talented blind musicians and singers who performed at convalescent homes. These fellow performers were living examples of independence, productivity, and adaptability.

“I started to change my way of thinking about things from, ‘I can’t do this,’ to ‘How CAN I do this?’”

Living in California was expensive, so Sam moved to Phoenix, AZ, in January of 1992, just before her thirty-first birthday. There, she attended vocational school to learn medical transcription. Now she spends her days at the computer, fingers racing at 100 words per minute. “My computer has sophisticated screen-reading software that reads all text on the screen. I use keystrokes to simulate mouse functions, and I ‘proof listen’ to my work when I’m done. In fact, I have to listen to several things at once. My computer talks to me from one speaker, and the doctors’ dictation comes to me via the internet over another speaker when I do my work. Most people find the speed of my computer voice too fast to understand. I’ve learned to ‘speed listen’ to get more work done in a day. And I’ve learned to hear the difference among the words: to, too, and two; but if I can’t understand a word, I can have the computer spell it to me.”

“You know, being blind has become so commonplace for me that I don’t stop to think that people would marvel knowing I put my toothpaste on my finger and then put it in my mouth because I can’t find the toothbrush very well to put it on there. I do everything with my hands. I still say, ‘Let me see that,’ but I hold out my hands to feel it. And I still ‘watch’ TV. . .with my ears.”

Due to diabetic complications, Sam’s kidneys were no longer functioning. She was placed on the list for a kidney transplant, but in the meantime she spent a great deal of her time connected to a dialysis machine. Three times a week, four hours each day, for 8 months until the tragic day a teenage boy lost his life after being hit by a car while riding his bike. Sam got a new kidney at age 33. This life saving gift inspired Sam to volunteer with the Donor Network of Arizona Speakers Bureau, a network dedicated to promote the need for organ donations.

Not long after getting back in the saddle at Camelot, Sam heard about the Ms. Country Western Arizona Pageant on the radio. “Spurred on by a blind friend accusing me of having lost my spunk, I decided to enter. You know - poise, personality, and experience shoveling horse manure! I was a runner-up the first year and won the title two years later at age 36. A member of the Air Force Honor Guard escorted me down the runway for the modeling competitions, and my speech actually made two judges cry.”

After winning the title, Sam leased a fabulous little Pinto/Paint gelding, Kenos Tomy Tutone. “When I first got Tomy, I didn’t feel comfortable riding unless someone was with me. Volunteers weren’t exactly lining up to come to the stable with me. I was mad at THEM but finally decided to take responsibility for my own happiness. Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.’”

So Sam found Dial-a-Ride, an organization that provides transportation to the disabled. Once at the stable, Sam fumbled her way around to find Tomy’s stall, lead him to the hitching post, groom and tack him up. Then, she had to navigate their way to the arena using her cane for guidance, mount up and ride - without anyone’s help.

During her reign as Ms. Country Western Arizona, Sam and Tomy made numerous public appearances at rodeos and parades. “I always had someone walking on the ground in parades in case of the unforeseen. In the chaos of grand entries I’d follow the voice of the person in front of me or would be ponied by another horse. In hot laps, where I raced around the arena sort of like a victory lap, I had someone direct me with a two-way radio.”

When Sam was 37, she met a very special man. Ralph Carr won’t tell if it was love at first sight, but within days of the first date (riding horses), they knew they were meant to be together; but neither Sam or Ralph guessed he would become so much more than her boyfriend. A gifted horseman in his own right, it was horses that brought them together. “I met Ralph through a personals ad I placed in a local horse publication.”

After her stint as Ms. Country Western Arizona, Sam had decided her next challenge was to take up showing. “As I geared up for the show ring, our personal relationship blossomed into Ralph becoming my coach on the two-way radios in horse shows - not to mention my boot shine boy and maid, my tack repairman and tailor, my groom and braider, my chauffeur and cheering section. Whatever goal I choose, Ralph backs me 100 percent and finds a way to make it possible.”

Sam says, “Ralph is the true Renaissance Man. This horseman is an awesome braider and is not too macho to wear boots and breeches, although he prefers cowboy boots and chaps.” With Ralph at her side, she hit the show circuit with Tomy. The duo went on to win the title of high point year-end champion on three local show circuits the next year, both English and western, and won ribbons at the Pinto National Championships in Tulsa.

“It was always difficult being diabetic and showing because my life was regimented by testing my blood sugar four times a day, taking four shots a day, and having to eat at specific times so my blood sugar didn’t get too low.” Just as he is observant of the subtle body language of horses, Ralph could quickly detect a drop in Sam’s blood sugar. “I would drop my left shoulder and tilt my head to the right, and he’d give me something to eat as soon as possible,” remembers Sam.
The diabetes was still in control of her body. She was now on the list for another transplant, this time for a pancreas which would put an end to the diabetes for good. “Over the years I had bad reactions to insulin injections all the time, and I was sure I was going to die from one – it was just a matter of when. My friend Anne, who sat next to me at dialysis, died from an insulin reaction in her sleep. So I knew that going through with the pancreas transplant was the right decision. . .if I could just make it until my name came up on the list. Anne had been on the list.”

Sam has had a rough road to travel yet she has come through with her enthusiasm and will intact. She is the embodiment of grit, spunk, and an effervescent joy in life itself. “My humor gets me through many problems.” One manifestation of Sam’s humorous nature is to catch people off guard with tongue in cheek remarks that reference visual input to see how long it takes the listener to realize she can’t see what she’s talking about. Sam laughs, “For example, I might say, ‘Your shoelace is untied’, or ‘He looks off on the left hind’ to someone longing their horse.” Ralph, shares her penchant for droll wit in the face of unpredictable situations. Once while standing in line at the grocery, Sam took the arm of the man standing next to her, as she is in the habit of holding Ralph’s arm for guidance. Before the man could react, Ralph turned to Sam and said, “No, Sam. You can’t take him home with us.”

With such a good show experience with Tomy, Sam was ready to purchase a horse of her own. Against her trainer’s advice she bought Zoe (Sugarplum Vision), a very green 3-year-old Pinto/Paint mare. Zoe and Sam stunned all naysayers by competing and winning enough for Zoe to earn her Pinto Registers of Merit in Hunter Under Saddle and English Pleasure, only eighteen months after their first ride together.

Yet another medical twist was destined to alter Sam’s life once again. She developed a blood clotting disorder that requires her to take blood-thinning medication. Due to the extremely high risk of bleeding to death from the smallest cut or bump on the head, Sam’s doctor insisted that she give up her active life with horses.

“The best way to motivate me to do something is to tell me I can’t do it!” Sam exclaimed. Not willing to give up the sweet aroma of horse sweat and manure, Sam convinced her doctor that she would be extra vigilant in her riding pursuits. For her, that meant giving up jumping for the dressage ring, where she could ride in competition where only one horse is in the ring at any time. And so, Zoe began a new career in dressage along with Sam.

Sam had made an important choice many years ago that has held her true to course throughout the trials diabetes has presented. She puts it this way, “You are responsible, not for what happens to you, but for what you decide to do with what happens to you. Life is choices and every person makes their own choices.”

You can read the second part to Sam Madden’s inspirational story by clicking here.

Thanks to Sam Madden and Ralph Carr for working with Karen Brown on this article.

You can reach Karen Brown at Solitaire Ranch in Bandera at 830-796-4764.

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