There’s a blanket in Autumn Zundel’s room adorned with images of all of the show steers, hogs and horses that she paraded into the show ring over the years.
And she looks at it every day.
While the 13-year-old remains in rehabilitation and continues to battle back from a life-threatening experience, the blanket is a reminder of what she’s fighting for.
“It’s a piece of optimism,” said Autumn’s aunt, Rene Zundel. “She wants to get back into that show ring. She wants to get home and see those animals. That’s what’s driving her.”
Two months ago, the Westmoreland County teenager was fighting for her life after going into hemorrhagic shock and cardiac arrest during surgery to remove a mediastinal mass from her chest.
The complications from the Jan. 15 surgery left Zundel unable to walk, talk and even see clearly. At the time, it was unknown if Zundel would ever be able to reclaim aspects of her normal life — the one that centered on her family farm, showing livestock and a passion for riding horses.
But, every day, components of the child the family thought might be lost are starting to return.
“She’s walking and talking. She’s up and alert,” Rene said. “That’s more than we could ask for.”
And its proof that the same competitiveness that Autumn exhibited in the show ring is replicated in her recovery.
While Autumn is still unsteady on her feet, Rene said she worked for three weeks to learn how to walk again. Autumn is still at risk of falling, but the family has taken her on short trips to the store and a museum without incident.
And Autumn is motivated to do more.
“She’s still trying to make her legs work, but we’re so thrilled with what she’s been able to do,” Rene said. “She was in a wheelchair, no control over movement and couldn’t speak. Five weeks ago she couldn’t get out of bed herself. Now she can.”
Rene believes as Autumn’s vision improves, her ability to walk will also progress. After the surgery, Autumn was diagnosed with cortical visual impairment, which limited her field of view. While Autumn can see straight ahead and peripherally, she can’t see down, which prohibits her from walking by herself, Rene said.
“The vision has been slow to come back, but it is better,” she said.
There isn’t a defined timetable for Autumn’s rehabilitation and recovery, and she still hasn’t returned home, but Rene said her niece remains optimistic even though it’s inevitable that frustration will arise.
While the small steps of progress do appear constantly, challenges continue to surface.
“She has no idea what she went through, and she’s starting to ask a lot of questions,” Rene said. “The other day she asked the therapist why her right arm was strong before the surgery, but now it’s really weak? She knows it’s one more thing to get past, and she isn’t afraid to keep pushing her progress.”
And there are many people pushing for Autumn, as well.
Shortly after the surgery, fundraisers were set up around Autumn’s hometown of New Alexandria and beyond. The livestock community across the state and nationally rallied behind Autumn, holding benefit sales and events. A Facebook page (“Autumn’s Army”) and GoFundMe page were established, more benefits are scheduled, and the family set up a post office box (P.O. Box 242, Crabtree, Pennsylvania 15642, c/o Autumn’s Army) to accommodate the outpouring of cards and donations.
Rene said it’s not uncommon to receive 25 cards a day, and Autumn is aware of the support.
“She looks through the Facebook posts and the cards, and she plans on attending the upcoming benefits. It does drive her to want to get better,” Rene said. “She loves getting cards and she’s excited that all of these people in the livestock communities are pulling for her.”
While Autumn’s recovery centers on her ability to walk, talk and see, there is hope that she’ll also regain the other elements of her normal life that revolved around animals.
Due to the risk of falling, Rene said, there is a chance that Autumn might not ride a horse again, but everything else is a possibility.
And that includes returning home and one day competing in the show ring again.
“For us, there isn’t a ‘never.’ Whatever she sets her mind to, it will be accomplished,” Rene said. “Hopefully, one day she’ll return to the Autumn we all once knew.”