“It’s ability not disability that counts”
Authors: Leslie Herbst
Publication date: 28 7 2012
Leslie Herbst talks to the Paralympian and anaesthetist Angelika Trabert
Biography—Dysmelia caused Angelika Trabert to be born without legs and with only three fingers on her right hand. She is one of the most successful dressage riders in disabled sports. She has competed at international level since 1991 and won at the Paralympics, World, and European Championships. Her medal collection comprises 14 silver and three gold medals. She is also a qualified trainer and anaesthetist who works two days a week in a day clinic in Höchst, Frankfurt, and three days in urban clinics in Offenbach, Germany.
What attracted you to a career in medicine?
My passion for horses and big animals attracted me to veterinary medicine. I looked into the options available to me, but the prospect of working with small animals didn’t appeal. Human medicine seemed a great alternative because it offered such variety and opportunities. Straight after secondary school, I studied medicine. A friend of mine worked as an anaesthetist in the same hospital I was working in, and one day I sat in with her and thought this is what I’d like to do.
When and how did you begin horse riding?
My passion for horses began at the age of 6. Like every little girl, I was eager to take up the reins to ride. My parents assumed I’d quickly lose interest in riding and put me on the back of a pony. Finding a way for me to ride was difficult because my parents had to find special insurance, a sensitive horse, and a teacher. Once all these were sorted out, I started hippotherapy (physiotherapy on a horse) and also took riding lessons on different horses.
Has your riding style changed since you first started?
I suppose I was always determined to blend in, which is why I wore my prosthesis when I first started riding. Then in 1985, during my first visit to the United States, my riding style and experience changed completely. I met a young girl who had lost one leg to cancer. She rode horses without a prosthesis and encouraged me to do the same.
How do you balance your riding career with your medical career?
It’s a tricky one. I constantly need to prioritise. My PhD took me longer than normal because I had to defer exams that clashed with the European Championships and Paralympics. Now, things have shifted slightly, and I am approaching a phase in my life where the riding is more intense. My local trainer and I are working on “Project London 2012.” Support from him and my stable team is indispensible in maintaining the balance.
Have you ever faced discrimination from patients because of your disability?
Patients tend to focus on themselves and don’t touch on my disability. Working as an anaesthetist means you get to know people in exceptional situations, and patients usually have major surgeries ahead of them. I have never had any problems, other than perhaps patients asking me why I was walking differently as that’s as much as they can ascertain.
Professional horse riding and your job as an anaesthetist are very competitive: what guidance can you give medical students who constantly face rivalry?
I think you need to know what you want and also stand up for yourself. If I don’t give my horse clear instructions as to what I want it to do, it simply won’t react. The same applies for medicine. Ultimately, it’s all about performance—that’s how you convince people and win them over. Some days you might not be at your best, and then it’s difficult to argue conclusively or come up with the smartest solution, but that’s only human.
Looking back at your career in sports and medicine, what advice do you have for readers who may want to follow your example?
You can only be successful in a competitive career such as medicine if you are balanced. Otherwise you are likely to fall into a trap and become narrow minded, which will have a negative effect on your patients. To do a good job you need to be balanced and content in yourself and also understand your patients. Creating an “antipole” such as art is healthy because it hasn’t got anything to do with your job but helps you regain energy. It’s important to stay realistic, though.
Do you have time to live a private life at all?
Yes, I do. I have time to do this interview, for example. Unfortunately, my private life did take an unexpected turn in 2005 when my boyfriend died in a plane crash. That made an extraordinary hole in my life, but I didn’t give up. I am fortunate to have some close, very good friends whom I see regularly. They are very important to me. Occasionally, some peers and I go to Africa to practise “anaesthetics in the bush” for an aid organisation called Mango. I met my new boyfriend on one of our trips to Guinea in West Africa. Long distance relationships have their difficulties, but I believe that you can do anything if you want it.
Do you have a motto?
In 1985 I went to the National Paralympic Games in Michigan, where a poster caught my eye. It said, “It’s ability not disability that counts.” I thought this described my life so well that it became my motto ever since.
Fourteen silver and three gold medals—what’s next?
London, of course. The good news is that my mare and I have won the first two qualification rounds in Mannheim in Germany. We stand a good chance of participating in London 2012. Fingers crossed.
Competing interests: None declared.
From the Student BMJ.
Leslie Herbst marketing executive, BMJ