Character that Counts
She was riding a favorite thoroughbred mare that afternoon, one she had worked diligently with to train for shows. The competition at the Lebanon, Pa., fairgrounds was halfway through, and the May sun was high in the sky. Jennifer Bielecki’s mom, Lisa, stood proudly at the farside rail of the large arena, cheering and reminding Jen to keep her form strong. Then it happened in the blink of an eye. A sudden commotion. A yell for help. A scene of pandemonium. The third-year occupational therapy major was pressed to make a split-second decision. She was in contention for a ribbon in the show, called an “equitation,” where riders are judged on how well they perform as they lead their horses through jumping and Western-style routines. Bielecki was doing well, and she knew it.
From the other side of the ring, she heard the screams. “At first I couldn’t pinpoint if it was happy screaming or something bad,” Bielecki recalls. As she got closer, she realized the screams were indeed cries for help. They were hysterical. And they were coming from an equestrian friend who had injured a knee earlier.
“I was scared she had reinjured her knee. It’s something I never want to hear again in my life,” Bielecki says. But it quickly dawned on her that it wasn’t her friend who was hurt. “I heard a man groaning. That’s when I realized it was her father.”
She had to make a decision in a heartbeat. If Bielecki left the arena and tried to help the injured man during the competition, she would be disqualified. On the other hand, the CPR-certified student had basic first-aid training and was more than able to provide needed assistance.Bielecki chose to help.
“I yelled to the judge, ‘I have to help. I’m certified.’ I knew it would disqualify me. But someone’s life was more important to me than a ribbon.”On the other side of the ring, Howard Lloyd was laying on his back. He had been kicked by a horse, and was holding his side. “I can’t breathe,” he moaned. Bielecki suspected broken ribs. She drew on what she learned in the kinesiology class she took from Associate
Professor Dolores Bertoti, and instructed the injured man to bend his knees in order to elevate his chest slightly and alleviate pressure on the organs near his ribs.
“There wasn’t a lot I could do but stabilize him, and keep him from going into shock and fainting on me. I wouldn’t have known what to do to position his body and relieve his pain” had it not been for that kinesiology course, Bielecki says.
An EMT stationed at the event soon showed up, and Bielecki gave him an assessment of the situation and what she had done. When he left briefly, she adjusted Lloyd’s oxygen mask to fit more snugly.
Then she tried to comfort Lloyd’s daughter, Samantha. “She was very scared. I was there supporting her,” Bielecki says.
Lloyd’s injuries were indeed serious, and included three broken ribs, a punctured lung, liver lacerations and a bruised kidney. He recalls Bielecki’s words of encouragement at the time, but not much else. He was focused on trying to breathe.
But his wife was also with him and remembers more. “A lot of people backed away,” Beth Lloyd says. “Jen was there in seconds. She identified herself. She made sure his airway was secure. She was very calm. She stayed with him until the ambulance came.”
Once it did, Bielecki returned to the ring to finish what was left of the competition. Including Bielecki, there were seven riders. Six ribbons were to be awarded. The final ribbon, Bielecki says, went to a younger, probably less experienced rider than herself.
“She and her family were thrilled,” Bielecki recalls. “But that left me in last place. I was okay with that.” Bielecki didn’t make a point of telling people later that she finished last because she was disqualified for aiding an injured man. “I didn’t feel I needed to tell everyone I didn’t win because I was disqualified,” she says. “I’m a good sportsperson.”
Bielecki later sent an email to Professor Bertoti thanking her for what she learned from that kinesiology course. And she and her mother sent Lloyd a get-well card and kept in touch by email to see how he was doing. Today, he is recuperating nicely. “I’m going to make a full recovery,” he said.
Her quiet confidence, as evident in the handling of her horse as it is in her work with people needing help, didn’t come naturally or easily to Bielecki. As a young adult, she struggled to fit in at school and often suffered at the hands of peers whose cruel verbal attacks drove her to the brink of despair. But the persistent Pennsylvanian found her passion, and solace, training horses. And in bonding with the splendid steeds, she found the strength and direction that led her to pursue a career in helping those in need, through occupational therapy.
Today, she has resumed visiting the barn where she and other equestrians have a lease arrangement that allows them to ride thoroughbreds that were too slow or too injured to earn money on racetracks. Bielecki trains with a mare named Sangria once a week and competes with her in shows. She has continued to do just that, without the drama in which she played a role last May.
She recounts her actions that day as matter-of-factly as if she were describing the rules of an equestrian event. “It all happened so fast,” she says. “It was pretty much instinct.”
“Jen surprised me that day,” says her mom. “She told me, ‘This is what I do, what I go to school for. What good are we if we can’t help others.’ And I am very proud of her. Obviously, Alvernia’s teachings have made an impact ...”
Bielecki hopes to eventually earn a master’s degree and work in pediatrics — preferably with special-needs children. She was a volunteer a couple of years ago in a therapeutic riding program, and something happened there that gets her more animated than recounting her actions at that horse show. “I clicked especially with a young autistic boy who spoke six words,” Bielecki says proudly. “One of them was my name.”