Black teenager launches racial justice project in Nova Scotia
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Siobhan Brown looked forward to her once-in-a-lifetime high school trip to Paris, but what she didn’t know was how the adventure would change her life forever.
The Groves Point native had arrived in France with her Holy Angels High School classmates in 2005 and was preparing to tour the country’s capital city when she suffered a seizure near the famous Louvre Museum.
Brown, who was 15-years-old at the time, was rushed to the hospital. She was released shortly after – without the proper diagnoses – and later rejoined the group at the hotel.
The then Grade 11 student had hoped her troubles were behind her until she suffered a second seizure while at the hotel and was taken to a different hospital where they believed she had epilepsy.
Brown was hospitalized for three days before rejoining the group with limited activity.
“There’s nothing like spending a trip to Paris in the infirmary,” laughed Brown, 32, who admits it took time for her to have a sense of humour about the incident. “I never did get to see the Eiffel Tower.”
When Brown returned to Cape Breton, she underwent various testing where it was confirmed she had epilepsy, a disorder affecting the central nervous system in which brain activity becomes abnormal, causing seizures and unusual behaviour.
“We tried about six different medications when I got home, and nothing was working,” said Brown. “My seizures are triggered by stress, sleep deprivation and low blood sugar, essentially all aspects of having a job.”
Eventually, Brown’s neurologist prescribed her Keppra, a medication used to treat epilepsy, not covered by Nova Scotia Pharmacare.
“When I was diagnosed, I was a competitive gymnast and was involved in cheerleading, but everything came to a halt because it was too dangerous,” said Brown. “It took probably six years before I was able to get my seizures under control.”
One thing doctors didn’t understand in Brown’s case was the fact she couldn’t feel the seizures coming on, which at the time caused several issues including falls – one of which she broke her foot.
“The last one I had pretty much almost killed me in the emergency room in Sydney,” said Brown. “It was then my neurologist put me on Keppra and I’ve been seizure free since.”
The medication caused various issues for Brown. Although she graduated from the Sydney school, the disorder caused a learning disability that wasn’t originally diagnosed, making for challenges in the classroom.
“I went through the rest of my high school career with the learning disability and I remember Grade 12 math and sitting home for hours crying because I couldn’t figure it out,” said Brown.
After high school, Brown attempted to take an adult learning course at the Nova Scotia Community College’s Marconi Campus in Sydney, however, things didn’t work out as planned.
“The medication can put you in a fog,” said Brown. “They let me into the adult learning program, even though I had graduated, but with the medication, I couldn’t retain anything, and I couldn’t bring myself to spending thousands of dollars on something I might not succeed in.”
In recent years, Brown applied for the RCMP and was planning to travel to Halifax but suffered a broken foot – the same foot she had broken during a seizure years before, and eventually didn’t pursue a career in policing.
Instead, Brown found work at a local Tim Hortons restaurant but it wasn’t where she wanted to be in her life. Her childhood dream was to become a long-haul truck driver, making runs across the United States, but her career path changed after learning she had epilepsy.
“Nobody wants that kind of liability driving their truck,” said Brown.
Four years ago, while frustrated with her job, Brown was on social media and noticed a post by friend Tyler Clarke, who at the time was in Ontario pursuing a career as a horse jockey, asking if anyone would be interested in grooming horses and hot-walking.
With the position in mind, Brown would eventually quit her job and moved to the Toronto area, living in the dorm rooms at Woodbine Racetrack in Etobicoke, Ont.
She began her career working as a groom for Malcolm and Sally Pierce. However, Brown found the job too much to handle at the time, completely different than the horse world she was used to in Cape Breton as a member of the Cape Breton Western Riders Association.
“They put me down and I hot-walked, which is essentially when horses come in from training, I would hold them for the groom for a bath and walk them to the shed and let them cool off,” said Brown. As a groom, Brown’s duties are to bath and brush each horse, clean tack, and provide basic first aid to horses, such as bandaging small scrapes and cuts. It also includes mucking out stalls, helping with stable maintenance and preparing and distributing feed.
“I did that for a few months and then they gave me their pony, Jack, and that’s what really started my whole career – I learned the ropes, and by the time I was ready to be a groom, I was able to keep up with everyone.”
When the Pierce family retired, Brown began working for breeder Larry Cordes as well as with trainer Josie Carroll, who became the first woman trainer to win the Queen’s Plate in 2006.
Carroll, who was also the first woman trainer to be inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2019, said Brown came inexperienced but was quite eager to groom horses.
“She’s very passionate about her horses,” said Carroll. “She really cares about them and I think that’s the biggest asset that someone can have who wants to be in this business.”
Today, Brown is the groom for five horses, including Mighty Heart, a three-year-old colt who last Saturday, with jockey Daisuke Fukumoto, captured the $1-million Queen’s Plate — the oldest thoroughbred horse race in Canada — at Woodbine Racetrack.
Mighty Heart took the lead out the gate and surged to a 7 ½-length victory in the opening race of the OLG Canadian Triple Crown. The horse finished with a time of 2:01.98, the second-fastest since 1957 and was a 13/1 longshot in the contest.
But like Brown, Mighty Heart has also overcome challenges of his own. The horse lost its left eye in a paddock accident with his mother as a foal, which is one of the reasons Brown requested to work with him.
“He can’t see the rail when he’s racing so he has to rely on the jockey to give him a clean run,” said Brown, noting on race day the horse was relaxed and calm despite knowing he was racing later that day.
“I feel I’m connected more to him – I don’t have one eye, but he had something to overcome and so did I, so I felt very close to this horse and I’m honoured to work with him.”
Carroll acknowledged the hard work Brown has been doing.
“She only looked after a couple of horses at first, but gradually built up to doing the full job,” said Carroll. “It’s a physical job and she found that challenging at first, but we gradually increased her workload and she’s done very well.”
Despite having to get up for work most days at 2:30 a.m. and being away from her family in Cape Breton from April to December, Brown wouldn’t change her career path.
“I never thought I’d be involved in the Queen’s Plate,” said Brown. “Very few grooms get that opportunity – just having Mighty Heart race in it was huge for me, but for him to win was beyond belief – I’m so proud of him.”
As for Mighty Heart, Carroll said decisions will have to be made moving forward as to when the horse will return to the track. A decision was not available at press time.
Brown may not have seen the 1,063-foot Eiffel Tower on her school trip 15 years ago, but the sky’s the limit moving forward for the groom in the horse industry.