Bonnie Erbe’s life took an ominous turn over Memorial Day weekend, but she doesn’t remember much of what happened.
The longtime host of public TV’s To the Contrary was astride her Hanoverian horse, Stand Out, that Sunday, riding in a hunter/jumper show at the Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, Md. They approached a fence on the stadium course for a jump, but something went wrong.
“The last thing I remember is hanging onto the horse’s neck and thinking, ‘Oh, no,’” Erbe said.
Meanwhile in Baltimore, Cari Stein, former executive producer of the 20-year-old all-female news-analysis program, was entertaining a houseful of holiday guests, purposely ignoring her cellphone. She had left TTC six years ago, tired of the draining commute, and had been staying close to home for twins Ivy and Blake, now teenagers. Only recently had Stein begun to discuss with Erbe a return to producing the program, probably in June.
Late that Monday night, Stein awoke to find that her daughter hadn’t yet returned home. When she switched on her phone to make sure Ivy had sent a text — she had, everything was fine — Stein noticed “a whole bunch of calls, including from Bonnie’s cell.”
The first voice message was from Erbe’s husband, attorney Stephen Leckar: Bonnie had fallen from her horse, she’d been taken by ambulance to a local hospital and then flown to the Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Another said Erbe was in surgery. “They were very short and cryptic messages,” Stein said.
She began trying to contact anyone who could explain what had happened. “It was incredibly scary, not knowing what was going on,” Stein said. She finally spoke with Leckar and learned that Erbe’s doctors had given her a 50-50 chance of walking again.
Stein told her husband, “I think I’d better start back on the show immediately.”
“This was something serious”
Erbe’s To the Contrary premiered in April 1992 on Maryland Public Television. In 1996, Erbe formed the independent Persephone Productions, and she and Stein moved the show to Washington, D.C., “where it needed to be,” Erbe said. “It’s been thriving ever since.”
More than 250 public TV transmitters, which cover 90 percent of television households (78 percent with their main DTV channels), carry the show, according to TRAC Media Services. The show is distributed to stations by the PBS Plus supplemental service.
Erbe is hardly ever absent from the host’s chair during Friday shoots at WETA’s studios in suburban Arlington, Va.
She’s as passionate about her equestrian life as she is about her show. In 2006 she purchased an historic 40-acre farm in Accokeek, Md., about 10 miles from the TTC offices. She renovated the property, which borders on scenic Piscataway National Park, and named it Soft Landing Stables. The stables offer boarding, lessons and show-horse leases.
Erbe especially enjoys participating in hunter/jumper shows, in which riders guide horses over a series of obstacles.
Her accident came May 29, at a Southern Maryland Horse Association show, when she and Stand Out were just starting a jump. The horse lost its balance. “I tried to hang on,” Erbe said, but instead she fell into a pole cemented into the ground on the perimeter of the course.
Stand Out was uninjured. But the fall broke Erbe’s C4 and C5 cervical vertebrae, two of seven neck bones. Actor Christopher Reeve had fractured his C1 and C2 vertebrae and damaged his spinal cord in the fall that permanently paralyzed him during a 1995 cross-country equestrian event in Culpeper, Va.
“I’ve had plenty of falls but none of that magnitude,” Erbe said. “I was in and out of consciousness. They stabilized me. I was immobile.” She can’t recall the accident’s immediate aftermath or the ambulance ride to a nearby hospital, where doctors quickly realized they’d need to fly her to the Shock Trauma Center.
“I do remember looking out the back of the helicopter and realizing this was something serious,” Erbe said, “and thinking, ‘If I can’t walk again, I don’t want to live.’ I’m a very independent person.”
Erbe underwent an initial surgery May 30 to stabilize her neck. “Bonnie called me on Thursday morning, just before her second surgery” on June 2, Stein said. “She said she’d missed a meeting with a potential funder, and I needed to call and reschedule.” Erbe still has no memory of that conversation.
In the office, Stein was not only coping with Erbe’s crisis but also trying to get back up to speed on the show, with the help of outgoing Executive Producer Joy Fowlin. “Joy helped ease me through everything,” Stein said. “We really didn’t skip a beat.”
Filling the host’s chair
Stein faced two immediate and major concerns: Securing guest hosts and deciding how to tell the audience what happened. Erbe had never been away for long. Now, her staff — Stein, two associate producers and two interns — didn’t even know how long she’d be gone. “We all just kind of kept our eyes on the ball,” Stein said. “There was never a moment of doubt that Bonnie would make it through, everything would be fine, and she’d come back.”
“Maybe we were all in denial,” Stein added.
She asked panel regulars to fill in as guest hosts. “The response was very personal,” she said. “People were asking about Bonnie and saying that, yes, they really wanted to help in any way they could.”
TTC’s Rolodex yielded a strong list of substitutes, such as Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile; former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala; Cokie Roberts, NPR senior news analyst; and Linda Chavez, a Fox News analyst and head of the Center for Equal Opportunity think tank. Interviews included White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. Stein is especially pleased that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sat down with Roberts for a segment that aired just before the court began its session Oct. 3.
“I was taking care of the show, so it was in good shape when she came back to it,” Stein said. “I was determined that it was not going to just coast.”
She had hesitated to tell viewers about Erbe’s accident, but they were becoming concerned. One woman wrote in to say she’d watched from the first show and she knew that Erbe wouldn’t stay away unless something was terribly wrong.
Erbe’s condition was indeed improving. So at the top of the broadcast on July 8, guest host Irene Natividad, president of the Global Summit of Women, a high-profile annual gathering, made a short announcement: “As many of our viewers have noticed, Bonnie has been off the air for the past month. She will continue on leave for a few more months as she recuperates from a serious horseback riding accident. She will return this fall, and we all wish her a speedy recovery.”
Back in the saddle again
After three weeks in the hospital, Erbe had begun a grueling regimen of physical therapy at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington.
“I told my doctor I was going to walk,” she recalled last week, but her therapist cautioned her that regaining mobility would take at least six months — probably longer.
Yet Erbe was walking within about five weeks after starting rehab. “It’s a case of mind over matter,” she said.
Granted, at first she could only handle “varying degrees of walking — walk 25 feet and sit, then walk another 25 feet.” She also used a wheelchair and then a walker for a time. But now, “I can go into a store and walk around for an hour and not need to sit down,” Erbe said.
She’s still in occupational and physical therapy, particularly working on her voice, which was damaged by a tracheotomy and breathing tube. “That changed my voice,” she said. “It feels to me a little more gravelly.” The tracheotomy also kept her off solid food for six weeks.
At 57, Erbe had considered herself very fit. “I was riding five, six days a week, at least an hour a day,” she said. “That really helped me get through this. But it’s amazing, in just three weeks my calves were gone, my biceps were gone.” She’s pleased to find that “they’re coming back pretty quickly” thanks to her efforts.
Erbe returned to the office about three weeks ago and has worked there two or three days a week since then. “I have rehab at least two days a week until the end of the year, so I won’t be back full time for a while,” she said. “But I’m already doing a fair amount of fundraising, writing proposals, working on upcoming interviews and stories.”
She’ll return to the air Oct. 7. [Update: After a slight setback, Erbe returned on Oct. 14.] “I think she’ll be fine,” Stein said. “Two weeks ago she came to the studio. She sat on the set and read through a script, just to make sure she’s comfortable.” The plan is for Erbe to discuss her accident and her absence at the top and bottom of the show and to acknowledge the thousands of supportive messages she has received.
And while Erbe has decided to stop riding in shows, she definitely plans to ride again, probably starting early next year.
“Just keep what you want to do in your mind,” she said, “and you’ll get there.”
“We go to great pains to balance every show with political balance and minority representation — two of the four panelists are women of color,” Bonnie Erbe told Current in May 2000. “Turn on the rest of the Sunday morning talk shows, and you still see four or five older white males.”
On her return to the show Oct. 14, Erbe thanks viewers for their emotional support while she recovered from the accident.
To the Contrary “continues as an essential, timely forum for women to discuss national and international issues and policies,” says the show's website. “The program covers news and offers a platform to views that are rarely, if ever, available elsewhere on television.”
Erbe’s Soft Landing Stables in Accokeek, Md., has videos of hunter/jumper riding on its website.