The COWBOY OPERATION
Colorado’s cowboy doctor partners with the team roping community to bring joy and rodeo to his kid patients.
In Denver, each new year kicks off with the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, a Colorado tradition since 1906. It’s a tradition that team roper Dr. Jason Stoneback has taken part in since he began working with the Justin Sports Medicine Team in 2011. Getting to work behind the chutes is old hat for the young doc, who, before becoming a team roper, rode bulls and saddle broncs through college.
Stoneback is the Chief of Orthopedic Trauma and Fracture Surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital and the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Director of the Limb Restoration Program and, until recently, used to spend half his time with patients at the neighboring Children’s Hospital Colorado, on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, to the east of the city. Offering his services to the Justin Sports Medicine Team when the rodeo comes to town is just a bonus of being a cowboy doctor.
For his patients at the Children’s Hospital, where Stoneback remains on staff, cowboy doctors rank pretty high on the cool list. The idea of the guy in the white lab coat, who sometimes talks about scary surgery stuff, sporting a Stetson and chasing a wild, eight-second ride, can certainly help his patients take their minds off being in the hospital, and it’s an idea that Stoneback has put to action.
A few years back, Stoneback was treating a young patient and telling him all about the Stock Show.
“I told him I was going to the rodeo that night and he said he wished he could go,” recalled Stoneback, who responded with, “Then let’s get you there.”
Stoneback secured tickets for the patient and his family, but his patient ended up being too sick, and had to remain in the hospital.
“You know, that just gets to you,” Stoneback said of his disappointment for the kid.
With his wife, Gin, Stoneback got to thinking about other options for the kids, when they realized they should just bring the rodeo to the hospital.
“I wanted to bring in horses and the whole shebang,” Gin remembered of pitching the idea to the hospital, where she remains an active volunteer. “They said we couldn’t do that in the best interest of the health of the patients, but we wanted to do something interactive, to get the kids out of their beds.”
So, starting in 2015, Gin and Stoneback hosted the first-ever Children’s Hospital Colorado Rodeo Experience, featuring mock rodeo competitions like stick horse barrel racing and dummy roping put on by professional cowboys and cowgirls, a live concert by country music’s Austin Wahlert, and visits with reigning rodeo royalty.
“We love the Western way of life,” Stoneback said.
“It brings us joy,” Gin continued. “We just want to do good things for people going through tough times. If we can bring joy to them with what brings us joy, it’s a cool thing to share.”
The Western way serves the hospital rodeo well, as it is very much the reason the rodeo came to be and continues to be.
“It’s about the community,” Stoneback posited. “Our friends and neighbors and our sponsors—they’re what makes this thing happen.”
The Stonebacks claim Tennessee as their home state. After receiving his M.D., the couple moved to Colorado for Stoneback to complete his residency. The grueling pace of the program meant living near the hospital, so without their horses, Gin went to work with Cinch, where she met coworker Taya Ellerman (now McAdow), daughter of five-time NFR qualifier Jay Ellerman, who started planting the team roping seed in Gin’s mind.
Stoneback’s residency was then followed by a year-long fellowship in St. Louis, Missourri, to become a traumatologist, but upon completion, he was recruited by the University of Colorado five years ago to help them build their Orthopedic Trauma and Limb Restoration Programs. The team roping seed had taken root in Gin, and she called Taya upon her return.
“I called her and I said, ‘ I’m going to start team roping, and in 10 years we’re going to win the All-Girl.’”
“We were at a point where we could get back into horses,” Stoneback explained. “Now, I head and my wife heels. We’ve got two head horses, two heel horses, a dog, and wonderful neighbors, many of whom help us put on this event.”
Professional team roper and Taya’s brother Brit Ellerman is among those neighbors who have supported the event since its inception. For a few hours each January, he pals around with the kids, teaching them how to build a loop and catch the dummy, or even just helping them to climb up and ride the dummy.
When asked if he sees any future ropers in the lobby arena, he replied enthusiastically with a “There are definitely some good ones out there.”
Eight-time World Champions Rich Skelton and Fred Whitfield, along with seven-time World Champion Clay O’Brien Cooper, are among the other host of ropers who have made a point of showing up for the kids over the years.
“The kids were like, ‘ Who are you?’” Gin recounted of the time Cooper made his visit. “They don’t know he’s the Champ. They’ll climb in his lap while he’s giving an interview and mess with his hat. It’s cool.”
For Skelton and Whitfield, their schedules meant they were in Denver after the Hospital Rodeo this year, so instead, they just orchestrated some room visits when they did arrive a week later.
“They took a bunch of gift bags and stick horses for gifts,” Gin explained. “Then they signed autographs and talked to the kids. Fred told me he thinks it does more for him than it probably does for the kids. I told him it’s the same for all of us, but it does a lot for the kids because it takes their minds off stuff.”
Upon entering the hospital lobby on the morning of the rodeo, there is a bevy of commotion. Rodeo queens are flashing their brilliant smiles and letting kid patients handle their tiaras. Cowboys and cowgirls are partnered up with patients in hospital gowns and pajamas, swinging ropes from where they stand or, sometimes, from a wagon or stroller that allows them the mobility their bodies don’t. Austin Wahlert’s music carries throughout the space and up to the ceiling many floors above.
The ambiance is vibrant, fun and, in the best way, childlike. Patients and their parents look over the railings from the floors above, giving witness to this once-a-year Western bonanza. For the kids who might not be well enough to attend—a wicked round of respiratory illnesses kept many patients bed-bound this year—the goings on were broadcasted live from the hospital’s Ryan Seacrest Studios on a closed circuit to the televisions in their rooms.
For a person who has maybe never had to spend time in the hospital with their child, at first glance, the rodeo might just appear to be a neat little event set up in the lobby of a hospital. But when the kid rolls by in his wheelchair and reaches out to grab you just so you can see how happy he is because he doesn’t have the ability to tell you, it begins to hit home: this is a big thing.
Jessie Robles, mother of 9-year-old Joshua, couldn’t agree more.
“It’s great seeing him have fun,” she said, tearing up as she tried to find words for her emotions. “Seeing him have success at something is really great.”
Her son has been roping the dummy for the better part of an hour and enjoying every minute of it. Challenged with an autonomic dysfunction, Joshua has had trouble gaining and keeping weight since he was a baby. Many years into the treatment, Jessie and Joshua still travel from their home in Casper, Wyoming, to the Children’s Hospital for a week at a time every three to four months for appointments.
It’s a schedule that gets Joshua feeling pretty down and thinking he’ll never get to be like a normal kid. To see him this engaged and this happy is a silver lining for mom.
“Who would have thought this would interest him?” Robles asked, slightly bewildered by the drastic change in her son’s demeanor. “Mom might have to go buy a hay bale so he can rope at home now! I am just so thankful.”
Thanks is offered in abundance at this rodeo.
“When I found out that Gin and Jason were starting to do this,” Josh Love, general manager of Heel-O-Matic Training Systems, began, “I had to be a part of it.”
For four years, Heel-O-Matic has supplied many of the dummies for the event. In Love’s opinion, it’s the least he can do.
“As long as I’m in this position,” Love determined, “we’re going to do stuff to help kids out. My oldest daughter—she’s 13 now—was diagnosed with Leukemia when she was 7, so we’ve spent a lot of time at this hospital. She’s still kind of in remission, and now we come here every six months or so to check her blood.”
Similarly, Austin Wahlert’s daughter, born with Down Syndrome and requiring open-heart surgery in her first few months of life, has been a patient at Children’s Hospital Colorado since the beginning. Not only that, but Wahlert himself was a CHC patient when he was growing up. And according to Gin, he’ll give concerts at this rodeo every year it exists.
“He said, ‘I don’t care if they book me in Las Vegas,” Gin recalled. “‘When you say this event is happening, I’m here.’”
And he is. Thinking that Wahlert—who also rodeoed growing up—would be kind enough to show up with a guitar and sing a few songs that first year, the Stonebacks were blown away when, instead, Wahlert showed up with the full sound system to put on a real-deal performance.
And while these men certainly offer their support in response to the help their families have received, they also offer it as members of the rodeo and Western communities. From the neighborhood gathering at the Stonebacks’ house to prepare the gift bags, to the hundreds of stick horses that Wrangler gives to the kids, this annual event is the work of many.
“It’s at the heart of what rodeo and team roping is all about,” Stoneback said regard- ing the community that helps him and Gin pull off this magical feat year after year.
When the Stonebacks aren’t heading up various operations at the hospitals, they’re giving their competitive spirits a venue in the arena at home. They’re next-door neighbors with Jay Ellerman and his wife, Tammy, and it’s not uncommon for the couples to get together with their other team roping neighbors for a few evening or weekend runs.
“Obviously, we are the most beginner of the ropers,” Gin acknowledged, “so it’s awesome to be around all of them.”
The Stonebacks credit the Ellermans with helping them find good horse property, good horses, and even taking them to their first roping.
“Jay is the most patient person I think I’ve ever met in my life,” Gin said. “And Tammy showed us how to enter and we got our numbers assigned, and then she told us to get our horses ready and cinched up about 10 before our draw number.” The first timers managed to get a time. “I asked Tammy, ‘ How’d we place?’” recalled Gin, who grew up in the horse show arena. “She tells me we have to catch two more, and I said, ‘We do?’”
Stoneback turned the next two steers for his wife, though she missed on the third. She did, however, catch three for her draw partner, and ended up snagging third with him.
The story is a testament of what can be accomplished with determination and support from good people—the same basic ingredients that contributed to Stoneback’s successful pursuit of a challenging career in traumatology, and the couple’s ability to create, organize, and successfully orchestrate a hospital rodeo every January.
Now, the roping is for fun. The couple travels to Texas to visit and rope with their friend Rich Skelton, and Reno has become a summertime favorite. Gin has roped in the All-Girl there for the past two years, mindful of the goal she set when she made the call to become a team roper. She still has time, but if the things the Stonebacks have already accomplished are any indication, Gin will be one to watch in the coming years.
In the meantime, you can bet the good doctor and his wife will continue to do what they can for the kiddos at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
“We want to keep doing things each year to make it more meaningful to the patients and their families,” Gin explained. “All we really care about is that they have a good experience and get that little break from what they’re going through.”
Stoneback agreed, and reiterated the significant impact this Western community has on these young patients.
“They see that there’s a lot of people here who are just having fun, and here to help them and give them all their time and their undivided attention. And I think that’s important.”