Colorado’s cow­boy doc­tor part­ners with the team rop­ing com­mu­nity to bring joy and rodeo to his kid pa­tients.

Spin to Win Rodeo - - Competitive Edge - By G.R. Schi­avino

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.”




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