There’s always a moment before he treats another injured cowboy when Jason Stoneback will sit outside the rodeo circle and long for the time when he was inside it.
That longing starts gnawing at him the morning of the rodeo, when the dust creeps into his nose and he hears the first whinny. It was probably there Sunday, when he readied himself before the Greeley Stampede’s rodeo.
It itches the worst after a cowboy makes the crowd roar with a good ride. He’s still hooked on the eight-second rides. He just doesn’t do them any longer. He’s got work to do, after all.
Stoneback volunteered with the Justin Sports Medicine team Sunday. The doctors treat the cowboys, whether that’s a sprain, a twist or something far worse. It fits with Stoneback’s other job, as the head of the University of Colorado Hospital’s orthopedic trauma program. He’s in his second year there, but he already was named Physician of the Year last year by the hospital.
Stoneback’s also a former cowboy himself and, while he never really thought about going into it full-time, the money he earned competing or breaking horses gave him some spending money as he worked his way through college.
Stoneback, who lives in rural Weld County, was always fascinated by physiology. He wavered between being a large animal veterinarian or a human doctor. He grew up with a family that owned horses, and he competed on saddle broncos. He even worked for a vet for a year. It looked like he may become an animal doctor.
But a trip to Taco Bell sealed his fate. Stop laughing. It’s not that funny.
He ate at the restaurant, and his gut hurt soon after. The pain wouldn’t go away, even after he tried to walk it off. Doctors didn’t think it was serious, even in the emergency room, but that’s partly Stoneback’s fault. His rodeo background wasn’t helping. The ache wasn’t Tacho Bell’s fault. He had an appendicitis.
Most of the time, once a doctor touches the area around the stomach, patients with an appendicitis will dive off the table. Stoneback just winced a little. He was being a tough cowboy.
Eventually, doctors did figure it out but not until Stoneback was close to disaster.
“When I woke up from surgery, all that pain was gone,” Stoneback said, “and I thought that was the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Stoneback, now 35, wanted to do that for others. He switched over to humans, and he’s worked on them every since.
Stoneback never really had serious thoughts about competing full-time. But he dreamed of it occasionally, and he’s still a cowboy at heart. He team-ropes with his wife, Gin, a former Miss Rodeo Tennessee (they’ve been together since 1999). That background, he said, helps him as a doctor. He understands the mentality.
Stoneback’s had bad sprains, been stepped on by much larger animals “a ton” and has a hole in the back of his calf — Stoneback calls it “kind of a dent” — where a bull hit him. He knows the difference as much as any doctor, maybe more than most, on chronic injuries that need to be managed and acute, fresh injuries that need to be treated.
“I know what they’re thinking,” Stoneback said, “and I know when they’re really hurt. It’s also about managing chronic injuries with an understanding that this is their livelihood. We always have to weigh the risks and benefits of taking them out. That’s honestly one of the toughest things we do.”
He’s had his injuries, but Stoneback considers himself lucky. He was never seriously hurt, he said. But in a way, that makes things worse. He’s older, sure, but he’s healthy. He could probably literally get back on the horse.
“I do wish I could still do it,” he said and chuckled. “I miss it so much.”
When he feels that way, and he always does during a competition, he focuses on his work. He does have a job to do now. Rodeo gave him some spending money. It gave him a wife. It gave him lots of thrills. Now one of his favorite things to do is give a little back. ❖