Wyoming rancher nearly dies in head-on crash; fellow cowboy helps him get back in the saddle again
Archie and Lesa Chant were headed home to their Wyoming ranch, driving on a “middle-of-nowhere,” two-lane highway when the course of their future forever changed.
It was Oct. 26, 2015. There wasn’t any bad weather, no reason to worry that anything could go wrong.
Archie, now 38, was driving their white Dodge pickup truck and towing a trailer full of horses. His wife, Lesa, now 36, was sitting in the front passenger seat. Their baby daughter, Charli, was tucked safely in her infant seat, directly behind her mom.
Archie came up over a hill on Wyoming 387. In the distance, coming toward them, he saw a white truck that seemed to be in his lane. It jerked back over to the right side, as if the driver of the 2-ton sanitation rig had been passing someone. But there wasn’t another car.
Archie eyed the truck and tried to slow his heavy load as he descended the hill. He got down to about 40 miles an hour when suddenly the white truck veered across the center line again and barreled straight toward him, going about 75 miles an hour. Archie had only a moment to respond. He yanked the steering wheel to the right and headed toward a ditch.
“If anybody was going to get hit, I was going to take it,” said Archie.
Archie and Lesa had fallen in love back at University of Wyoming. They both came from ranching families and knew how to work hard on isolated land. They married in 2014, worked the remote land near Lander that had been in Archie’s family for generations and had Charli the next year.
When a careless driver threatened their lives, Archie’s quick reflexes saved his girls. But the devastating head-on collision nearly cost Archie his life, his legs and everything that made him whole.
‘Pinned and broken and bleeding’
Among the first people who came upon the accident were a truck driver and his wife. Thankfully she was a retired ER nurse. The rescuers pried open the back passenger door of the Chants’ pickup and found little Charli anchored safely in her car seat. Tiny shards of glass clung to her chubby cheeks. Aside from little cuts on her face, she seemed OK. The impact had knocked Lesa out momentarily, but as she came to, she seemed relatively unscathed as well. An ambulance rushed Lesa and Charli to the nearest hospital.
But Archie was stuck. The force of the impact had crushed his legs and slammed his seat all the way toward the back of the truck.
“Get me out of here,” he screamed. “Somebody was holding my neck. I was pinned and broken and bleeding.”
The rescuers wanted to pull Archie out.
But the former nurse blocked them, keeping him safe for well over an hour until a helicopter arrived.
“She stood between me and them and said, ‘Do not touch this guy or he’s going to die. We need blood.’”
Cowboy doctor meets cowboy patient
The next time Archie woke, days had passed and he was a patient at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, Colo.
From the accident scene, a helicopter had flown him to Casper in just 12 minutes. Still, during that short flight, the crew struggled to keep him alive. Doctors in Casper knew Archie needed much more help than they could provide, so they transferred him.
Once in Colorado, Archie faced a devastating tally of injuries. He had 17 broken bones including injuries to his ankles to his patella, femur and quadriceps.
“It’s absolutely amazing that he lived. His wife and infant baby barely had a scratch. He took the full force and brunt of everything,” said Dr. Jason Stoneback, Chief of Orthopedic Trauma and Fracture Surgery at University of Colorado Hospital and head of the UCHealth Limb Restoration Program, a program that brings diverse experts together for patients like Archie.
As doctors strategized about how to help Archie, he lay paralyzed in his hospital bed, contemplating his future.
Could his doctors save his legs? Would he ever stand again? Would he ride a horse again? How could he and Lesa possibly run their ranch? And could he ever again compete in his favorite rodeo event: team roping, a skill he and Lesa also used to round up and tend cattle on the ranch?
Teaming up to rope and recover
One day, Archie looked down and noticed that one of his doctors was wearing cowboy boots. That was unusual at the urban, academic medical center.
The doctor was Jason Stoneback. The men traded stories and learned they had a great deal in common.
“We kind of hit it off,” Archie said. “He told me, ‘I rope,” and I’m like, ‘Hey, I rope too.’”
As a fifth-generation Wyoming rancher, Archie was practically born in a saddle.
Stoneback grew up around horses, too. While working his way through college at Middle Tennessee State University, he started competing on the rodeo circuit as a bull rider and saddle bronc rider. He competed through his first year of medical school.
These days, Stoneback volunteers as a doctor at rodeo events and he and his wife compete together in team roping, the same event that always has been Archie’s specialty.
It’s the only team event in rodeo. Partners race into an arena on horseback, side by side, chasing a steer. One is the “header,” who swings a rope through the air and within seconds, cinches it around the steer’s horns. The partner, who’s known as the “heeler,” then has to aim perfectly, twirl the rope, swing it and catch the steer’s feet.
Once Archie learned that his doctor understood the skills he’d need to get back to the life he loved, he asked Stoneback the questions that had been haunting him.
“Will I ever ride again? Will I ever rope again?”
A pact: ‘we will ride and rope together’
The medical outlook was bleak. Nonetheless, Stoneback offered Archie hope.
“We’re in the business of getting people back to what they do. You’re a rancher. You’re a cowboy. You’re going to ride again,” Stoneback said.
Then he made a pact with his patient: “We’re going to get you better and we’re going to rope together one day.”
Archie, who isn’t particularly religious, found himself incredibly grateful that from a lonely Wyoming highway, he had somehow found his way to the perfect person who could heal him.
“Of all the doctors, in all the hospitals, I get the one guy who can actually relate to me,” he said. “It was God’s will, I guess.”
Finally able to scoop up his little girl
Archie had to be hospitalized for seven weeks, then he didn’t walk for a year.
Gradually after additional surgeries and years of tough rehabilitation, Lesa saw one of the sweetest signs of recovery.
“He picked up Charli and carried her for the first time,” Lesa said. “In the wheelchair, he couldn’t get her out of the crib or change her diaper. If she wanted to interact with him, he couldn’t pick her up off the floor.”
More good news came when Lesa learned she was pregnant with their second baby: a boy. Hudson arrived in January of 2017.
Along with bringing joy and hope, Hudson gave Archie a second chance to witness special moments he missed with Charli. She took her first steps while he was immobilized in a hospital bed. Not long ago, Archie got the chance to see Hudson walk for the first time.
A promise kept
As Hudson grew, a very special day arrived.
Archie and his doctor got to ride and rope together at Archie’s place.
Archie climbed up on his horse, a seemingly simple maneuver that takes great strength in your legs.
Stoneback rode alongside him. They were two cowboys — peers now, not patient and healer — enjoying a great western tradition.
By sheer coincidence, each had specialized in a different job. Stoneback’s a header. Archie’s a heeler: perfect partners.
Stoneback spun his orange rope first, swung it through the air, aimed and sunk it on the steer’s horns, then held tight as Archie swung his green rope and caught the steer’s hind legs. They roped together again and again, grinning as the horses kicked dirt up in the arena.
‘Lucky to be alive’
After roping, the two men talked about what the experience of roping together had meant to them.
Both wiped tears from their eyes.
“It’s guys like this that make me do what I do,” Stoneback said, overjoyed to see Archie moving, riding and living again.
“I was in a dark place,” Archie said. “I was mad at God and the world and everybody. Coming from a cowboy background, you’re very physical and independent.”
After the accident, he knew his life could have gone one way or another. At first, Archie felt that he had lost everything. Then his team rallied around him and helped him see that he could ride and rope and be whole again.
“At some point, you just have to believe in them and believe you’re going to get better,” Archie said. “He told me, ‘you’re going to ride again.’ And he got me here.”
Stoneback chimed in: “It’s the cowboy way. You get bucked off and you get back on. You do the work and you live again.”
“Yeah,” said Archie. “Some days, you forget you’re lucky to be alive. But you’ve got to live.
“Today was a special day.” F
–Reprinted with permission from UCHealth Today.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News