Rodeo Joe

Rodeo Joe

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Rodeo Joe

David was a nine-year-old who had an unusual form of cancer involving the muscle of his leg. He was diagnosed at the age of eight and underwent major surgical excision. He was now on a continual regime of chemotherapy. The surgery had left him with significant weakening of his left leg and a noticeable limp, but he was otherwise disease-free. I was told by his parents that he was still the best worker on their little North Carolina farm. David’s favorite chores involved attending to his horse and best friend, Rodeo Joe. As the staff became acquainted with David and his family, we also learned all about Rodeo Joe. Joe was a twenty-five-year-old quarter horse who in his day had been a talented cow horse, and who now in his retirement had become the best friend of a nine-year-old farm boy.

At age ten, David returned to the hospital with signs and symptoms suggesting that his disease had returned. Indeed it had, with a vengeance. There was local recurrence as well as involvement of the bone marrow, bloodstream and liver. David was very, very sick. Another round of chemotherapy was initiated, with full knowledge that the odds of a good response were minimal at best.

Chemotherapy often has negative effects on the body. As these potent substances are attacking tumor cells, they can also attack healthy, normal cells that we need for survival. Chemotherapy, in fact, can in and of itself be lethal. The balance one must obtain between too much and/or too little chemotherapy is indeed a delicate art form practiced by dedicated pediatric oncologists.

David’s tumor and metastasis began to respond to the medicine, but unfortunately his immune system also became significantly impaired, and he soon developed infections involving his lungs and spinal fluid. David was a bright boy. He knew he was sick and that he may be dying. The weaker he became, the more he talked about Rodeo Joe. On our medical rounds, David would tell all of us about Joe’s abilities with the cattle, and about all the ribbons he had won in his younger days. He would tell us how Joe knew when the school bus was coming and would be waiting at the fence. David would often jump on for a bareback fling around the pasture before doing his chores.

Gradually David became weaker and weaker. Soon he only grasped a well-worn photo of Rodeo Joe, which he would sometimes hold up to visitors. His only articulation to us became the repeated question, “Will I see Joe again? Can I ride him just one more time . . . just one more time?” The infection was so aggressive, it was difficult to control. David soon slipped into a coma. We doctors felt certain that the disease and infection were most likely too advanced, and that he would soon die.

David’s parents were like most parents, totally devoted to their son. They were not wealthy people by any means, and the demands of their small farm by which they made their living did not cease. Caring neighbors lending a helping hand were a blessing, but Mr. and Mrs. Statler still divided their time between farm chores miles away and comforting their dying son in the hospital. They took little time to eat or sleep.

Three things stand out in my mind as I recall the time of David’s coma. First is the resolute strength, determination and faith of the parents and their powerful love. Mr. Statler would say to me every day, “I do believe Davey will be ridin’ that ol’ gelding again, I believe he will.” Next, I remember the hundreds of cards and letters taped up all over his room as David was being prayed for by a number of prayer groups all over the country. Finally, I can vividly recall all the pictures of that old horse, tacked up on the headboard of that pediatric bed. We all wanted David to ride that horse one more time. We hoped that he would come out of his coma long enough to at least see him, and we devised plans to haul Joe to the hospital grounds. We also all thought this was wishful thinking, as David’s condition steadily worsened.

Then truly miraculously, for reasons not well understood by this physician, David’s condition improved— and improved rapidly. The infections began to clear. David’s own defense cells began to come back strong. Within forty-eight hours he was awake, alert and talking to us again about Rodeo Joe. Because of the extent of his cancer, we feared that this might only be temporary, so we wanted to try to get him home for at least one last ride with Joe. However, in running tests to evaluate the extent of the cancer, there was none to be found. Not in the leg, or in the liver, or in the spinal fluid.

One week later, David went back home to the farm, back with Rodeo Joe. A couple of months went by. I decided to go see David and his family and this old horse I had heard so much about.

It was a beautiful fall day in North Carolina, the multicolored leaves made brilliant by the bright October sun. Their little farm was just off a secondary highway and easy to find. As I turned into the drive, I saw Rodeo Joe standing under a large orange oak tree with David sitting on his back facing backward, brushing the horse’s rump. David hadn’t noticed me yet, and I could see he was talking to Joe. Maybe he was sharing the story about how the doctors didn’t think he’d make it back to ride Joe, but how the two of them knew he would.

I sat for a few minutes trying to match this scene with the one in the hospital, trying to understand it all. I watched the cars driving by on the highway with their occupants noticing the young boy and horse under the tall oak. I had this urge to stop traffic and explain to these people that yes, this is a picturesque fall farm scene, but you are really seeing a miracle. A miracle! But I didn’t; I simply sat and watched.

James C. Brown, M.D.

When Garrett Morrison, the Sunday School class clown, got baptized.

©Reprinted with permission of Jonny Hawkins.

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