Back in the saddle

BY RICK RUGGLES | PHOTOS BY RYAN SODERLIN | THE WORLD HERALD

By Rick Ruggles / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, August 13, 2016


Molly Hermelbracht knew she would return to rodeoing, even when it became clear her thumb would have to be removed.
Hermelbracht, 22, a rodeo competitor on the Hastings College team, injured her right thumb while roping a steer at practice last fall.
An attempt to reattach the mangled thumb failed, and it was amputated about a week later at Creighton University Medical Center. She started throwing a rope at a dummy soon after the amputation and is back competing in rodeos and roping events this summer.

Molly Hermelbracht, 2, roping from her toy bouncy horse.

A rodeoer and surgeon in Colorado said any time you go to a roping competition, there’s a good chance you’ll shake hands with a person who is missing a thumb. Amputated fingers and thumbs aren’t common, but competitors in the sport know the risk is there.
Rodeoers see their game as rough and loving at the same time. The sportsmanship of rodeo competitors, Hermelbracht’s father said, is real. If a rider’s horse is sore or injured, his rival most
likely will share his horse. Their appreciation for each other isn’t like the lineup for obligatory high-fives that follows a softball game.
“This is a second family,” Wes Hermelbracht, a roper himself, said of rodeo competitors. “It’s a pretty special world.”
Late last month, the Hermelbrachts — Molly, Wes, mother Jeanne, brother Ty, Ace the dog and three horses — arrived at the Washington County Fair for a night of rodeoing. Cicadas rang out, the sun fell in rose hues, the air smelled of popcorn and hay, funnel cakes and manure. The temperature dropped into the low 70s, a perfect midsummer’s rodeo night.
“Ready to go, as always,” Molly said before her event.
She took some practice tosses at a dummy and roped it every time.

Molly Hermelbracht adjusts her cowboy hat before competing in the breakaway roping at the Washington County Fair Rodeo in Arlington, Nebraska.

Molly Hermelbracht was destined to rope. Her father and two of her uncles are ropers, and she began throwing ropes at a red plastic steer from her toy bouncy horse when she was 2.
On Sept. 24, she and the Hastings team practiced at Coach Justen Nokes’ acreage.
Hermelbracht’s partner, Sadie Stec, of Bassett, Nebraska, caught the steer’s horns with her rope. Hermelbracht roped the hind legs. But a coil of rope snagged her right thumb and tightened. The steer tugged.

At Hastings’ Mary Lanning Healthcare, emergency room personnel determined that an Omaha plastic surgeon with hand-repair expertise, Dr. Nagi Ayoub, could examine her at Creighton University Medical Center.

Hermelbracht screamed. Stec first thought her partner had let out a yell of delight after a successful run. Hermelbracht hoped it was just a rope burn. The pain wasn’t terrible at first. She pulled the glove down and saw blood and torn flesh. She didn’t look again for the next 24 hours.
Nokes instantly knew there was trouble and raced for his wife’s Ford Escape. He had lost the tip of a finger while roping four years ago at a rodeo in South Dakota. He suspected something similar had happened to Hermelbracht.
She felt the thumb dangling beneath the index finger. She cried.
At Hastings’ Mary Lanning Healthcare, emergency room personnel determined that an Omaha plastic surgeon with hand-repair expertise, Dr. Nagi Ayoub, could examine her at Creighton University Medical Center.
A helicopter took the roper to Creighton. Ayoub realized that a thumb severed in this way is harder to reattach than one in which a knife cuts off a thumb cleanly. Vessels in the latter accident are more easily connected. But a yanking action tears, twists and crushes the thumb and its blood vessels. Her thumb was cold and discolored. It hung by one tendon.
Ayoub worked for several hours to find veins to connect to each other. He found one, connected it with microscopic surgery, and hoped it could adequately nourish the thumb.
Ayoub used leeches on Hermelbracht’s thumb to prevent the blood from pooling inside it. Heat therapy kept the blood flowing.
Hermelbracht, a junior last year, received an email of encouragement from Hastings College President Don Jackson.
One of her professors, Barbara Sunderman, contacted Jeanne Hermelbracht and said the faculty would work with her daughter to help her through the semester.
Friends tromped into the hospital in cowboy boots. She had no appetite and lost 15 pounds. She was medicated and slept a lot. She was emotional, and there were nights during which she struggled to remain calm.
She read Scriptures and took comfort in Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.”
“I always had to let my faith be bigger than my fear,” she said last month.

Molly Hermelbracht competes at the Washington County Fair in Arlington in July. With the loss of her right thumb, Hermelbracht struggled to eat, button a shirt, and write and type for her college classes in elementary education and special education. Still, she tried roping mere days after the amputation.

Initially Ayoub had hope. But after several days, the thumb began to wither. It was horrible for Hermelbracht to accept. Still, she wanted to move on. School wouldn’t wait for her. Ayoub took off the thumb on Oct. 1.
How bizarre it was to have a thumbless right hand. Hermelbracht, of Rosalie, Nebraska, struggled to eat, brush her teeth, button a shirt, put her hair in a ponytail. Her mother spent the first few days with her in Hastings, helping her daughter and driving her around. Hermelbracht still occasionally drops water bottles and other items when she forgets she has no right thumb.
She plunged back into school. Classmates had saved material for Hermelbracht, who studies elementary education and special education. Typing and writing were painful and hard to do without a thumb.
Professors worked one on one with her. Thanksgiving break rolled around and she continued to catch up.
She also had begun throwing ropes at the practice dummy. She had to hold the rope between her index and middle fingers. The first time she succeeded in roping the dummy, she jumped up and down.
Later, she started roping calves. “I can do this,” she said to herself.

Sunderman said the faculty didn’t make courses easier for Hermelbracht, but they pulled for her. Fall semester of junior year is crucial for elementary education students at Hastings College. The class load is heavy and the students partner with teachers in Hastings, observing and working on their skills.
Hermelbracht understands the science of teaching, Sunderman said, and the human element, the art, of teaching.
“We love her,” Sunderman said. “She’s going to be a phenomenal teacher.”
Hermelbracht made it through the semester.
Dr. Jason Stoneback, director of orthopedic trauma and fracture surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital, said replanting a thumb detached in a rodeo injury is extremely difficult because of the way vessels and tissue are crushed.
Stoneback, a rodeoer himself, called the loss of a thumb “a devastating injury.” And yet, he said, rodeoers with those and other scars keep going.
“Injuries happen, but it doesn’t tend to stop them from roping,” Stoneback said. Like the Hermelbrachts, Stoneback described the rodeo community as the sport’s main lure rather than the act of rodeoing itself.
“A handshake means everything,” he said. “The camaraderie, the culture, the taking care of your friends and neighbors.”

Hermelbracht has competed in close to 15 rodeos and roping events this summer despite the loss of her right thumb last fall after it was injured during roping practice.

Wes Hermelbracht said he was confident his daughter would handle the loss of a thumb without too much emotional damage.
“You look around, in the scheme of the world, a thumb is minor,” he said. “And it didn’t take long for Molly to realize that.”
He still ropes, as does Molly’s 17-year-old brother, Ty. Her mother provides support and wears a bracelet that reads “Rodeo Mom.”
Her mom never believed the injury would end Molly’s rodeo career. She tried roping mere days after the amputation, Jeanne Hermelbracht said, to Ayoub’s concern.

Hermelbracht, who performs with the Hastings College rodeo team, has had to learn to hold the rope between her index and middle fingers.

The young roper faces at least one more surgery. This fall Ayoub plans to open the web of tissue between the stump and the index finger to give what’s left of the thumb more movement. Eventually, he said, it might be wise to fully break the bone in the stump, then gradually spread the bone apart to lengthen the stump a few millimeters and give her more ability to carry out a pinching motion.
The thumb, Ayoub said, gives the hand about 50 percent of its function.
Molly rode into the Washington County Fair arena with other ropers the night of July 29, warming up her horse, Stewie, and practicing her toss for the breakaway roping event. Her ponytail bounced. She adjusted her yellow-white cowboy hat.
She has competed in close to 15 rodeos and roping events this summer. She has earned a few hundred dollars and said she is close to where she was before the injury. She has improved her ability to grip and throw rope between the index and middle fingers and finished third in a team roping event and fifth in a breakaway roping competition earlier this summer.
The calf raced out of the chute. Molly and Stewie tore out and she fired her rope. It combed the calf but missed.
It happened so fast.
Molly rode to the side of the arena and joined some other ropers. Expressionless, Molly chewed gum, held her right hand on the saddle horn and her left on her hip.
She said she doesn’t throw things or cry after a mediocre performance. “My father would never allow that.”
Another night and another rodeo were done. There were more to come.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1123, rick.ruggles@owh.com, twitter.com/rickruggles

Share your thoughts