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Crunch-Time Cowboy

On call with Dr. Tandy Freeman, the orthopedist-to-the-stars of the bull-riding circuit

October 31, 2004|Katherine Gould | Katherine Gould last wrote for the magazine about the Sumatran rhinos at the L.A. Zoo.

In a trailer behind an arena on the dusty outskirts of Laughlin, Nev., Dr. Tandy Freeman, the head of the medical team for the Professional Bull Riders tour, examined the throbbing shoulder of bull rider Mark Ward. Ward's injury came not in one of the bone-crushing, spine-chilling wrecks that draw millions of fans to PBR events live and on TV; Ward just landed wrong. He flew off the bull like a rag doll, came down in a lump in the dirt, like bull riders usually do, and got up clutching his right arm.

During the replay on the jumbo screen, the audience gasped and groaned as they watched, in slow-motion, Ward's arm take the full weight of his falling body, making a motion no arm should ever make. Freeman saw it from his usual seat atop a rail on the arena's edge, and was waiting when Ward walked out of the ring. Ward said he'd felt the shoulder pop out of the socket and back in again, so Freeman sent him off with a trainer to await a full examination. Later, on TV, Ward was laughing with other cowboys, tape securing a huge plastic bag of ice under his Western shirt. But despite the levity, Freeman knew Ward was worried.

It was mid-September, a month away from the start of the two-weekend PBR World Finals in Las Vegas, which conclude today. A total purse of more than $3 million would be up for grabs, and it was a bad time for a cowboy to dislocate a shoulder. After eight years as the rodeo crowd's primary-care physician, Freeman has seen enough dislocations to know without an MRI or X-ray when one is serious. An orthopedic surgeon based in Dallas, Freeman has built his practice by rebuilding shoulders, elbows, legs, knees and ankles smashed and broken in a sport that is one of the toughest on the human body. He travels to every PBR event--his travel expenses are paid by the medical team's 2004 sponsor, HealthSouth--and donates his time and expertise for on-site care, though many cowboys eventually become paying patients of his medical practice.

At each of 29 PBR major-league events during the year, Freeman and three certified athletic trainers--Peter Wang, Rich Blyn and Tony Marek--take care of 45 circuit cowboys with a lifetime's worth of injuries. The trainers tape old wounds, help cowboys stretch, teach rehabilitation exercises, provide ice packs. "They do all the hard work," says Freeman, who earlier in his career was the team doctor for the Dallas Mavericks. He works with high school athletes and pros, including the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assn., from which the PBR split 12 years ago.

Of all his patients, the bull riders are the toughest, thriving on a sport that treats their bodies like crash-test dummies. With them, Freeman handles injuries more common to auto accidents, such as blunt-force trauma and long-bone fractures. But he also understands the rodeo culture, where competitive men make their reputation -- and living--in harm's way.

"Other doctors, if you hurt your little finger or something, they tell you, 'You can't ride,' " says 23-year-old Cody Whitney, who was told after breaking a shoulder at about age 12 that he shouldn't ride anymore. "He tells you what he thinks and then he'll let you decide. He knows we have to make a living and this is what we do to make a living. Most of the guys, if he says, 'I don't think you should get on,' they won't, because that's how much they trust him."

Freeman, a town-raised kid who has never ridden a bull, is taller and less lean than the riders, but nonetheless has their same easy drawl and loping gait. He also wears boots, jeans, a Western shirt and cowboy hat to help put his patients-to-be at ease. It must work. Before the competition starts, they approach him one by one, their bravado set aside, asking quietly: "Tandy, can you look at my knee?" "Dr. Freeman, I wanted to talk to you about my back." "Dr. Tandy, remember I sent you some X-rays of my ankle a few months ago? It's still giving me trouble." To each one, he stops and says, yes, he'll take a look. His steady hands press here and there. "Does this hurt? Does it hurt here?"

To any injured cowboys who need to travel to Dallas for surgery or tests, Freeman extends a relative's hospitality. Earlier this year, Ross Johnson broke ribs and pulled ribs off his backbone. Freeman treated him then, but when Johnson started having trouble later, he called Freeman. "He thought I was having an allergic reaction to something that he [gave] me, so he got up out of bed--3, 4 in the morning--and came to check on me and make sure I was doing all right."

"I think he does a lot for the bull riders that most doctors probably wouldn't do," says Jim Sharp, who has at different times torn apart both shoulders, and who carries Freeman's phone number in case he's injured away from a PBR event. Says another rodeo veteran with a twice-broken neck: "I trust Tandy next to my wife and God."

When the Laughlin event is over, Freeman motions Mark Ward to the padded exam table. He slowly moves Ward's arm up and down, forward and back. "Does this hurt? Can you press against my hand?" Several times, Ward contorts his face in pain and his body bucks on the table. Freeman doesn't flinch, concluding that Ward may have torn or broken the rotator cuff. "You tell me what to do," Ward says, "because I need to be good in a month."

Several days later, after reviewing MRI and X-ray results, Freeman decides that Ward may have partly torn his rotator cuff tendon, pulled a ligament off the ball of the bone and bruised the bone itself. He concedes that Ward's shoulder needs more than four weeks to heal, and eventually may require surgery, but tells Ward he can probably ride in the finals. Because Freeman knows this is what bull riders do, and that he will be sitting atop a rail at the edge of the ring in Las Vegas this weekend, watching for the next cowboy who needs him.

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