At a Friday night peak event, Connor “Hubba” Hagerty held on for 8 seconds with a high score for a win in the Aug. 19 bull-riding contest at the Pend Oreille County Fair & Rodeo. When Hagerty moved to get off the bull, that’s when everything went horribly wrong.
The Spokane Valley man, 24, fell backwards and hit his head directly on the ground, breaking his neck. Transported from Cusick, Washington, to the Newport Hospital, then from there by Life Flight to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, he had an early morning emergency surgery to restore the crushed vertebrae.
Transferred about a week ago to the Providence St. Luke’s Rehabilitation center, Hagerty said he’s regained some movement in feet, legs and arms, but doctors expect a long recovery. His family set up a now completed GoFundMe, raising $25,500.
Hagerty, who has a 14-month-old son, Ryder, said his rodeo days are over.
“I will never get on another bull again,” said Hagerty, while in the hospital Aug. 30. “I have my baby, and I love rodeo, but the risk isn’t worth it anymore now that I have a baby. I want to see him grow up and be the dad he really needs.”
He’s done rodeo from a young age, and Hagerty also worked Monday through Friday at a granite shop as a lead granite installer, overseeing a crew for residential jobs. It’s too soon to know when he can return to that work, he said.
Dr. David Gruber, neurosurgeon with Inland Neurosurgery and Spine, performed Hagerty’s surgery at Sacred Heart.
“That was actually a heavy weekend of rodeo injuries for us, and he was among them,” Gruber said. “He was riding a bull, was thrown off and he landed on his head.
“What happens in a situation like that is if you can think of a sudden, compressive load applied to your neck, similar to the way an accordion is closed, that’s what happens here. There are seven vertebrae in the neck and he actually exploded his fifth vertebra, and he herniated the discs just above and below that vertebra – so the C4-5 disc and the C5-6 disc – and that pushed back in and bruised his spinal cord.”
Between the accident and the arrival to Sacred Heart, Hagerty had what’s called an incomplete spinal cord injury. In the fall, Hagerty was partially paralyzed. Gruber said Hagerty’s surgery involved a vertebrectomy and a fusion extending from the C4-5 cervical vertebra disc space through the C5-6 disc space.
“Because the vertebrae has been shattered so badly, it now has no structural viability, so you end up having to drill out the vertebra and you have to insert a special device that is made of titanium that actually expands up to the C4 vertebra, and it grabs the C4 vertebra, and it expands down to the C6 vertebra and it grabs that,” Gruber said. “Basically, it restores that structural integrity that had been lost by the fracture.”
There are categories for spinal cord injuries, Gruber added. “When someone is completely paralyzed and they have no sensation below that level of injury, that’s what we call a complete spinal cord injury. His was not complete, so that’s the rationale for proceeding with surgery as soon as you can.”
Within days of surgery, Hagerty’s movement in arms became much more significant. He still had weakness in his grip. He also started to have more movement in his legs before he left the hospital, but was not able to get upright or be ambulatory. That goal will be work done at St. Luke’s, and Gruber thinks it will be a long haul.
“His prognosis is definitely much brighter, but what his ultimate outcome will be, we still don’t know yet. It’s still too soon to know after his injury.”
Hagerty said on Sept. 7 from St. Luke’s that his focus now is entirely on physical therapy and recovery.
He’d recently had an assist to stand upright in a standing frame on the rehabilitation campus, and he did 4 miles of cycling work. “I’m feeling good, ready to get this going, My tentative release date is Oct. 1.”
More standing, and eventually use of devices toward the goal of walking, come next. “I’ll do their exoskeleton work,” he said. “They’ll have me walking on a system with an exoskeleton frame.”
About 12 days after the injury, he said doctors and nurses were amazed by his ability to wiggle feet back and forth, along with other movement, that showed early progress.
“We still don’t know exactly – long term on my gross motor function and fine motor skills. My fine motor is what I’m really going to have to really work on, but I can feel everything in my body. I have sensation. It’s the moving the body parts that’s a problem.”
He said the accident happened at 9 or 9:30 p.m. and was in surgery by about 1 a.m. the next morning.
“My whole bull-riding community has really rallied behind me,” he said. “My parents Salina and Mikey, and my fiance Kirsten, they’ve been behind me every step of the way.”
Grandparents help take care of Ryder. Hagerty said his friendships through rodeo remain tight.
“I’ve grown up doing rodeo,” he said. “They put me on my first sheep when I was 2, almost 3, and I’ve just been doing it ever since. I got on my first 700- or 800-pound bull when I was 7 years old, so I’ve been doing this a long time.”
He’s grateful for support from the GoFundMe contributions, after concerns about paying for Life Flight and medical care costs, and staying on top of bills. “I won’t lose my house or anything. I’ve done granite installing for five years now so I qualify for FMLA.
“The support means the world to me. Every time you get on a bull, you know you can get hurt or not walk out of that arena. After that happened, everyone told me, ‘We’ll be there for you.’ ”
A friend with a concrete business offered to pour Hagerty’s garage floor, build ramps and put new steps in free of charge.
Hagerty said he’s also received support from his uncle Adam Westman, who raises bulls and does steer wrestling as a longtime fellow rodeo participant. “He’s been there every step of the way, helping me recover too.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.