By the skin of his teeth: a bull rider learns to walk again without insurance

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By the skin of his teeth: a bull rider learns to walk again without insurance
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An injury left professional bull rider Joseph Dewey paralyzed now, like countless other Americans, hes recovering without health insurance

In the weeks after professional bull rider Joseph Dewey suffered an injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down, an outpouring of support kept him buoyed above the undertow of hopelessness and despair.

A friend set up a GoFundMe page to help pay his mortgage and care for his family, while another threw a benefit to provide money for costly leg braces. Prayer and encouragement flowed fast in those days and steeled his spirit, so much that when doctors informed him hed never walk again, Dewey a stubborn cowboy and a Christian replied You dont know the God that I know, and pointed them to the door.

Now two years after his injury, Dewey is without health insurance.

Professional bull rider Joseph Dewey is trying to teach himself to walk again. Photograph: Scott Slusher

After being dropped by one provider while he was still riding, he relied on Oklahomas state Medicaid program to pay for his hospitalization and treatment, only to have it cancelled and denied once it was up for renewal. Dewey says the reason was that his income was too high, even though the previous year, before receiving disability, hed earned far below the federal poverty level. (The monthly income limit for the type of Medicaid he used is $2,111 for one single adult, which he says is far higher than what he was earning.)

Plans under Obamacare, he was told, were also out of his reach: his income was too low. And although he qualified for another state plan called Insure Oklahoma, which offers subsidies to low-income people who fall between the gaps, Dewey had no way of knowing about it.

Navigating the confusing system from his smartphone, with no internet connection at home, all he managed to find was a private plan for $250 a month, which he couldnt afford.

Oklahoma has one of the highest uninsured rates in the nation, some 14% of its residents, second only to Texas. Its also one of 19 states that has refused to expand Medicaid to the poor under the Affordable Care Act. Premiums are some of the highest in the country. Online, different websites lead to a tangle of private plans with seemingly conflicting prices and information.

The result is a Byzantine system much like the rest of US healthcare thats daunting to residents like Dewey, who often dont know where to turn for advice.

After hitting the wall again and again, Dewey eventually grew so frustrated that he gave up trying. Without coverage, he stopped going to his weekly therapy sessions that were vital to his rehab. Its been seven months since his last visit.

Ever since his accident, doctors and therapists warned Dewey about his two-year window of recovery. After a year, only 2% of people with spinal cord injuries like his regain basic motor function. Each year that follows, the window closes even more.
And rehab can be crucial to becoming one of that 2%. Joseph would definitely benefit from continued therapy, said Kelly Clifton, the aquatic therapist who once worked with Dewey. But what people do on their own also matters a lot. Motivation is key to the healing process.

So Dewey, whos 26, does what roughly 28 million other Americans who dont have health coverage do when faced with long-term illness and injury: he guts it out on his own.

Joseph Deweys hands after strenuous exercise on his wheelchair. Photograph: Scott Slusher

Each morning before dawn, Dewey wages a private and fevered battle to walk again using his own DIY devices: a $35-a-month gym membership and his carbon-fiber wheelchair, which he uses to run through the streets of Blanchard until the point of exhaustion a friends Facebook page shows Deweys blister-gnarled hands.

And inside his single-wide trailer on the outskirts of town, he drills on a set of homemade parallel bars, pushing legs to move that had once danced in sync with 1,800-pound beasts. A battery of supplements help combat atrophy and bone loss, while a pencil-marked Bible fends off the depression that carries with it more wreckage than any bucking bull.

Little by little, Dewey says his regimen is working. Neural roadblocks are being breached, allowing sensation to pass through: hot and cold, the brush of his dog against his leg. Each week is a celebration of small, minuscule victories.

With only his disability benefits and a meager income from working as an artist, Dewey often struggles to get by. It helps to stay focused on the bigger picture.

This is my mission in life, he says. Its also my greatest blessing.

To hear Dewey tell it, a lifetime of being thrown from bulls might be the best preparation for learning to get up and walk again. For it takes a certain level of toughness to endure that much punishment and keep coming back. And in towns like Blanchard, toughness is a virtue in a child.

In a place where rodeos often outdraw Friday night football, no one looks askance when an eight-year-old kid mounts an animal eight times his weight and nods his head go. Anyway, it was Deweys grandmother who put him up to it; he was too big to ride sheep. The junior bull dispatched the boy in one second flat, leaving him with a mouthful of dirt and head pulsing with adrenaline.

By 15, he was a journeyman on the junior rodeo circuit. Around that time, he met Cody Webster, a cowboy his age who lived in nearby Wayne. Webster was earning his reputation bullfighting, an equally dangerous sport that entails protecting the rider once they get thrown, usually by slapping the bull between the eyes and running like hell.

The two of them began rodeoing together across four states, home-schooling to better travel on the fly.

In 2013, at age 22, Dewey joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and hit the big leagues. For his debut in Lake City, Florida, he paid the entry fee and drew a bull named Highly Favored, which let him go seven seconds before crushing him against the chute gate. Out $95, he drove 24 hours back to Blanchard nursing three broken ribs.

A year earlier in Rush Springs, a bull had stepped on his humerus and snapped the bone in half, leaving his arm dangling.

In Kellyville, another had pounced on his chest and cracked his sternum, collapsing both lungs.

There was also the concussion in Guthrie, one of many, two cracked vertebrae in Wayne, the broken jaw in Jones, and a fractured wrist at a rodeo he can no longer remember.

A year after turning pro, he experienced a bad scare in Medicine Park when a bull knocked him unconscious for nearly a minute and mauled his limp body.

Bullfighters managed to pull him free and got him to his feet. He spat teeth as he wobbled back to the gate and had to be medevacked to a hospital. The massive concussion kept him in bed for two weeks.

Back in 2012, Dewey became a father. His fiancees health insurance through her job covered their son. And now that Dewey had more responsibility, he got his own plan, which covered many of his injuries with little question.

Thats because Dewey listed his profession as construction worker when hed signed up. Which was true in between rodeos, Dewey worked for his grandfathers roofing and remodeling company.

But after the helicopter ride from Medicine Park, the company started piecing things together and said I was too accident prone, he says. They sent him a letter terminating his coverage.

Joseph Dewey lifting weights at the gym as part of his recovery. Photograph: Scott Slusher

The hospital bill for $40,000 eventually destroyed his credit.

Meanwhile, Deweys top row of molars, or what remained of them, looked as if someone had cracked them with a hammer and chisel the poor choice of having used bubble gum instead of a mouthpiece. Once he could get out of bed without puking, he found a cheap dentist on Google who pulled them for $1,000 cash.

In early September 2015, after winning second place at a rodeo in Texas, something didnt feel right. I felt like something was missing, that maybe that part of my life was done, he says. Already fatherhood and his battered body had led him to start considering other careers.

His grandfather had recently retired and given Dewey the family construction business. In addition, a hobby of sketching rodeo scenes had grown more serious. People were now commissioning portraits and offering real money. But still, was Dewey ready to quit riding?

I remember praying that night, telling God that I didnt think bullriding was what I was supposed to be doing any more, he says. I prayed for His will to be done. But I also remember saying, God, I dont need to get hurt to let this go.

Two weeks later, Dewey was playing paintball at his friend Cody Websters ranch near Wayne. He was climbing down from a tall blackjack oak when a branch, 30 feet up, snapped and sent him hurtling toward the ground.

He landed square on his back, buckled over the lip of a creek. His eyes filled with terror as he looked at Webster, standing nearby.

I cant feel my legs.

A medevac chopper picked him up in a pasture and rushed him to OU Medical Center in Norman. X-rays revealed a broken L1 vertebrae that severed the flow of blood to his spinal cord. The result was complete and permanent paralysis from the waist down.

After 15 years of riding bulls, breaking nearly every bone in his body except for his legs, Joseph Dewey met his Waterloo by falling out of a tree.

He spent three weeks in ICU and another month doing inpatient therapy. Dewey had no health insurance when he arrived at the hospital, so a counselor enrolled him in Oklahomas Medicaid program, SoonerCare, that covers medically necessary procedures for residents who need assistance.

Dewey and his dog, Rain, at home. Photograph: Scott Slusher

To his doctors and therapists, Dewey was mulish and obstinate, refusing to believe their lies. A custom wheelchair? Ill be walking before you can deliver it, he told them.

Websters wife Ashley started the crowdfunding page that raised over $15,000 to help pay the bills. When Dewey maxed out his Medicaid coverage for outpatient therapy and needed $4,000 leg braces, also not covered, Webster by then a renowned bullfighter hosted a barrel-racing event and auctioned off memorabilia to raise thousands more.

Webster and his father also built Deweys parallel bars, welding together the lengths of pipe.

But the confidence he showed in the hospital withered once he got home. His tiny trailer felt like a cell. He had no skills to navigate the hopelessness that seized him, no vocabulary to describe the despair, so he chose to say nothing. For three months, he hardly spoke at all.

As a bull rider youre used to your body breaking down and having to build back up, he says. But this was an emotional and spiritual breakdown that was very difficult to recover from. Most mornings, I just woke up and cried.

At his lowest point, he turned to his faith. He began spending hours reading his Bible and meditating in prayer, negotiating with God as one does in the wilderness.

Little by little, the depression loosened its grip and he found the tools to move on. Being paralyzed was to be humbled before the Lord. And believing that he could walk again, that he could be healed, was Gods ultimate test of his faith.

When I finally realized that this was a blessing rather than the end of my life, things changed, he says. And now I had to find who I really was beneath that identity.

Soon after starting his regimen, he said, his legs began responding to pressure and touch. He could feel discomfort, such as when he sat the wrong way. At his weekly aquatic therapy sessions in the pool, loosed from gravity, he could even walk with a little help, shuffle from side to side, and for a brief hour, be a man who stood on his own two feet.

Dewey receives a monthly disability check of $750. Photograph: Scott Slusher

At the same time, word of mouth was spreading about Deweys artwork. It had mostly been a hobby, drawing portraits of rodeo cowboys, matadors, and other western themes. People paid $400 for the drawings, which often took him two weeks to complete. A few months after the accident, he had enough commissions to work as a full-time artist.

Last September, Dewey finally got approved for government disability he now receives a monthly check for $750. Coupled with the small income from his artwork, its barely enough to pay bills and help support his son. After losing insurance, he scraped bottom to continue swimtherapy, paying $130 out of pocket for each session. But the cost, plus the gas to Oklahoma City, became too much.

In March, he stopped going.

The whole process of finding a plan just got to be overwhelming, he says. In the end, I just cut my losses. I figured I could rehab on my own.

A few weeks ago, Dewey and his son were eating in a restaurant when he felt the boy kicking him under the table.

I sure wish youd stop that, he told him.

The boys eyes grew wide. Dad, you can feel!

Photograph: Scott Slusher

Losing his therapy has pushed Dewey even harder. His workouts are more intense and leave his legs feeling exhausted. Whenever hes in town, Webster joins Dewey for workouts and says his friends drive has never wavered. Weve always had to do things on our own, the cowboy way, Webster says. Deweys the hardest-working guy I know. There aint a doubt in my mind that hell be back up and walking.

Dewey now travels to local rodeos to give his testimony. He explains how God took him away from bullriding to use him for something greater, took the blinders from his eyes and made him see what was truly important. And while hes at peace with his journey, he still holds out for that one miracle, when God is finally done using him and tells him to get up and walk.

I tell Dewey a similar story about a boarder who once lived with my great-grandparents. He was a soldier whod been shot in the back during the war and was paralyzed. Shortly after arriving, my great-grandfather Clem, an old prayer warrior, drove him to their Pentecostal church and began laying on hands, the congregation backing him up with fire.

At one point, it happened the soldier stood up, kicked away his chair, and began to walk. That night he refused to sleep, just paced the floor muttering a steam of hallelujahs.

Miracles already come to Dewey in dreams. Theres one where Im in my chair and it just hits me, he says. I can walk! So I stand up and start walking, just like that.

In another, hes walking through a cafe and seeing the world again at his full height. His legs are robust and steady. In each dream, there isnt a bull in sight.

Bryan Mealers latest book, The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Familys Search for the American Dream, comes out in February

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