Losing both arms in a freak electrical accident has not prevented Tyler Bowman from riding, roping and maintaining a positive attitude.
Story and photography by JENNIFER DENISON
The highlights of summertime for most 16-year-old cowboys are working a job, taking a family vacation, spending time horseback, driving and hanging out with friends. Tyler Bowman of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, will remember June of 2007, just days before he turned 17, as the time that forever changed his life.
The teenager was working his first ranch job away from home, and while riding an ATV was electrocuted by a fallen high-line wire. The electrical current entered his left arm and exited his right forearm, causing severe burns. Two co-workers who witnessed the accident called an ambulance, and Tyler was transported to the local hospital and then flown by Life Flight to a medical center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Though he was conscious the entire time, Tyler recalls only pieces of that day. His father, Ace, however, clearly remembers getting the call that his son had been in a lifethreatening accident.
“It was a hot June day, and I had been working yearlings,” he says. “At about 2 p.m. I came in for a drink of water and was on my way out the door when the phone rang. I wasn’t going to answer it, thinking it was probably a telemarketer, but something made me pick up and I’m glad I did.”
Ace and his wife, Teresa, rushed to the hospital to be with their son. There, physicians told them that to save his life, Tyler’s left arm had to be immediately amputated. Surgeons attempted to save his right arm, but the burns were so severe that they had to also amputate his right forearm just below the elbow. He also lost his big toe and part of his right foot.
“The first thing he told me when he was in ICU was, ‘Dad, I can’t drag calves anymore,’ ” Ace recalls. “This is a kid who won his first dummy roping [at the National Finals Rodeo] when he was 5 years old, and every one he entered after that. We didn’t have to worry about buying him toys because he was happy with just a rope.”
Besides roping, Tyler also had secured a starting position on the Pawhuska Huskies varsity basketball team.
After the amputations, Tyler spent more than a month in the hospital in Tulsa, and another month at a rehabilitation center in Houston, Texas. Within six months, he had 14 surgeries. His parents stayed by his side the entire time, often sleeping in the hospital room with him. Other amputees visited Tyler, sharing their experiences and giving him hope that he would be able to resume a normal life with prosthetics.
Tyler’s prosthetic arms, fitted by Scott Sabolich Prosthetics in Oklahoma City, are somewhat bionic. Once attached around the limbs, sensors that lie against the skin detect any movement and then transmit a signal to the hand to open or close. It took a while for Tyler to get accustomed to the technology, and simple tasks like buttoning a shirt or pouring soda from a two-liter bottle were difficult. But being resourceful and determined, he figured out how to do most everything he could before the accident, including rope and drag calves at brandings.
“There was never a time I doubted that I would ride a horse again,” says Tyler, now 23 years old. “My biggest fear was that I wouldn’t be able to rope. I can’t swing a rope, because my hand doesn’t open and close enough. But one night I figured out I could build a loop, hold the rope with my fingertips and pitch it underhanded.”
The following spring, Tyler was back in the corral on a well-broke horse his family raised, helping his dad, grandfather and neighbors at their brandings. Holding the coils was problematic, so Tyler tied his rope onto the horn with enough slack to build a loop and drag a calf.
The most difficult part of riding was holding and adjusting the reins. To help with the problem, Ace made a leather tube, similar to a length of hose, and wrapped it with elastic bandage and electrical tape to make it thick enough for Tyler to hold. The reins run through the tube. For a while, Tyler preferred to ride without his left prosthetic because it felt awkward, so he had to learn to hold his reins in his right hand. However, he recently started riding with both prosthetics.
Without full use of rein aids, Tyler needs a horse that neck-reins well. He also relies on his legs, seat and body to cue and guide his horse.
Tyler recently graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond with a business degree. He continues to be his dad’s top hand on the family’s commercial cow-calf operation, but he also has bigger plans for his future.
An emerging entrepreneur, he is cautious about divulging the full extent of his idea. But he says he would like to start his own business, using what he has learned to help others in situations similar to his.
Tyler says that if he could go back and change that dreadful June day, he would not because the experience shaped him into the man he is today. He shares his experience and faith through motivational speaking engagements, becoming an inspiration to others.
“Things happen for a reason, and God has a plan,” he says. “It’s through the grace of God I found strength and chose to get better, and to use my experience to help people.”