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OHS Sophomore Defies Odds
0430 Hanko

Even his mom is amazed.

Oakdale High School sophomore Zach Hanko, 15, is “on about miracle number four,” according to his mother, Judy Alvey. The teen suffered serious, life-threatening injuries while competing in this past weekend’s high school rodeo finals at the Oakdale rodeo grounds but is on the mend and surprising everyone with how quickly he is recovering.

An elementary teacher for the school district, Alvey said Zach was competing in the bareback riding event when the accident happened midafternoon Saturday, April 26. Alvey and her husband, Matt Hanko, were in attendance at the rodeo, as Matt helps with the events and both were cheering their son on in the sport.

“He was in his bareback event, he covered (the 8 seconds required for scoring) and it’s then that the ‘pick up men’ will come and get you,” Alvey explained of the scenario. “When they got to the end of the arena, the horse jumped instead of turning left.

“I saw it from a distance and it was horrible. When the horse went up to go over the fence, it launched Zach head first over the fence, straight into the ground. The horse followed him, but caught on the fence and landed upside down, on top of Zach.”

Amazingly, the teen never lost consciousness, even though he “looked like a lawn dart” as he was propelled over the fence, said Alvey.

She praised the pick up men who scrambled over the fence and rushed to her son’s aid, as he lay crumpled outside the arena.

“He never lost consciousness, he was talking the whole time, making jokes, his demeanor, he has a dry humor, and he took care of everyone around him emotionally, it was just wonderful,” Alvey explained.

It was only later that they learned Zach didn’t remember too much of that portion of the event.

“He only remembers leaving the horse, he knew he was launched,” his mom said. “The time from then until he was in the ambulance, he doesn’t remember.”

His injuries were two-fold, first, when he struck the ground after being launched off the horse, then suffering additional injuries when the 1,200-pound horse came down on him.

“On the right side of his face, those injuries are where he hit the ground,” Alvey said of facial fractures that may require reconstructive surgery due to a damaged eye socket.

Doctors and surgeons have to wait until the swelling goes down to check the eye socket. It originally was “the size of a tennis ball,” Alvey noted. Other injuries ranged from a hip fracture and fractures to two vertebrae, while the left side of his skull has a three inch crack by his ear.

“He fractured his top vertebrae, and very bottom vertebrae but they didn’t do any nerve damage, miracles number two and three,” Alvey said.

The hip fracture is something that will keep him sidelined for a while, as Zach isn’t supposed to put any weight on that leg. But he was up on crutches on Monday while still a patient in the ICU, continuing to confound the medical professionals.

“He is improving dramatically, and all of the surgeons and specialists, they cannot believe there wasn’t more trauma to his entire body,” Alvey said on Monday afternoon. “What he looks like now compared to 48 hours ago … he’s just an amazingly strong kid and it was an asset to him that he is strong.”

Alvey said she was overwhelmed by the support from family, friends, the community and the larger ‘rodeo family’ that they are a part of. She also worried about those fellow rodeo teens that saw Zach immediately after the incident because the outcome was so uncertain and he did not look good at all. She said many have since been able to stop by and visit, seeing for themselves that now the prognosis is good.

“About 35 or so kids came to see him, mostly Sunday night, we let them in to ICU one or two at a time, they needed to see him,” Alvey said. “Everyone had the same look of relief. Also the four pick up men – who were with Zach in the arena – they have all been here.”

Plans are to move the teen out of ICU once a bed becomes available in a lower-level care unit. He is at Memorial Hospital in Modesto and could be released this week.

“He never asked for pain meds, he was worried about whether he ‘covered,’ that’s all he kept asking,” Alvey said of her son wanting to make sure his ride was long enough. “He’s amazing, one tough kid.”

She also said Zach wanted to relay a message of his own: “Thank you to everyone who was there that helped me.”

Not only did Zach ‘cover’ in the bareback event, he actually was the champion in that particular competition. He took second in bullriding – but wasn’t able to take his final ride because that event came after bareback. This is his third year in the sport, as a rough stock rider in both the NorCal and high school rodeo.

Saturday were the finals for high school rodeo, it was the last rodeo of the season for high school and his dad went and picked up Zach’s awards for the season on Sunday – as he finished the year first place in bareback, second place in bullriding for District 5.

“He got two beautiful buckles and about $1500 worth of equipment,” Alvey said.

The event was traumatic, potentially devastating, but Alvey said there were great forces at work on Saturday.

“Everybody rushed to his side, and we want to send a special thanks to his pick up men because they were first on him, when he went over, they jumped over and took care of him,” Alvey said. “There were a whole lot of angels and miracles around him and Matt and I are so proud to be a part of that rodeo family. Zach’s completely awake and alert, talking to everybody, joking; his attitude is amazing.

“My boy’s alive and he’s going to be okay.”