It was a scorching hot day as the bull, Real Handy, was getting ready to buck out of the shoot at the Ponoka Stampede in 2002.

Real Handy was a rank bull, but cowboy Curtis Anderson had ten years of experience in bull riding. Curtis wiped away the sweat from his upper lip as he prepared for the gate to open on this hot Alberta summer day.

The last thing Curtis remembers is setting the rope on Real Handy before his life would change drastically.

Curtis was struck twice in the head by the ferocious horns of an angry bull.

Curtis was rushed to the hospital after sustaining life-threatening injuries to his head. To give Curtis the best chance of survival, doctors put him in a drug-induced coma for three long weeks. During surgery, shunts were inserted into the skull to control the swelling of the brain.

The next thing Curtis remembers is being transferred by ambulance to the Glenrose Hospital where his real fight would begin.

Curtis was a regular 27-year-old cowboy. He grew up on a farm in Innisfree. His love for bull riding began young, and he was a hard worker in all facets of life. In the winters, he worked on the rigs and in the summers, he had a custom fencing company. Curtis’ weekends were spent bull riding and spending time with his friends and family.

According to the Mayo Clinic, a traumatic brain injury is the result of a “violent blow or jolt to the head or body”. The symptoms can vary greatly depending on the cause and severity of the injury. In cases of severe head trauma, traumatic brain injury can result in torn tissues and bleeding in the brain.

Curtis’ injuries had resulted in an extremely severe traumatic brain injury. Amplified even further by a severe concussion he had suffered from two weeks before the incident. His brain was still in a vulnerable state, and further injury was nearly fatal.

After Curtis was awakened from his drug-induced coma, he became aware of the steep mountain that he had to climb. At this point, he wasn’t aware of the lifelong, uphill battle that had been subscribed to him. Curtis had a clean slate. His brain injury had resulted in the inability to walk, talk, use his left hand and complete other basic tasks.

Almost immediately, Curtis began his physical and occupational therapy. Both a frustrating and rewarding journey for Curtis. When I asked him what his greatest highlights in healing were, I could hear his enthusiasm spark on the other end of the phone. He proudly explained that everything was a highlight following months of discomfort. He told me stories of his first steps following the accident and about the mobilization of his left arm, “I would balance with my right arm as I threw bean bags into a pale a few feet away.” An incredible feat after such a difficult journey.

Curtis recalled how using toothpaste was an accomplishment for him. For most, we take advantage of our ability to hold the toothpaste with one hand and uncap the toothpaste with the other. However, for Curtis, this was not an insignificant detail – instead, it was an overwhelming accomplishment.

Following the accident, Curtis had to relearn how to speak. He and I laughed as he told me that his first words were, “My ass is sore” after spending months in a wheelchair. The progress was slow, but it was great – every small achievement was like climbing Mount Everest.

I asked Curtis who some of the most notable people were during his recovery. He spoke highly of the doctors, his friends, and his family, but he reminded me of the importance of community. Following his accident, he met other traumatic brain injury survivors that gave him comfort and hope, “Nobody can understand you until they’ve had the boots on.”

Nearly two decades later, and Curtis is still working on some of his movements. He recently was able to pick a coin up off of the floor. He still suffers from limited mobility with his left hand, which he is still actively working on.

I asked Curtis what his goals are in the upcoming years. At first, Curtis was in deep thought, before he discussed his hope to spread awareness. Curtis has been a keynote speaker in different Alberta schools, but he hopes to take his message further and, eventually, speak on an international level.

When asked what his main messages are, Curtis says, “I want people to protect themselves by wearing helmets. When I was riding, only two men in Alberta wore helmets. Today, over 90% of them do.”

Curtis continued that it’s important to him to spread awareness of proper concussion care and essential healing time. Head injuries of any severity should not be neglected.

Curtis’ messages are both powerful and significant, however, as I ended my interview with Curtis Anderson that day, the most vital message I took away from him was the will to keep on going – even when things get hard.

Curtis is both a resilient man and an uplifting one. Despite the cards stacked against him, Curtis was patient in his healing and continued even when the fight was excruciating and exhausting.

In May, Curtis celebrated the 16th Annual Courage Canada Trail Ride. The fundraiser invites everyone to hop on their trusty horses and enjoy a 12-mile trail ride to spread awareness for brain injury. The founder and leader of the trail ride? Curtis himself.

Every year, Curtis pays tribute to his bravery and resilience by jumping on his horse and sharing his story. Over the past 16 years, the Ride has raised over $200,000 towards the cause. However, you can’t put a number on how much awareness has been raised over nearly two decades.

When I asked Curtis what his advice would be for anybody going through a difficult time, he said, “Stay with it and go one day at a time. Make everyday count. But, never give up.” He also offered the advice, “Rest and water are the best medicine” – which is advice I will carry with me through all of my troubles throughout life.

Written by Celina Dawdy