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Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Rodeo champion fights to recover after brain injury

April 28, 2022

From the moment he could walk, Reece UIlerich wore cowboy boots and climbed onto any kind of horse. Eventually, the toddler toys turned into real horses, and with it, a passion for riding was born for the 21-year-old from Humboldt, South Dakota.

“I remember when Reece first started in 4-H Rodeo, he came down for breakfast one morning and said, ‘I’m going to win a buckle today at grandpa’s rodeo,’” Melissa Ullerich, Reece’s mother recalled. “We all chuckled at his naive confidence and enthusiasm—but he went outside and practiced tying his goat for what seemed like 100 times before the rodeo—and he ended up winning a buckle that day.”

It’s one of many competitions Reece would win throughout the years. Beginning with junior high state titles in goat tying and breakaway roping, Reece got the ‘horse bug,’ as Melissa explained it. In his high school years, Reece was a four-time national qualifier, went on to win a state championship in reined cow horse, in addition to other state titles in calf-roping, all-around cowboy and team roping with his partner and brother, Jace.

Pictured here before his accident, Reece competed in rodeo while also studying at South Dakota State. Photo Courtesy: Joel Bergeson“He was in the arena at midnight and six in the morning,” Melissa said. “You had to ride three to four times a day, every day of the week. He had that commitment and did it on his own without anyone pushing him. When he was out there in the rain and snow, we realized it was more than a hobby. That’s why he was riding on January 15.”

That’s when Reece’s life changed in an instant. While on a rodeo scholarship to South Dakota State, he was exercising a horse when the horse tripped and they went down together. It resulted in a traumatic brain injury for Reece and left his family praying he would pull through.

“Up until the day of his craniectomy, we didn’t know if he would make it,” Melissa remembered.

Reece spent more than 40 days in the ICU at Sanford USD Medical Center and Hospital in Sioux Falls. After awaking from a medically induced coma, the family planned to get Reece to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals.

“We know enough people and have done enough research to know that Madonna was our goal,” Melissa said. “On our CaringBridge page, people would comment, ‘Madonna is the best, or they do miracles there, and that’s where he needs to be.’ That just reaffirmed what we were wanting.”

After a long road, Reece came to Madonna’s Pediatric Brain Injury Program where his medical condition is being overseen by physicians and rehabilitation nurses and he is engaging in daily physical and occupational therapy. But one day will clearly stand out to Reece and his family. Knowing his love of horses, Madonna worked with Windsong Equitherapy in Lincoln to bring Reece’s passion to a therapy session. For an hour, Reece enjoyed being around three horses on Madonna’s campus with his care team helping him soak it in.

“Using something that is familiar and patient-centered is the basis of occupational therapy,” Kelly Bolz, Madonna’s Inpatient Pediatric Program Leader, said. “For Reece, using a horse aids in motivation and requires fewer words and explanation. The sensory components help too – smell, touch, standing to reach the horse and, vision. Real-life tasks support real-life function.” 

Reece’s mother whole-heartedly agrees.

“We’re just so grateful for all the people who worked together to do something special like that,” Melissa said. “Seeing his hands do things that I’ve seen them do a thousand times with ease. Whether it was picking up and grabbing the lead rope, grabbing the mane or putting the blanket on, those are things he’s done a thousand times. Just to have a glimpse of that for us was really special.”

With the rodeo and horse communities and an army of prayer warriors cheering him on, Reece continues to make progress at Madonna with the goal of one day getting on that horse again.

“I hope that his story can be a testimony and give glory to God through something that’s been a tragedy for us,” Melissa said. “I tell Reece that he knows how to work hard toward a goal and keep a good attitude. God has a plan for him; that’s why he’s still here with us. We’re just looking through the peephole right now. We need to have faith, trust and wait for God to open the door.”

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