Mike “Gunner” Woodring: Cowboy Up

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By Laura Fonda Hochnadel

When Mike Woodring was a toddler, a family friend commented on his gait: "He walks like a gunfighter."

"I was kind of bowlegged, I guess," Woodring says, "so from that moment on he started calling me 'Gunner,'" and Woodring has carried the nickname since then.

In reality, Woodring, a Denver resident, has mild cerebral palsy (CP), with which he was diagnosed about the time he learned how to walk. "When I started walking, they figured out it was CP," he recounts. "My right foot turned in considerably, and my heel wouldn't hit the ground, so I kind of walked on the ball of my right foot." By the time he was two or three, Woodring, now 50, says he was fitted with a series of shoes to wear overnight-" each shoe pointed out and there's a bar in the middle," he says. A year or so after that, he was fitted with a metal brace that he had to wear during the day.

At about five years old, he was given a several year reprieve from wearing braces, but underwent heel-cord lengthening surgery on his right leg when he was seven years old. "When I was in fourth grade I started sleeping with the night shoes again, and I had a day brace again," he adds. "It was pretty stringent. Every day, even in the summertime, you were in the brace, and you want[ed] to be wearing tennis shoes, but [the braces] were permanently affixed to a pair of [sturdier] shoes." One night, while lying in bed, he says he turned on his side and the bar between the two shoes snapped. "So, I yelled out, 'Dad, my night shoes broke,' and he yelled back, 'Take them off, and I'll fix them tomorrow.'" The broken brace was placed on his dad's workshop bench until it eventually disappeared from sight altogether.

Woodring's entire right side is affected by CP, he says, and is weaker than his left. He had some limitations growing up, such as not being able to climb the ropes in gym class or walk the balance beam foot over foot, but having CP didn't hold him back. He was as physically active as the rest of his friends, and even played football through junior high and in his first year in high school. He admits to having been the slowest player on the team, but as left tackle, his running speed didn't affect his playing.

"I don't associate myself with having CP," Woodring says. While this may be true, he is feeling gait-related effects of the CP, compounded by a roughand- tumble young adulthood and the onset of diabetes-related neuropathy. Last fall, Woodring was fitted with a gauntlet on his right ankle.

Taking Care of Business

Well aware of the potential repercussions that he might experience should a diabetes-related wound on his foot go unnoticed or unattended, Woodring says he checks his feet frequently. "I make sure that I don't have wounds on [my feet], and when wounds do come up I'm really quick to get it checked out because I don't want it to turn into a diabetic ulcer," he says.

During an appointment with Anna Weber, DPM, at the Diabetic Foot & Wound Center, Denver, to discuss the neuropathy and pain he was experiencing in his feet, she noticed that his right foot rolls under when he walks. Weber referred him to Creative Technology Orthotic & Prosthetic Solutions, Denver, where he saw Lara Schrock, CPO, who casted and fitted Woodring with the ankle gauntlet. The lace-up gauntlet is made of cream-colored leather over a plastic inner shell; it extends part way up his calf and encases half of his foot. He wears it during his workday, about eight hours per day, three to four days per week, as prescribed, he says.

An added benefit of the gauntlet, Woodring says, is that although it was prescribed to prevent his foot from rolling under due to the CP, it also alleviates pain caused by the neuropathy and a bone fragment from a long-ago break-something Weber discovered when she examined an x-ray of his foot.

"I've broken [my right foot] a couple different times," Woodring says.

Cowboy Up

A cowboy at heart despite a suburban Colorado upbringing-attributed to his early Kansas roots and the influence of watching westerns on television and on the big screen-as a teenager, Woodring started seeking out jobs working at rodeos, on ranches, and even at a local dairy. He was living in Golden, Colorado, at the time, which is nestled against the Rocky Mountain foothills and has a history of ranching; unincorporated portions of the town are still home to several cattle ranches.

"When I actually came to being a cowboy and doing the work, I was 13," he recalls. "We went to a jackpot roping..., and they needed somebody to help push cows through the chutes.... That's the first time I'd really been standing in a herd of steers. And they kicked a couple times and it hurt, but that very day I learned about cowboying up. You keep doing your job, and you don't whimper about it."

Being a cowboy is rough work; injuries are part of the job, Woodring says.

Several years later, in 1983, while working as a horseback guide at a guest ranch in Estes Park, Colorado, he experienced his first major injury: A horse crushed his feet.

"I was trying to saddle a Percheron draft horse because there was nothing else to ride, and she stepped backward and stepped on my left foot," he says. "I could hear it break, and I could of course feel it break. I slapped her to get her to move, and she came forward and stepped on my right foot... and that really hurt."

He has also been kicked in the knees numerous times by cattle and horses, and broke his right foot two more times. And yet, he says, "I wouldn't trade that [line of work] for anything. That's what I wanted to do. [The injuries are] the price you pay. It's like a phrase I once heard, 'Nobody will ever find a machine to replace a cowboy because they've never found anything that could take as much abuse.'"

Moving On

Woodring has long since hung up his spurs and found a desk job. Although come springtime you might find him at a local ranch helping out with the branding and inoculations; sometimes he just helps to supervise the work. He also fishes, shoots skeet, and plays a bit of golf, but more than anything, he says he loves spending time with his nieces and nephews. Because the gauntlet is rigid and doesn't allow his ankle to bend, he doesn't usually wear it while driving or while out walking. When he is wearing the gauntlet, though, he says, "It alleviates so much pain."

Laura Fonda Hochnadel can be reached at .