The odds were against Wyatt Bruesch on May 19 when a bull bucked him off at a rodeo event in Idaho and then struck him with the force of a freight train.
“The next thing I knew, that bull was trampling the left side of my chest with everything it had,” the 16-year-old from Albion tells PEOPLE, “I was fighting for air. It was the worst kind of pain you can imagine.”
Wyatt, who had only started riding bulls last October, knows that there is no way he should have survived the incident at the Idaho District 6 High School Rodeo Tournament last month.
After he was airlifted to the Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello, he flatlined three times in the emergency room. When he was resuscitated the third time, doctors decided there was only one option: A rare, “last ditch” emergency department thoracotomy.
“You don’t perform it until the patient is literally at death’s doorstep and about to die,” Drew McRoberts, Portneuf Medical Center‘s trauma director, tells PEOPLE. “The odds of surviving an ED thoracotomy are extremely low, which is why they’re rarely done.”
Acting quickly, trauma surgeon Jorge Amorim cut Wyatt’s chest open and massaged his heart by hand to get it beating again.
“He basically saved his life,” McRoberts says of Amorim, “and he also did something else. Dr. Amorim reached into the chest cavity and squeezed and held the hilum of the lung where the great vessels come into the lung. He continued to squeeze for 15 minutes which stopped the bleeding as Wyatt was rushed to an operating room.”
Wyatt’s mother, Nicole Erickson, says it was a “miracle.”
“We were told later that he was the first person to survive the procedure at the hospital this century,” she tells PEOPLE. “I look at him every day now and think, ‘Wow — you’re a miracle.’ We’re extremely lucky to still have him with us.”
Nicole, 44, who works as a title company escrow assistant, was sitting in the Burley Fairground rodeo stands with Wyatt’s stepfather, Ken Erickson, a cattle rancher, when her son barreled out of the chute on a 2,000-pound bull and was bucked off after three seconds.
“I froze and felt sick to my stomach when the bull came running back and started trampling Wyatt,” she says. “It was terrifying. We knew immediately that it was really bad.”
As she waited nervously at the hospital for news about her son’s condition, Nicole had no clue that Wyatt had slipped away three times.
“When they told me what they’d done as a last resort and that he was going to survive, I was shocked and relieved,” she tells PEOPLE. “All his life he’s been a fighter, but to die three times and come back? He really is a miracle child.”
Wyatt, who will be a senior in high school this fall, says he immediately became hooked on bull riding after trying it for the first time last year on a mechanical bull.
“There’s nothing quite like it — it’s an incredible feeling,” he tells PEOPLE. “My record for staying on is eight seconds, and I’ve had plenty of scrapes, cuts and bruises, even a few stitches. It’s all part of bull riding. To wake up in the hospital and learn what had happened to me this time, though, was pretty incredible.”
Now healing at home from three broken ribs and eight broken vertebrae, Wyatt says he has no intention of hanging up his chaps.
“It’s a passion of mine — I’m not going to let an accident stop me from getting back on a bull,” he says. Pausing, he laughs. “But I sure hope I don’t get the same one.”