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New Orleans man recovering after being gored at Running of the Bulls

After nearly dying from severe COVID before vaccines were available, Ryan Thibodaux decided to live life and he went to Spain and eventually ran with the bulls.

NEW ORLEANS — You may remember last week the always dramatic video from Spain's annual Running of the Bulls. A local dentist who was in Spain joined in and came back to New Orleans injured. But his story and lessons go far beyond that one event.

Ryan Thibodaux says the weeks leading up to the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, is just like Mardi Gras time. No one's a stranger.  And like parades, there are smaller runs in surrounding towns, porch parties, good food, adult beverages, music and dancing in the streets.

“I'm blowing the whistle, the band comes down the hill, the marching band, of which I know the clarinet player. He's like hugging me. Oh, it's amazing,” remembers Ryan Thibodaux, 48 of New Orleans, who practices dentistry at Storyville Family Dentistry in Metairie.

So last month in Los Arcos, Spain, Ryan got caught up in the Carnival-like spirit. 

Credit: WWL

“So for 40 minutes, the bulls are running back and forth, and locals are running with them, and they are smaller bulls, and I'm like, ‘I can do this. They're getting tired.’” 

But he didn't know the rules and customs.

“In the last 15 minutes of the event, they pull the younger bulls, and they let out the more aggressive bull, disoriented, a little bit frustrated, drooling, smells terrible, like he's just not wanting to be there.” 

Overcome by the festive moment, Ryan joined in.

“And I'm running in the street, but foolishly blowing my whistle as I'm running,” he laughs. “The whistle did me in.”

That and turning his back on the bull.

“Because before they hit you, they'll give a sign and dip their head, and if you're looking, you can step out of the way of them.

I didn't know that,” said Thibodaux.  

Credit: WWL

He was gored in his upper back thigh, then pushed forward down the cobblestone road by the bull. He was bleeding, with brush burns all over, a broken wrist and shattered ankle. The local newspaper published a shot of the one-ton bull standing on his leg. 

Ryan had been living a full life

So why would a 48-year-old New Orleans man, a father and husband, dentist, trumpet player and founding member of the Bucktown Allstars, a fitness enthusiast, a man who goes on service missions to rebuild hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico, and who journals his intentions, take such a health risk?

“I'm going to cry when I say this. I had had a vision that brought me to the choice of living or dying. And I chose to live,” he said through tears.

That vision happened last year. Ryan was going through devastating health problems for some time. There were months of chemotherapy for follicular lymphoma. His immune system was down to nothing. Then the pandemic started.

“And my doctor said, ‘Ryan, I want you to quit playing music. I want you to quit riding your bike. I want you to quit seeing patients at the dental office. It's too risky.’”

Credit: WWL

After cancer, severe battle with COVID

Then, right before the vaccines came out, he got the original COVID.

“Three fevers a day of 101.9 or above, severe weight loss, lack of taste, lack of smell, severe, severe fatigue, mental fog, over stimulus to light, sound, you name it.”

He thought he was going to die. “Yes. It was scary.”

He was in the hospital for several months, and at times, in isolation.

“It was intense suffering and gasping in a fetal position for multiple days, no sleep,” Thibodaux recalls.

He passed the long, brutal weeks with a mantra.

“I would repeat, ‘Every fever eventually passes. Every fever eventually passes.’ And then I would say prayers in-between. And then my other one was, ‘Tomorrow's going to be a better day,’” 

That's when the vision came. He saw himself struggling to walk down a tree-lined, gravel path. As he got closer to the light in the distance, his steps become easier.  

“There's no more pain. There's no more gasping for breath, and I am now walking towards this light, surrender to the light, and I turn and I see my physical body behind me on the path, and I didn't want that anymore,” he said as he is shedding tears. 

Going forward, all worries, vanish. All that's left was the lifetime of love he experienced. Then a noise prompted him to look back again.

“And surrounding my body was my loved ones, and my dog, and my coworkers, my parents, my friends. So I wasn't leaving the body, I was leaving that,” Thibodaux said emotionally. 

As he got well, he focused his life on an attitude of gratitude.

“God, thank you for the breath, and the steps that have brought me to this surface. Give me one more breath, one more step, and the guidance with how to use them,” he prays. 

He had already accepted a friend's invitation to go on a hiking and religious retreat to Spain. Bulls were not on the itinerary, but it was a bull that caused multiple surgeries, facing up to a year of healing ahead. Still the bull did not take away his gratitude. 

“So after spending three to six months in the fetal position, gasping for air, sitting in a wheelchair, and breathing comfortably is less of a concern,” he said. “Surrender and accept that God has complete control of the future. All the time you spend worrying about what's going to happen in a year, six months, who's going to do this, and what's going to happen, it's wasted energy.” 

And then another vision, or really a moment of clarity. Before Ryan ran with the bulls, a surgeon told him to take a year to heal from the cancer and COVID near death he went through.

“And those two moments connected, and I was like, ‘Wow, alright. This is God, like in the bull form, running over me and saying, “Here's your year.’”

And while it was, yes, a bull, and a near-death vision that brought him deeper wisdom in sickness, it's a lesson we can learn from as well in health.

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