Cowboy has heart attack after thrilling bull ride. Somehow, he survives.

First responders from the Calhan Fire Department and care givers at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central saved a bull rider's life.
Oct. 28, 2021
Bull rider Bret Vaugh, who had a heart attack after a ride, on a bull that has kicked up its back legs.
Bull rider Bret Vaughn suffered an acute heart attack after riding a bull. He’s lucky to be alive. Photo courtesy Bret Vaughn family.

Bret Vaughn rode two bulls that night in mid-July at the El Paso County Fair.

A former Marine, nothing revs up Vaughn’s adrenalin like the anticipation of riding a snarling, bucking bull and trying to stay mounted for 8 seconds or longer.

“It’s a feeling that is unmatchable,’’ Vaughn said. “Sitting there and trying to compete with a 1,000-pound animal that can outdo you in every way – it’s an adrenalin rush like no other.’’

Vaughn doesn’t remember the rides. In fact, he has no memory of July 16. Someone told him he took the dog to the vet that day and he bought a new pair of cowboy boots, but he can’t remember that.

Bull rider Bret Vaughn, who was flown to Memorial Hospital after a heart attack.
Bull rider Bret Vaughn was flown to UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central after suffering a heart attack. Photo courtesy UCHealth.

“The only thing I remember was waking up in the hospital and they said I was quite rude to everybody, at least for the first couple of days,’’ Vaughn said.

Make no mistake, Vaughn is not a rude fellow. But after he got bucked off those two bulls at the fair in Calhan, east of Colorado Springs, he nearly met his maker. Sure, he’d been hurt before in the rodeo; he’s had a crushed eye socket, broken and separated ribs, broken jaw, concussions, broken shin bone, broken left foot, and guts stomped on.

But never a heart attack.

After riding the bulls, Vaughn walked over to the bleachers with his daughter, Jayden, then 16. His chest hurt a little and he took a nitroglycerin pill because two months earlier, he’d had some trouble with his heart.

Jayden noticed her father’s hand was shaking and said to him: “Dad, I’m going to go get the paramedics.’’

A paramedic came over to check on him, and then she suggested they walk over to the ambulance.

“We were walking to the ambulance and the paramedic asked, ‘What’s your pain level’ and he said, ‘It’s a solid 10,’’’ Jayden recalled.

At the ambulance, he collapsed into Jayden’s arms. Paramedics and firefighters from the Calhan Fire Department rushed over to him. What happened in the next minutes, hours and days is a story about a cowboy and angels.

Bull rider’s strong family history of heart disease

Bull rider Bret Vaughn and his daughter, Jaylen Collins, who as there when he had a heart attack..
Bull rider Bret Vaughn with his daughter, Jayden Collins. Jayden was by Bret’s side when he had a heart attack after getting off a bull. Photo courtesy UCHealth.

The Vaughn family has a rich history of heart disease that goes back generations. Bret’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all left the world too early because of cardiac issues. And it had only been a year earlier when Bret stood with his wife, Trisha, at the graveside of her grandfather. He died of heart disease, as so had Trisha’s father.

At the county fair that night, Trisha tried to calm her husband.

“He was gasping like a guppy for air,’’ said Trisha Vaughn, Bret’s wife of nine years. “I was like ‘Bret, slow down. Babe, breathe. Calm down. You’ve got to take a breath, relax.’’

“And the shade of purple that he turned. I didn’t think people could actually be purple.’’

Paramedics ripped Bret’s shirt open and a young EMT performed CPR. In all, 12 paramedics from Calhan Fire did CPR on Vaughn. They used a defibrillator and shocked him six times. They “bagged’’ him to force more oxygen into him, and then intubated him.

In the frenzy to save his life, someone asked Trisha and Jayden to step back. Trisha buckled. Jayden called her sister, Jessie, who is a U.S. Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, California.

“I literally just hit the ground and I said, ‘I can’t do this, Lord. I can’t be without him. I need him. Please. It’s too soon. It’s not the time. Please.’’’

Rekindled romance

Bret and Trisha have known each other 33 years. They met at the age of 7 when Trisha, who grew up in Falcon, Colorado, traveled to Hugoton, Kansas, to spend summers with her aunt and cousin, whose best friend was Bret Vaughn. He grew up on a beef farm and always wanted to compete in the rodeo, but his mother wouldn’t let him.

Dr. Christopher Manhart
Dr. Christopher Manhart

Back then, the two would exchange “snail mail’’ and send each other love notes and photographs. “He watched me all the way through high school,’’ she said.

Trisha still has some of those keepsakes, though after high school, their lives went separate ways. He joined the Marine Corps and she stayed in Colorado. Both got married to other people. While he served four years in the Marines, they stayed in touch through Myspace, at one time the largest social networking site in the world.

After the Marine Corps, Bret Vaughn landed in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he began his life as a bull rider. Eventually, both he and Trisha divorced their spouses. Bret began to visit Trisha in Colorado, and they remained friends. It wasn’t until years after they had healed from their divorces that the romance that began when they were in the second grade rekindled.

A heart attack at the county fair rodeo

As she watched paramedics work for 45 minutes on her husband, she prayed. At one point, paramedics believed that Vaughn’s heart stopped beating. Still, they were encouraged to keep trying. After the delivery of epinephrine, his heart started beating again, and he was then flown by helicopter to Memorial Hospital Central.

A family friend drove Trisha and Jayden to the hospital because they were frantic, in no condition to drive.

“We prayed the whole way. Our song is Cowboys and Angels and we played that song,’’ Trisha said.

At Memorial Hospital Central, they met Dr. Chris Manhart, a cardiologist. He had received a ‘cardiac alert’ from paramedics that a 40-year-old man was en route by helicopter from Calhan.

He had been told that extensive CPR had been done and a defibrillator was used. Imaging confirmed that Vaughn’s left anterior descending artery was 100% blocked.

“Unfortunately, a very low percentage of patients survive cardiac arrest outside of the hospital,’’ Manhart said. “The survival rate is well less than 10%, so it is a testament to early responders at the scene, EMS, and the quick response to the hospital and the response of the hospital as well.’’

Bret Vaughn meets first responders from the Ca
Bret Vaughn meets the first responders from the Calhan Fire Department who saved his life. Photo courtesy Bret Vaughn family.

When a cardiac patient arrives at the hospital

Once in the heart catheterization lab, Manhart inserted a catheter through the femoral artery and threaded into Vaughn’s heart. He placed a stent and opened the vessel, allowing blood to flow.

While the heart procedure was a success, Vaughn was not out of the woods. Since Vaughn had been without a heartbeat for a period of time, doctors warned Trisha and Jayden that he could have brain damage. He was placed in a hypothermic coma.

In all, he spent 10 days at Memorial Hospital recuperating from the acute heart attack. When he awakened from the coma, he was in the ICU and he asked a nurse: “Do you see that little blonde girl over there?’’ The nurse did not.

Vaughn told her: “I’m hallucinating,’’ and the nurse said, “I’ve heard of angels in spirit.’’ And he looked at her and said, ‘I knew it was our grandbaby.’’ Five months earlier, Jayden had lost her baby.

Bull rider recovers from a heart attack

Today, Vaughn is back to work as a patrol captain for a security firm and spends a lot of hours helping people. He has no cognitive impairment and is happy to be there for his wife, family and community.

Vaughn believes in God, and the notion that when it’s your time to go, you go.

“I can’t believe it actually happened,’’ Vaughn said of the heart attack. “I was lucky I had a professional team with me right there to work on me right away and give me a second chance. UCHealth, Dr. Manhart and paramedics, and everybody who stepped in did an amazing job, and I owe my life, and my ability to still do everything, to them.’’

Vaughn said he would like nothing more than to ride a snarling, bucking bull one more time. He’s not sure that will ever happen, though. His wife and the kids are not in favor.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.