Gianna Cianfichi, a freshman at Cal Poly, was on the rodeo grounds tying up one of her horses, Hoosier, on April 2 when the horse pulled back on the rope.
Cianfichi, a 2016 Santa Rosa High grad and nationally recognized rodeo competitor, had not yet completed the knot and her right thumb was still in the loop. When the horse pulled back, Cianfichi —an athlete who has been around horses since she was a toddler — turned away.
“I turned my body the other way to kind of get away from it,” she said. “It just kind of popped. I brought my hand around and was like, ‘Oh. I don’t have a thumb.’”
In a blink, the standout freshman on the Cal Poly rodeo squad went from prepping for the massive Poly Royal Rodeo the following week to searching for her first digit in the sawdust and dirt of a horse stall.
Rodeo coach Ben Londo was in his office when another student came running in and told him what had happened.
“She was sitting calmly on the curb next to the stalls,” he said. “Somebody brought the thumb to me.”
She was driven to the local hospital, but they immediately called for her to be airlifted to USC Medical Center in Los Angeles.
So preternaturally calm was Cianfichi that she doesn’t recall any pain on the helicopter flight, just that it was cool to see the Hollywood sign from the air.
Surgeons at USC reattached Cianfichi’s thumb, but it was not clear that it would take. As the hours went by, the healthy pinkish color of her hand started to change. It darkened.
Gianna’s mom, Carrie Cianfichi, remembers approaching the doctors to try to convey how active her daughter is, how important her ability to rope and ride is in her life.
“Gianna has been a cowgirl since she was a little girl,” she said. “She competes in rodeo at a national level and that is really who she is and why it was so important to me that they try again.”
They did try again, but four hours later the surgeons emerged from the operating room to say it was not a success.
“This was a really, really tough one,” Carrie Cianfichi remembers the surgeon telling her. “It was so tough that if it weren’t an 18-year-old, they might not have tried.”
The tear on her hand might have been tough, but it turns out Gianna Cianfichi is tougher.
“They were thinking of me as a young girl and it would be really sad to be without a thumb,” she said. “Me? I’m thinking more about how I’ve got to be able to rope.”
Cianfichi is a state rodeo champ many times over. In 2015, she was the California High School Rodeo Association Div. 2 cutting champ, breakaway champ, goat-tying champ and all-around champ.
“She’s good at every women’s event,” Londo said. “For a student to come in as a freshman and be competitive in every event, it’s tough to find. She’s obviously got a lot of natural talent and work ethic.”
Of all of the rodeo events, breakaway roping is Cianfichi’s best event. So the prospect of going forward with four digits, not five, might have been daunting. Breakaway roping is a rider on a horse at full sprint, spinning a rope above your head, then releasing to catch a darting calf. Do this without a thumb?