A Hastings skier with an amazing story: Last summer, Dustin Erickson broke his neck; this winter, he qualified for the state ski meet
At first, Dustin Erickson didn't even want to go to the hospital. He told his mother he just wanted to go home and go to bed.
His mother, though, knew better. Angela Erickson drove her son straight to the emergency room. An hour earlier, Dustin had slipped while trying to do a flip on a diving board. He hit his head on the board, and he had shown some signs of weakness as the minutes passed. She wasn't about to take any chances with her boy.
Nor, it turns out, were doctors. And that's a good thing.
Doctors here noticed something that concerned them, and soon Dustin was in an ambulance on the way to Regions Hospital in St. Paul. Angela had phoned her husband Doug, and the two raced up to the hospital to see their son arrive on a back board.
"I didn't know what to think," Doug Erickson said. "Seeing your kid strapped to a back board that night in the emergency room, it was amazingly difficult. You're just sitting there, and you don't even know what to think."
Soon enough, answers emerged. Troubling ones, at that. An MRI confirmed everyone's worst fears: Dustin had fractured a vertebrae in his neck, the C7. The ligament between his C6 and his C7 was shredded and contusions existed in the first four thoracic vertebrae, T1, T2, T3 and T4.
Immediately, his concerns turned to ski racing. He had his sights set high for the season, and among his goals was to qualify for the state meet for the first time. All of a sudden, it appeared as though that was no longer going to be a possibility.
He had surgery two weeks later and spent the summer in physical therapy. Slowly, things started to improve and, come November, he got the news he had been waiting for. Doctors cleared him to begin racing again. Two weeks later, he and his family hit the slopes in Colorado, and everything came back quickly to him.
So quickly, in fact, that last week he did the unimaginable. Just six months after surgery to repair a broken neck, he placed ninth in the section ski meet and qualified for the state meet. He raced at the state meet Wednesday and placed 22nd. Just qualifying for the meet was stunning accomplishment.
"I'm extremely surprised," Dustin Erickson said.
While swimming in a friend's pool at around 9:30 p.m. Thursday, June 30, Dustin planned to try a back flip. He said he had performed the trick a number of times. It was a simple flip off the board and into the pool. This time, though, the board was slippery. He pushed off the board with his foot, which slipped out from under him. He came crashing down on the board
He swam to the edge of the pool and struggled to lift himself up and out of the water. He went inside, laid down on the couch and his parents were called. He said his neck was stiff, but he didn't think much of it.
"It was kind of painful to move, but not to the point where I'd be worried," he said.
His parents came to pick him up, and his father drove his car home. Angela, meanwhile, decided to take him to Regina's emergency room just to be sure everything was OK.
Following some tests here, doctors saw enough on the tests to warrant an MRI, and that's when Dustin was transported to St. Paul.
At about 4 a.m. on July 1, he had the MRI that clearly showed all the damage.
The next day, a surgeon sat down with the family to explain the options. Two weeks later, Dustin had surgery to repair the C6 and the C7.
"At that point, we didn't know what the story was," Doug Erickson said. "They didn't know if he'd be able to race this year. Obviously, as that stuff goes on, as a parent, it's almost like you don't want to allow your kid to do anything anymore."
While surgery to repair fractured vertebrae is certainly a serious matter, the family was continually told by doctors that they, in fact, had it good.
"It didn't matter who we talked to - whether it was the surgeon, or the doctor who saw him in intensive care when he came out of surgery - they would all be shaking their heads and smiling," Angela Erickson said. "They couldn't believe it."
In fact, during the two weeks that Dustin was in the hospital between the time of his accident and the surgery, the Ericksons watched two other families come in to Regions because of diving board accidents, and in both cases those injured are quadriplegics.
"There was always a story to be told by the doctors of someone who wasn't as lucky," Angela Erickson said.
Following the surgery Dustin was in a body brace and a neck brace for six weeks. Just before school started this fall he was able to take off the brace and shortly thereafter his physical therapy began. He spent 30-some hours a week working to improve his strength, all the while targeting the ski season as his goal.
During the summer of 2010, just before Erickson had a trip planned to ski at a camp in Oregon, he dropped a trailer hitch on his foot. He ended up getting stitches, and he had to miss the camp.
When the diving board injury happened, it occurred just days before he was to head to the same camp.
"I was just more upset with myself than anything," he said. "For the second year in a row, I had hurt myself right before I went out to Oregon. I was just annoyed. It's weird. I think that was more of a concern to me than the actual injury. Skiing has been a huge part of my life since I was young. It's my senior year, and I wanted to do well. I felt like it would take me out of the season. Luckily it didn't."
As the season got under way this winter, Erickson was the top Hastings performer. He then followed that up with a ninth-place finish at the section meet last week. When it was announced who had advanced to the state meet, the Ericksons were, obviously, thrilled. The family was being congratulated by a number of ski parents, many of whom didn't even know of the injury.
"We'd talk with them and share what happened," Doug Erickson said. "It was like being witness to a miracle that God has his hand in. We felt very humbled. I don't know how or why we were there."
Angela Erickson echoed Doug's comments.
"It was overwhelming," she said. "It was probably as overwhelming as the first time I saw him race down a hill after the injury. It was very emotional. I was just amazed at what God had done in him."
For Dustin, it was proof that his hard work had paid off.
"Going into that meet, I was mostly excited to see what would come out of it," he said. "I didn't do as well as I had hoped, but there's not much I can really be upset about. I qualified for the state meet.
"It was more of a relief than anything. I was just worrying about (that race) all year."
Now that his high school career is over, Dustin said he plans to attend the University of St. Thomas to study mechanical engineering. He plans to continue skiing.
"It's not like I'm going to emphasize it as much as I do now, but it's definitely going to be something I'm going to keep doing for the rest of my life," he said.
The Ericksons have a firm belief that their faith helped them through the entire ordeal.
"He had lots of people praying for him," Doug Erickson said. "We really feel like we've just been blessed beyond anything we could imagine. We didn't even think he would be skiing this year, yet he was still able to come back. We're looking at it as a miracle."
When news came out this winter about Jack Jablonski, the Benilde-St. Margaret boys hockey player who was paralyzed after getting hit during a hockey game, the Ericksons took notice. Same thing for Jenna Privette, who was also injured this winter.
"We continue to pray for those families," Erickson said. "We know, kind of, what that feels like. Their position is different, obviously, but we lived some of that. We were sitting in the emergency room wondering what our days were going to look like. It's hard to understand or know why our lives are so different.
"It's just a great blessing."
The entire church community in Hastings came out to support the family, Angela Erickson said.
"We were so supported in prayer, and in people just being there for us," she said. "People from all the different churches in our community - that's what amazed me the most. Everybody just rallied. It was amazing.
"You look back and you wonder, how would we have been able to walk through such a difficult situation without the support and the friendships in the community?"