One slip, one changed life: Eric Olson, a 2000 HHS graduate, is paralyzed after slipping on a dock and falling into a lake head first
The weeklong vacation had gone so well. Eric Olson made a homemade potato gun that he was firing all over the place. He turned his kayak into a sailboat of sorts, outfitting it with a big tarp so he could sail all over Big Wood Lake near Grantsburg, Wis.
Over the years, his grandmother's cabin there had provided the Olsons the perfect place for a summer getaway.
But on July 31, 2009, all that changed in an instant.
Olson, a 2000 graduate of Hastings High School, ran down the aluminum dock like he had hundreds of times before. This time, though, he slipped on a small pool of water that had collected at the end of the dock. He flipped and entered the water head first. He struck the bottom of the lake and his life as he knew it was over. Just like that.
He's been in a wheelchair ever since, living in his parent's basement in Welch. It wasn't how he had planned to spend his late 20s, let alone the rest of his life.
"Not only has this made me 80 years old before I'm 30, but look at what it has done to my parents," he said. "I should have been able to start taking care of my parents. Now, it's the other way around. That has been one of the worst things. My mom has to basically be my nurse. Who wants their mom to do that when you are almost 30?"
Olson's father, Mike, works at Hudson Manufacturing Co. in Hastings. He and his wife, Julie, have four adopted special needs children living with them at their Welch farm.
After spending much of the week at the cabin with their children, Mike and Julie Olson came back to Welch to tend to the farm while Eric Olson stayed with his siblings at the cabin. Things were going great until that trip down the dock.
Olson remembers it well and has replayed it over and over in his mind for the past 12 months. It was just a slip, but when he hit the bottom of the lake with his head, he immediately knew something was wrong.
"I felt a crunch," he said. "All I could see where two hands in front of me. I couldn't move. I couldn't upright myself. I kept thinking, is this it? Is this really it?"
For about a minute, Olson fought for his life. He kept holding his breath.
On shore, Olson's younger brother Danny saw his brother face down in the water, but figured that Olson was just joking around. Danny son realized that wasn't the case, and he raced down to the water. He turned his brother over and, in the process, saved his life.
"I was never, ever so happy to see another person in my whole life," Olson said. "I can't even repay him. I owe him my life."
Once rolled over, Olson stayed in the water, still not able to move his arms, hands and legs. An ambulance got to the scene quickly and transported him to the hospital in Grantsburg. From there, Olson was airlifted to North Memorial in Robbinsdale.
The "crunch" that Olson heard was a vertebra shattering. A three millimeter piece of that shattered vertebra severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
He was put in a coma for a few weeks and, by mid-September, he was discharged from the hospital, but not before coming down with the swine flu.
Eventually he made it to Sister Kenny for wheelchair therapy and, finally, came home.
Since getting home nine months ago, Olson has seen very little of his family's home. He has lived in the basement, which has a walk-out ground-level door. He hasn't been to the upper level because his wheelchair and stairs don't mix.
Olson's internal thermostat has also been messed up because of the accident. He is always cold. Even on the hottest summer day, he motors around in his wheelchair with a fleece blanket over his lap and a hooded sweatshirt.
"I never sweat anymore," he said.
Olson said his parents have been tremendously supportive of him through the whole ordeal, and he thanked them over and over for what they've done for him. He also thanked his longtime friend, Jason Serres, who is now his personal care attendant.
Living in a wheelchair is, obviously, not something Olson likes. But what gets to him most is that he can't use his hands anymore. While he can move his arms, he has little to no control over his fingers.
"The biggest loss is not being able to do stuff with his hands like he used to," Julie said, "like drink a Dew or a Guinness."
As she finished her sentence, Julie walked to her son with a can of Mountain Dew and a big straw. Olson took a drink. That's their reality now.
Over the past few months, Olson has searched online for any sort of medical breakthrough that would allow him to get the use of his hands back. He's found experimental procedures taking place in Germany, but at $30,000 that's not something he's willing to bet his future on just yet. That said, getting the use of his hands back would mean everything to him.
"I haven't given up hope yet of, at the very least, just getting my hands back,"
At the time of the accident, Olson was living in the Uptown area of Minneapolis. He loved going out with friends to all the bars in that area, and has tried doing similar things now, but "it's not the same when you have to have someone else hold your glass," he said.
His sights are set, for now, on getting a vehicle he can drive by himself.
"It's been a blessing to have this place, but it would be a blessing to leave it every once in a while," he said.
Once place Olson would like to drive himself to is his upcoming 10-year class reunion in Hastings.
He remembers his high school days fondly, saying he was pretty much a nerd in school and that he wasn't part of the popular crowd. That changed, in large part, during the final few weeks of school, though. His parents gave him the OK to have a massive party at the farm just a few weeks shy of graduation. Car after car rolled in and Olson estimated there were more than 400 people scattered throughout the rolling countryside in Welch. He hopes to get to the reunion to reconnect with those old classmates.
"Overall, I'm happy to be here," he said. "There are still good days. You just take the good times when you can have them."