A seemingly innocuous day of sledding quickly turned serious when Big Sky youngster Elijah Brauer suffered a brain injury after hitting a tree. He was flown to Salt Lake for treatment, and is now back to his regular antics, but his parents want to spread the word that helmets really can save lives. Elijah Brauer suffered life-threatening injuries in his sledding accident, but underwent treatment in Salt Lake, and is now able to enjoy the Big Sky life he loves – helmet included.

Helmets save lives

A harrowing sledding accident serves as reminder to strap on that skull cap
The parents say that’s a major takeaway for them and some wisdom they want to share with other parents: make the kids wear their helmets.

Elijah (Eli) Brauer just rode the tram and skied Liberty Bowl with his dad, Jeff. It’s an amazing feat for any seven-year-old. What makes it even more remarkable is that just three months ago young Eli was collapsed by a tree, virtually immobile and bleeding from his nostrils. 

It was supposed to be a simple day of fun and sledding for Jeff Brauer with Elijah and his five-year-old daughter Maya. Eli, the daredevil “mischievous” and prankster kind of kid who never takes naps, goes to sleep late and wakes early – described as constantly “climbing from the bannisters” by his mother, Johana, wanted to go by himself. Jeff let him go. A short time later, he discovered Eli immobile by a tree about three hundred yards away from where he and his daughter were doing runs. 

“I thought he was playing around, but both of his nostrils were bleeding. He could hardly walk. I put him on the sled and walked him back to the truck. I asked him how he was feeling. He was groggy and dizzy,” Jeff said. 

Jeff took him to the emergency room where they discovered Eli didn’t have a concussion. A CT scan was given just as a precautionary measure. 

“It turned out he had a four-inch skull fracture from the optical canal back (curved around the side of his head) it was partially an exterior fracture and an interior fracture. Once the doctor found that out, they started making calls,” Jeff said. 

Eli was placed in a helicopter to Bozeman, followed by a fixed wing airplane to Salt Lake City and then an ambulance from the airport to the university hospital. His mother was with him the entire time and was told in the airplane that if he had hit the tree even slightly harder, Eli wouldn’t be flying for treatment – he would have instantly died. 

“It was horrible. I never felt that before. Very, very scary. I couldn’t think straight,” she said. Jeff arrived around midnight and they lived the strange mix of exhaustion, interruption and waiting that people with loved ones in the hospital know well. The neurologist was mostly worried about hemorrhaging. 

A recorded conversation with the neurologist revealed he believed the nerves were okay, however wasn’t sure if the fracture crossed where the carotid artery goes into the skull.

The next CT scan showed more bleeding, which they didn’t get stopped until the next morning. Still, Eli was miraculously able to avoid surgery. 

Eli was checked over by every therapist you could think of: speech therapist, physical therapist, the neurosurgeon a few times and an ophthalmologist. 

Three days after the accident, he was released but still far from himself. 

“He was in a wheelchair for three days. His speech was good. We took him to Chucky Cheese and drove him back to Big Sky,” Jeff said. 

Meanwhile Johana was concerned because Eli was nearly catatonic. 

“I kept asking, ‘Eli, are you okay?’ I wanted to turn back around to the hospital because he was just staring at nothing and pale,” she said. 

Meanwhile, word was spreading in Big Sky. The family started receiving messages from church friends, neighbors. “Somehow word circulated fast,” Jeff said.  

According to Johana, first graders from Eli’s class were running up to their teacher and saying things like, “Eli cracked his head open! His brains came out!” 

His teacher contacted the family to get some facts and send an email to other parents, updating them on the situation. 

Once home, Eli began to get back to his usual antics. He started doing tricks in the rented wheelchair and enjoying himself. “I kept telling him to stop liking it,” Johana said. 

Soon, Eli missed his friends and begged to see his classmates. The family had a meeting with Ophir School officials to see if it could happen. Also, as he was the first case head trauma Ophir had seen, everyone wanted to be prepared. 

His visit was a surprise to the other children. 

“The kids went nuts and swarmed him,” Johana said. The asked, ‘Eli! How are you? How is your head?’ He held up his hand and said, ‘Okay, one at a time,’ and he felt really important.” 

When he was allowed to return to school, he was welcomed by a big banner signed by all the kids and teachers. His doctor outlined a “no touch” policy, he was not allowed to ride the school bus because of jarring, lack of safety belts and the potential for an unruly child to accidentally knock him in his head. He also wasn’t allowed to participate in recess. Johana said it’s been several months of saying repeatedly, “Eli, don’t do that!” 

He pushed to go up the tram to ski and “picked up where he left off last year.” 

“He was so excited. They made room for him so he could look out the window,” Jeff said. 

Still, there have been some lasting changes in Eli’s life: anytime he’s outside doing anything he’s wearing a helmet. Period. He doesn’t argue about the helmet. 

“He’s just going to have to get used to it,” his dad said. 

The parents say that’s a major takeaway for them and some wisdom they want to share with other parents: make the kids wear their helmets.

“I guess it’s cliché, but I’m thankful that we have a healthy family. Life can change in an instant. It could have been so much worse,” Jeff said. 

Johana said she’s appreciative of life and the ability to raise her kids. 

“As soon as I came back I started hugging my two other kids. I can’t imagine my life without them. We almost lost one,” she said.

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