On a warm and windy spring evening, 5-year-old Ezra is getting ready for his first soccer game. His mom helps him into his neon yellow cleats and he tucks his soccer ball, neon yellow to match, under his arm. It’s cloudy with a hint of rain, but the game will go on. Ezra joins his team on the field and the joyful pandemonium of preschoolers playing soccer ensues.

But wait. Stop. Rewind.

If I started here, I wouldn’t be telling you Ezra’s whole story. I wouldn’t be doing justice to where he’s been or where he is today. To do that, we need to go back—to Feb. 6, 2013.

Baby Kisses

As any mom will tell you, there’s nothing sweeter than your baby’s kisses. And on that February morning, Ezra had just learned to give his mom kisses on the lips. He would turn 20 months old the next day. Sarah St. Louis bundled baby Ezra up and dropped him off at their daycare provider’s home.

Hours later, Sarah got a phone call. There’s a reason it’s called a parent’s worst nightmare. Ezra had been involved in a terrible car accident with his daycare provider—and his car seat hadn’t been properly installed.

Paramedics on the scene rushed Ezra to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC). Two-thirds of his brain was damaged. Ezra’s injuries included a massive brain bleed, skull fractures, and auto glass embedded into his head. MRI and CT scans looked grim.

“They didn’t think he would leave HCMC alive, and if he did, he wasn’t going to be the child he was that morning,” says Sarah. “That he made it through the night surprised them because his injuries were so severe.”

Back to Basics

Ezra made it through his first night—and the night after. Although still in critical condition, his improvements were enough that HCMC staff recommended he transfer to Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare for inpatient rehabilitation. He arrived on Feb. 28. At first, Sarah remembers, doctors weren’t optimistic. “It was heartbreaking,” she says. “You’re thrown into this world that you never wanted to be part of.”

That new world included daily physical, occupational and speech therapy—plus pool therapy and music therapy—for Ezra. Sarah describes the moment she realized Gillette’s approach was far different than her idea of rehabilitation. “I thought, ‘When are they going to start working with him? Because all they’re doing is playing’. But then it dawned on me: They ARE working with him. They’re doing it on a level he understands—that is FUN for him.”

Ezra enjoying music therapy during rehabilitation at gillette children's
Ezra on exercise ball during rehabilitation at gillette children's

Because of the severity of Ezra’s brain injury, he lost nearly every ability he’d gained during his first 20 months of life. That meant getting back to basics—relearning things like swallowing, speaking, eating, crawling and walking. By the time Ezra went home seven weeks later, he could eat finger foods and was starting to crawl.  

Towards the end of his stay at Gillette, something else happened. Ezra, working on sounds during speech therapy, wanted a toy nearby. “Mom!” called Ezra, looking toward the person he knew could help. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever hear that again,” shares Sarah. “I felt, at that moment, everything was going to be OK.”

The Climb

Rehabilitation experts say that maximum recovery from a traumatic brain injury can take up to two years. After that, progress plateaus. Ezra has defied that expectation. Two years ago, he began walking on his own. Sure, he’s a little wobbly, but he’s walking. He talks a mile a minute and has the vocabulary of any other 5-year-old. And, like most kids his age, he loves dinosaurs, Paw Patrol, and Blaze and the Monster Machines. “Four years later and he’s still achieving goals no one thought were possible,” says Sarah. “He’s very ambitious and that’s his greatest strength. He’s a little fighter.”

Ezra continues to receive outpatient physical, occupational and speech therapy at Gillette. He’s also seen for seizures and orthopedic issues stemming from his injury. However, considering where Ezra began, these challenges seem far less daunting. Sarah compares their journey to climbing a mountain. “He has a long ways to go. But we’ve come SO FAR,” she says. “That’s what makes looking at the top of the mountain not as challenging anymore.”

Part of the Team

Ezra idolizes his big brother, who plays for Tonka United’s traveling soccer team. When Ezra heard he’d be part of its pre-K team, he was over the moon. His first game was April 24, 2017. Sarah describes Ezra’s excitement in picking out his very first pair of cleats.                         

“Planet Soccer has a turf floor so you can test out shoes and kick balls. He went to kick a ball and fell down afterward because his balance isn’t the best. But he stood back up, finished kicking the ball and said to the salesperson, ‘Yep, I’m a pretty good soccer player!’

Even though kids aren’t required to try out for the pre-K team, it’s clear that Ezra has more than earned his spot. And Sarah has earned the title of proudest mom on the field.  “This is what Gillette can do,” she adds. “They can take a child on his deathbed and help him play soccer.”

[Click below for a photo gallery of Ezra's first soccer game].

Here's What Matters

When I described that warm, windy spring evening earlier, I omitted a few details. I didn’t tell you about Sarah helping to fit Ezra’s royal blue soccer socks over the orthotics that keep him steady, or gently fastening the helmet that protects his fragile brain. I didn’t tell you Ezra falls more often than his teammates. I didn’t share those things because, really, they don’t matter. Who cares? Not Ezra and certainly not his teammates.

Here’s what matters: Ezra is here. He’s playing soccer. And he’s having the time of his life.

Editor's note: Read more stories of CAN, like Ezra's, in our 2016 Annual Report

Gillette patient Ezra holds and runs with soccer ball

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