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The Importance of Wearing a Helmet While Sledding

Ismail Featured Photo

Amer Agovic would tell you that everything happened quickly.

On January 5, Amer and his son Ismail, 4, were out enjoying a beautiful winter day sledding on the small hill just minutes from their home in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.

Ismail had recently gotten a new sled and he was excited to try it out. They’d been out for a while and were about to head back home when Ismail’s final run changed everything.

“It’s not a big hill, but there are a few trees near the bottom,” Amer recounts. “We’d been having a great day, but on his last slide down I could see that he was headed straight for the tree. There was a randomness to it, like everything had to happen a certain way. But once it started, it was like you could see what was about to happen before it happened. I tried to get to him, but there was nothing that could be done.”

Ismail hit the tree head-on.

The Relative Perception of Speed

Ismail BikingOur personal understanding of speed can be inconsistent based upon the vehicle or setting in question. For instance, 20 miles per hour in a car feels like crawling. While that same speed on a bike or a sled, feels like flying.

Parents have grown wise to the importance of wearing helmets while biking, skiing and snowboarding, but for some reason this hasn’t always made the next logical leap when it comes to sledding.

“Especially when you grow up in the Midwest, a lot of us have fond memories of sledding as kids,” says Angela Sinner, DO, a pediatric rehabilitation medicine specialist at Gillette. “More likely than not, helmets are probably not a part of those memories. So many kids don’t wear them either. It’s not our goal to scold anyone, but we do want parents to be aware of some of the things that can happen. What starts as fun can occasionally become something else entirely. So, we’re just trying to remind people to be as safe as possible and wearing a helmet while sledding is something they should keep in mind.”

“He Was Completely Unconscious”

When Amer reached Ismail at the bottom of the hill, he was unconscious and unresponsive. Amer feared the worst.  

“I tried to get him to respond, but at first there was nothing,” Amer recounts. “When he did come around, he couldn’t lift any of his limbs. I picked him up and ran with him back home. His eyes were open and it would look like he had something to say, but couldn’t speak. I can’t tell you how terrifying that was. My wife, Ehlimana, was home when I arrived. She was a surgeon back in our native home of Bosnia, and she immediately recognized that we needed to get Ismail to the emergency room as soon as possible.”

The Agovics were moved to a pediatric facility in Minneapolis where emergency surgery was performed that saved Ismail’s life. His skull had been fractured, and there were multiple points inside his brain that were bleeding. Once surgery was completed, all that was left to do was to wait and see.

“After we had some distance from the initial trauma, then you’re just left to deal with the gravity of everything that happened,” Amer says. “In the two weeks that followed, all I remember was a lot of crying.”

Relearning Everything

Ismail collectingIsmail would need to relearn how to eat, speak and move his limbs. In many ways, they were starting from square one.

Gillette Children’s has the largest concentration of pediatric rehabilitation medicine specialists in the Midwest. All of whom have extensive expertise and training in exactly the type of comprehensive recovery that Ismail would require.

Many of the pediatric rehabilitation therapists, nurses, social workers inpatient care coordinators and other and support staff at Gillette also have Certified Brain Injury Specialist (CBIS) certification. That means these providers have received special training designed to address the needs of people who have a brain injury and have at least 500 hours of direct contact caring for brain injury patients.

“That was a difficult time, because your mind tends to go to all these different outcomes that could come to pass. There’s so much uncertainty,” Amer says. “What I really appreciated about Dr. Sinner and all of the people at Gillette, is that they’re very good at spending the time with you to answer your questions. They’re also skilled at taking your mind off some of those other scary thoughts and focusing on the next steps and what you can control. They kind of give you the hope that each day will be better than the one that came before it.”

Ismail's Return Home

Ismail, Amer and EhlimanaAfter two weeks at Gillette and just one month to the day of Ismail’s accident, on February 5, the Agovics were discharged and returned home. He will need additional surgery in the coming weeks and six months to a year of intensive therapy, but his family is hopeful for his future.

When it comes to wearing a helmet while sledding, they have a singular message.

“When I think back on that day, I think about all of the different variables that we weren’t aware of or had no control over. A lot of kids had been out sledding on that hill, so maybe the snow was packed down and more icy than it would normally be,” Amer says. “It was a new sled, one that behaved differently than those Ismail had used in the past. But it was all going fine until it wasn’t. I would encourage people to look into the types of sleds they buy for their children, as there are some made to go slower, but the single-most important thing we could’ve controlled that day was whether or not Ismail was wearing a helmet. Wearing a helmet does nothing to reduce the joy of sledding and could’ve helped keep him safe. I hope that people benefit from hearing about our experience. For as bad as things were, they could’ve been much worse. If hearing about this helps one family avoid a similar result, that’s our goal.”

Ismail and dinosaurs
Ismail, collecting dinosaurs during his recovery at Gillette in January of 2021