Mitchell Swenson had fallen off his dirt bike and gotten up many times before, but an accident last summer left the Delano teen unable to get up. Now, Swenson isn’t worried about getting back on a motorcycle, instead focusing on some day walking again
By Matt Kane
GREENFIELD When you get bucked off a horse, you are supposed to get right back on. The same can be said about riding dirt bike motorcycles. When you fall off, which will happen to anybody who rides one regularly, hop back on.
Delano High School junior Mitchell Swenson had been falling off his dirt bike on trails around the state of Minnesota for a dozen years, and each time he stood up, shook out the cobwebs, and hopped back on to continue his ride.
But, then came the wipeout of July 17, this past summer, while joyriding with his younger brother, Nick, and a friend up north near the town of Biwabik.
While riding through a wooded area, Mitchell miscalculated a jump over a natural water rut formation, and, after braking, was bucked off his Yamaha YZ125 racing bike.
When you get bucked off, get back on, right? That was Swenson’s attitude. Only, this time, he couldn’t get up.
“After I crashed, it seemed like my legs were totally asleep. I was trying to tell them to move, but they wouldn’t,” said Mitchell from his family’s home in Greenfield.
Mitchell’s legs wouldn’t move because he was paralyzed from the chest down. The injury was the result of him flying over the handlebars head first into the side of the ravine. The impact burst his the seventh cervical vertebra (C7) in his neck causing a T1 injury to his spinal cord, causing paralysis from his chest down.
Mitchell knew the wipeout wasn’t like the dozens of others he had experienced. He knew something was seriously wrong. It took some convincing to relay the severity to his riding partners.
“When my brother and my friend came down to see if I was OK, they didn’t want to take it that I was paralyzed. They were saying, ‘Mitchell, just get up and walk it off.’ I was telling them that I literally could not get up and walk,” Mitchell said. “It was hard to believe for a second. I get where my brother and our friend were at because they thought I just hit my head and was dizzy. They thought I was dizzy and had to shake it off.”
Nick and the friend called for help, and eventually, Mitchell was taken by helicopter to St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, where he would spend the next 12 days recovering from emergency surgery.
Mitchell’s dad, Steven, was working at his office about five minutes from the accident site, and, with Nick, met Mitchell at the Duluth hospital. The Swenson girls, Darcy, and daughter Brooke, a fourth grader at Delano, joined the family later that day.
Mitchell was transported to Gillette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul July 29, and stayed there for the next three weekends, until Sept. 20.
“It was a long summer,” said Mitchell’s mother, Darcy.
Word of Mitchell’s injury spread slowly.
“We didn’t let a lot of people know because this was during everybody’s summer,” Darcy explained. “We weren’t trying to be secretive, we just didn’t even know what we had yet. And I wanted him to be well enough to know. And he was 16 and now 17, and this had to be his decision to tell all of his friends what happened.”
Mitchell’s story was told on CaringBridge.org, and the well-wishing began, from friends, family members, and classmates and teachers of Mitchell’s.
“I remember everything,” Mitchell said of the accident that changed his and his family’s lives forever. “I remember going off the jump. I remember hitting my head. I remember opening my eyes and landing at the bottom of the hole. I even remember my brother and his friend coming over the hill.”
He remembers the driver error he made that caused the accident.
“I hit too much of the brakes, and it launched me off the front of the bike and over the handlebars,” he said. “I went off it and tried to not hit my brother. I went off it funny.”
Mitchell had been on the trail before.
“I knew it was there but I didn’t know it was that deep,” he said. “It was just a mistake or bad luck, I guess.”
He remembers having his protective gear cut off him.
“It was matching, and everything,” he said, in a tone of sadness over the loss of a sweet racing uniform. “It even matched my helmet.”
And, now, all he can do is remember what it was like to ride a dirt bike.
“Confusing,” Mitchell said when asked about how he feels about his life changing in an instant. “One minute you can walk and the next minute you are sitting there watching what you were able to do four months ago.”
Road to recovery
It has been almost five months since Mitchell’s life-changing motorcycle accident, and a lot of things in his life have changed.
Instead of riding his dirt bike, duck hunting, driving his brother, Nick, and fourth-grade sister, Brooke, around, Mitchell’s days are spent rehabilitating.
He spends five days and up to five hours per day in physical therapy at the Courage Center, and spends at least another hour at home strapped in a machine that makes him stand up.
“It’s been tough,” Mitchell said of the necessary demands being put on his body and mind.
The time spent working out leaves little time for school. Mitchell is not currently attending school with his classmates, but does take several online courses.
“We are taking a semester off, mainly to regain as much returns as we can in the first year, which is the most critical time period. You can always do school,” Darcy said. “Delano has been extremely helpful and willing to do whatever.”
Part of the doing “whatever” meant stepping aside from her job in the mortgage business for Darcy.
“I want to invest my every second into his first year,” Darcy explained. “From what I have been told, if God decides he is not supposed to walk, he needs to keep in tip-top shape, so, with all the research they are doing, his body will be ready. If you are not ready and your body is not fit, and you are not in the standard one hour per day, you won’t be on the list. He has to physically be ready for when the stem cell is perfected. We want to let his body come back.”
So far, Mitchell’s hard work is paying off in the form of sensation.
“Now he can feel his legs, he can move his feet, and he can move his toe,” Darcy explained. “His right leg is returning a lot better than his left. Apparently, the decompression was a lot tighter on the left side, the surgeon said, than the right. It’s probably more bruised on the left side, which makes some sense.”
The movement in Mitchell’s legs is already a success in comparison to what the Swenson family was told initially about his prognosis.
“At the beginning, the surgeon said he will never walk again, which we never told Mitchell that,” Darcy said. “When we went to get the collar off, because he had to wear a collar for three months, the surgeon couldn’t believe that he could move his legs, lift his legs, feel his legs, or anything. He told us, ‘The sky is the limit.’”
Mitchell describes the sensation of paralysis in his legs, saying, “It’s kind of like when your arm goes to sleep and you wake up and you are trying to move your arm. It feels like it is asleep and it will never wake up.
Mitchell’s attitude and will power are the driving forces behind his recovery, and in getting those legs to wake up..
“His attitude is what has gotten him through this. He laughs with the nurses every day. He swore twice, but that was when he was under narcotics, and what teenager doesn’t swear in that state? That has helped him,” Darcy said. “We have all stayed positive. We have only allowed that kind of feeling in the room. The nurses and doctors were not allowed to say any of the other stuff to him.
“He has been amazing.”
Part of Mitchell’s amazing recovery may come from his experience in doing so. Born with congenital scoliosis, he is a veteran of spinal surgeries and the rehabilitation that comes with each procedure.
“He has had a surgery at 6 months, at 1-and-a-half, and at 2-and-a-half. And then he had to be in a body cast for six weeks and then a brace for six months. And then he had to have the rods put in and had to be out of school for five weeks. He’s had a lot,” Darcy explained, as if reading a grocery list. “If he has one question, it is ‘Why does all this stuff keep happening to me?’
“‘I’m used to recovering,’ that’s what he always tells us.”
“If you need any advice, you know where to come,” said Mitchell, showing off his sense of humor.
The only other major injury Mitchell had from dirt biking was a concussion.
When it came to recovering from his recent dirt bike accident, Mitchell wasn’t about to accept the doctor’s original diagnosis that Mitchell might not walk again.
“When I was up in Duluth and he told me I was probably going to be like this for the rest of my life, I told him that wouldn’t be and that I wasn’t going to be like this for the rest of my life, because I don’t want to be like this any longer,” Mitchell, while sitting in his wheelchair in the living room of their home. “I am doing my best to get back to normal, where I was before the accident. I just want to get back there and to get back to school with my friends.”
He has a long road ahead.
“I think this is the beginning,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell has gotten back to some of the things he loves to do, like work on anything mechanical. Over the summer, instead of finding summer jobs away from the home, he and Nick simply moved out to the spacious garage, where they began rehabilitating salvaged cars and, with the help of their sales-manager father, Steven, flipping them for a profit.
“Since my mom and dad said we needed to find a job and we didn’t find a job before summer came, my dad suggested we buy a car for the summer and fix it up. So, that’s what we did,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell and Nick are currently working on a Chevrolet Equinox for their mother. Sitting about 20 feet away from the white SUV was a blue Yamaha YZ125 motorcycle with No. 248 on the number plate. It’s Mitchell’s dirt bike. The one he was riding when he had his accident.
The bike survived the crash and is ready to be ridden, again.
“I probably would. Just for the fun of it,” Mitchell said when asked if he would get on a dirt bike again if he is able to. “It is one of those hobbies you just can’t stop. It’s like girls and shopping.”
Darcy Swenson cringed at the thought of her son riding a motorcycle again. She’s more excited about Mitchell joining the rest of the family in the snow this winter, both on the ski slopes and snowmobile trails.
“We are not letting him slow down while we are letting his legs return,” she said.
At Courage Center, Mitchell is training so he can ski in a customized chair with the rest of the family at Highland. The Swenson family is also trying to figure out how to customize Mitchell’s snowmobile with a roll cage and a way to keep his legs tight against the seat.
“That’s what I love to do,” Mitchell said of snowmobiling.
When he is not working on a car or thinking about driving something with handlebars, Mitchell enjoys his down time, hanging with his friends and family watching television or movies. His show of choice: Duck Dynasty.
Like the bearded men on the show, Mitchell loves hunting, and plans to get back out into the fields and swamps. He recently test drove a wheelchair that runs on tracks to allow it to move freely over rugged terrain.
“My mom wasn’t happy the first time I went out, because I went down to the swamp in the dark,” Mitchell said of that test drive. He also pointed out his rights when it comes to deer hunting. “If I clear it with the state, I can legally deer hunt out of a vehicle.”
Taking things apart and putting them back together is what Mitchell likes to do, and he plans to turn that passion into a career. After graduation, he plans to enroll at North Dakota State, where he will work toward a degree in engineering.
Meet Mitchell and the Swenson family
Recently, Mitchell was put on a waiting list for the Activity-Based Locomotor Exercise (ABLE) program, a rehabilitation program founded by the late Christopher and Dana Reeves. While he waits, Mitchell is participating in a modified version of the ABLE program.
“I just wrote a $6,500 check for three months to do the modified version to keep him busy,” Darcy said. “And we want to get him an exercise bike with sensors that costs $2,250.”
The actual ABLE program is not covered by insurance, and will cost $64,000.
The costs of rehabilitation, combined with Darcy being out of work is adding up for the Swenson family.
The Swensons also plan to move out of their current home in Greenfield, where they have 6.5 acres of property that is perfect for dirt biking, snowmobiling, and hunting, and moving to Delano into a house designed to make life easier for Mitchell.
At his current home, getting to his basement bedroom means driving his electric wheelchair outside and down the hill to the basement entrance for Mitchell, who cannot easily maneuver the staircase.
Family, friends, and everybody else can help the family and meet the easy-talking Mitchell Saturday, Dec. 7, at Sts. Peter and Paul Church in Loretto at a benefit dinner and silent auction.
“Everybody should come. There will be a lot of stuff there,” Mitchell said.
Darcy threw out a more specific lure to attract people to the Loretto church.
“We will have beer and wine and live music,” she said.
The fundraiser dinner is 4-8 p.m., and the will go until 10 p.m.
Items for the silent auction and also cash donations can be dropped off at the Loretto church or mailed to 7020 Basswood Lane, Greenfield, MN, 55373. All donations are tax deductible.
With questions or to have an auction item picked up, contact Denise Koehnen at (952) 994-1192 or at email@example.com.
For those who cannot attend the benefit, Darcy asks for one thing: “A lot of people have been praying, and that is what we ask for,” she said. “Because that can go a long way.”