Life can deliver some tough breaks, and Elias Youngblom caught one of the worst.
It was 15 months ago on an innocent trip home from Fargo that a drunken driver heading the wrong way on I-94 slammed into his car near Fergus Falls and left him on the brink of death. The impact, so horrific that a witness told the State Patrol he was surprised that anybody could survive, sent Youngblom's crumpled Honda Civic careening into the ditch, landing 50 yards off the road. The 24-year-old Coon Rapids man's facial bones were broken and he suffered a severe concussion. His liver was lacerated. Lungs bruised. His forearm fractured. He should not have lived.
It wasn't until a few weeks later he learned he was permanently blind.
Still he retained his iron will, positive spirit and the resolve to continue with his love of music and having an active lifestyle. The aspiring music teacher and North Dakota State University (NDSU) band member is back in the classroom training future musicians, and this weekend he's riding a tandem bike for the CH Robinson Team in the MS 150, a ride from Duluth to White Bear Lake to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Youngblom will be riding with Gef Rasmussen, of Plymouth. Youngblom's father, Tim Turner, previously worked at the church Rasmussen attends. When Rasmussen heard the news, he and several of his bike-riding buddies rallied around Youngblom. They threw a benefit, then last summer Rasmussen asked him to ride in this year's MS 150.
"I could barely stand up for an hour when they asked, but this gave me something to push for," said Youngblom, who admits he likes to bike fast. "I'm getting me back. This is a push to better myself. I love the heat and humidity. I'll be in my happy place."
Rasmussen borrowed a tandem bike and over the past few months he and his teammates have met up with Youngblom for practice runs and to learn to operate the bike that requires a high level of coordination.
"He's depending on me to communicate, like 1-2-3 bump; he's totally trusting me," said Rasmussen, who has ridden bikes for years but is new to tandem biking. "I admire him for doing this because I'd be scared to death."
To other driver, forgiveness
Youngblom has only "hazy" memories about what happened on March 15, 2015. He was driving east on I-94 near milepost 57 just before 2 p.m. when Jana Battern entered the freeway and headed west in the eastbound lanes. Another motorist tried to get Battern's attention but was unsuccessful. Seconds later she crashed into Youngblom's car.
Battern had a blood alcohol concentration of .196 percent two hours after the wreck. "I knew something bad was going to happen," she told authorities, admitting to a drinking problem, according to a criminal complaint.
Battern was sentenced to 180 days in jail and fined $1,000. She will begin serving her sentence next week.
At her sentencing in February, Youngblom addressed the judge, and indirectly Battern, saying he has no ill will toward her.
"She is a person with issues who made a mistake. I wish it didn't happen, but it would have happened to somebody else," he said this week. "Considering where I am and the great things I am doing with my life and looking at what she is doing, how can I be mad at that. I'm doing awesome. My life is getting better from here. I hope that the same could happen for her. If she can get her life together and stay clean, then something good came out of something terrible. I'd love for this to be a great thing for her in the end."
Attempts to reach Battern were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Youngblom is rebuilding his life.
Before the crash, Youngblom was a standout trumpet player in the NDSU Gold Star Band and was preparing for a career as a music teacher. He'd served as a drum line instructor at Blaine High School and for the past two years volunteered to give one-on-one lessons to students at Maple Grove High School where his friend and former NDSU bandmate Peter Buller is the band director. After he spent three months in the hospital and several more months in rehabilitation centers, Youngblom returned to the school last fall and picked up where he left off.
"He has to do more work to prepare to teach and be with these kids, but it's never affected what he has done here," Buller said. "The amount of work he does to compensate for that to be prepared, that is what is most impressive."
He's currently relearning life skills and how to read Braille at Vision Loss Resources in Minneapolis. He lives on his own in an apartment nearby. He plans to finish his music education degree — he has two classes left — in the next year.
"It was never an option that this was going to stop me," Youngblom said. "I never thought it was an option to not do these things. I'm a fully functioning human being. Why would I change that just because I can't see?"