Feb. 13, 2020, is a significant date for Jason and Kris Long.
It is the last day the couple remembers as “normal.”
“I always say our last day of normal was Feb. 13,” explained Kris now, seven months later. “We’re both teachers, and that was the last day we worked.”
Feb. 13 was the last day Jason taught sixth grade and Kris first grade at Rippleside Elementary School in Aitkin.
Three days later, Jason and Kris were involved in a head-on crash on Hwy. 10 near Coon Rapids. Whether charges will be filed against the other driver remains to be seen. That driver did not have insurance, which has complicated matters.
The list of injuries for the two 40-somethings was extensive. Jason broke his left arm and left leg so violently that he needed external fixators on both. Kris came within a centimeter of tearing the renal artery on her left kidney – which would have made survival nearly impossible – and had a severe concussion as well.
The journey since the accident has been transformative, though, with family, friends and the community rallying to help the Longs get back to normal.
“Hundreds of people donated, and have done stuff for us,” Jason said. “Ones we probably don’t even know about because we were healing.
“It happened for a reason,” Jason added. “There’s a plan there.”
Looking back, Jason makes an effort to not “what if?” the situation that led to the Feb. 16 crash.
For example, the morning of the crash, he and Kris went out to breakfast with his sister and brother-in-law. They sat down at 11 a.m. and were out by noon.
“We had a really efficient waiter,” Jason explained. “What if he was slower? You really can’t get into the what if’s.”
Every year, Jason and Kris make a Valentine’s Day trip to the Twin Cities. They take in a Minnesota Wild game, enjoy a night away from their children – ages 13 to 19 –and generally reconnect with one another.
It was a good weekend, though the Wild lost to the San Jose Sharks, 2-0, and the two were on a familiar route with light traffic as they headed back toward their home in Deerwood.
What happened next, happened very quickly. Jason recalled a vehicle flying at them through the service road access on the highway – and then coming to, looking out the windshield of his Nissan Altima.
“Well, what used to be the windshield of my car,” Jason said. “Glass everywhere.”
Kris was unconscious in the passenger seat, which she had reclined in hopes of napping on the way home.
The couple later found out that attempt at a nap probably saved her life. A car battery in the trunk of the car flew forward in the crash, and would have struck Kris somewhere in the neck or head had she not been reclined.
“From what they think, it flew over me and landed at my feet,” she said.
Jason took one look at his mangled left arm and leg – and decided not to look again.
Kris was in and out of consciousness the whole time, Jason said, but he was awake during the entire hour-long extrication, which required the
Jaws of Life. He remembered having a very clear priority.
“I wanted them to get her out,” he explained. “I kept telling them to ‘get my wife out, get my wife out.’
“I have a lot of respect for the people who extracted us,” Jason added. “They were top-notch.”
Jason was already working another aspect as well, using his cell phone while still stuck in his car to start prayer chains. He also tried to get Kris’s cousin, Jessie, on the phone, because that’s who Kris wanted to speak with.
When both were finally removed from the vehicle, they were taken to Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids. Jason said the drive was perhaps five minutes.
“Probably the most painful five minutes of life,” he explained. On a scale of 10, “probably 20.”
Both Jason and Kris would turn out to have a laundry list of injuries, and were immediately taken to surgery. Jason’s left arm and leg were shattered, he had three torn ligaments in his knee, a cracked sternum, broken ribs, lacerations and contusions.
Kris, meanwhile, had a wide variety of internal injuries, including one to her left kidney that rendered it useless. Her spleen was lacerated, and her concussion was so bad she remembers virtually nothing about her stay in the hospital.
Jason recalled the nurses bringing Kris to his room a few days into the stay. By then, Kris had been diagnosed with influenza A, and both were wearing masks.
“I knew we weren’t going to be together for a long time,” he said. “The nurses brought her into my room.”
He played their wedding song, “Heaven,” and just spent time with her.
“Just the other day, she came to me and asked, ‘Did you play this song?’ That’s how unclear everything was,” Jason said.
One thing was clear, however: it was going to be a long road to recovery.
Jason’s parents, Dan and Maxine Long, live in Austin – roughly two hours from the crash.
Maxine recalled receiving the phone call from the state patrol. She and her husband had just gotten home from church and were relaxing when the phone rang.
“They wanted to know if we were Jason’s parents,” Maxine said. “It’s the phone call you never want to get.”
Shortly after, both were on their way to Coon Rapids.
“We don’t know what we’re going to see when we walk into the room. We’ve got to keep our composure,’” she recalled.
Maxine immediately turned to her faith.
“Through the faith, I just knew he was going to make it,” she said.
What both Jason and Maxine call the “prayer warriors” were already hard at work. Jason recalls a worker at the hospital, who joined in the prayers.
“He would always ask,” Jason said, how he was doing. Jason recalls telling him about getting the “prayer warriors going.”
“He said, ‘oh, I’m so glad you said that,’” Jason added. “He put his hand on my head and prayed with me.”
Jason’s parents, Kris’s family, other friends from the Aitkin and Deerwood area ... everyone rallied to spend time with the Longs while they were in the hospital. Kris’s cousins Jessie and Ramona stayed with her at the hospital, and Jason’s parents stayed with him and with her.
After the immediate shock of the first week, it became clear both Jason and Kris would survive. But both would need extensive physical therapy.
A rough version of PT began while they were still in the hospital in Coon Rapids. For Kris, it was trying use a walker as her body slowly began adapting to the concussion and the internal injuries.
For Jason, PT had a far different meaning.
“PT then meant sitting in a chair, or lifting my hips high enough to get on the bed pan,” Jason said.
One week spread into two. Kris was eventually released from the hospital. She returned to the couple’s home in Deerwood, thanks to her mother and brother temporarily moving in.
She admitted she doesn’t remember much of that time.
“I think it was a good month that they came here,” Kris said. “I didn’t start up physical therapy until my ribs healed – and that’s when I realized how bad my back was hurting.”
Jason had a different road ahead. He wanted to go home with Kris, but the specialists he needed for his care would have been at least one and a half to two hours away.
After five days in the ICU and 14 days total, Jason was released to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Originally, he was supposed to spend two weeks there, but he kept beating the goals set by his rehab team.
In the end, he spent just 10 days at the Mayo Clinic before being released to stay at his parents’ home to continue his rehabilitation.
His parents’ tri-level home in Austin had to be converted. A hospital bed was placed in the family room, and Dan rigged a makeshift bathroom and shower in the laundry room.
For “40 days and 40 nights,” as Jason’s parents described it, they were Jason’s home health aides, administering medication as often as every four hours, taking care of their son’s needs and shuttling him to and from physical therapy at the Mayo Clinic.
Jason acknowledged that the physical therapy was difficult. An active basketball coach in addition to being a teacher, he suddenly needed help with the simplest of tasks.
“It was tough for me, because I’m playing basketball, I’m in shape,” Jason said. “All of a sudden, (I’m) needing assistance to put on a sock.
“It was like a role reversal for me, because I’ve been coaching kids for 20-plus years,” he added. “Now I was the student and my PT instructor was the coach, and I had to follow everything he or she said.”
Through it all, his parents never heard him complain.
“People can become bitter in a situation like this. Jason never, ever got bitter,” said Dan. “He actually got closer to the Lord at this time, which is really great.”
In late March, everything changed. In the waiting room for a doctor’s appointment at the Mayo Clinic, Jason was told his appointment had been canceled.
The Mayo Clinic had just shut its doors to everything but essential care due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Jason’s words, he was sent home with a “remove-your-own sutures kit” and told it could be as long as eight to 10 weeks before he would be seen again. He would still be doing physical therapy, but Jason made it clear to his parents what the next move was.
“He said, ‘if I’m going to sit around, I’m going home,’” Dan explained.
Jason returned to Deerwood, to his wife and children, March 26. His final surgery would not be until mid-May.
In the midst of all of this – the crash, the recovery, even COVID-19 – Jason and Kris’s six children were working through what had happened.
From the time of crash on Feb. 16 to now, the six were both protected from the severity of their parents’ conditions. They were also part of the love Jason and Kris received.
What drove the couple to come forward now is the support they have received from the entire community – from those with them in the hospital to those with them in the steps since.
Family friends set up a GoFundMe account, which raised tens of thousands of dollars. That money quickly went toward medical bills and other financial strains, caused by Jason and Kris not working.
Many of those same friends organized a fundraiser within a few days of the accident, getting a local band to perform at Block North.
Food poured in for the family, everything from easily rewarmable meals to so much frozen food that one of the freezers at Rippleside Elementary School was repurposed.
The staff in the Aitkin School District helped as well.
“Everybody just really rallied together around them,” one family friend said. “People just wanted to help.”
There was more. One friend came to the couple’s home and built a ramp for Jason, who still was in a wheelchair when he returned home. Bathrooms in the home were also modified.
Another lent a car to the family, so the children could get to and from work since one family vehicle was already out of commission. Other friends organized further prayers for the family.
“There are countless stories like that – when people just dropped everything,” Jason said. “They donated their hearts, their hands.”
Even now, Jason and Kris aren’t sure of how much help they received, or who did what. They’re reluctant to name individual friends, for fear of forgetting someone, and others who helped but wished to remain anonymous.
But as April turned to May, and then May turned to summer, the path grew clearer. PT sessions have progressed, with Kris addressing the pain in her back and Jason trying to improve the extension of his left arm, as well as addressing the other injuries.
The couple also purchased a replacement vehicle – another Nissan Altima. Jason said the car is the reason they survived the crash, but conceded they will be taking the family’s Suburban the next time they travel to the Cities.
As PT has continued to pay slow but definite benefits, the couple realized that their profession was waiting for them this fall.
Both have gone through COVID-19-specific training at Rippleside over the last two weeks, and Jason said that, after all they’ve been through, the changes due to COVID-19 are more easily put in perspective.
“Just being back at work is really nice,” Jason said. “There are worse things than working in a mask.”
And so, life slowly rounds back toward an approximation of normal. Both Jason and Kris are still in pain, and whether Jason will need another surgery for his arm remains unclear (he’s hoping not). Both have broken teeth from the accident, and dental appointments have not yet been scheduled. The financial cost of the accident – and court proceedings against the other driver – also are unclear.
Physical therapy will continue, and so will Jason’s Facebook blog. Since the crash, he’s shared numerous posts about what he and his wife have gone through, and what the future holds.
Both know their lives changed forever that day in February, but perhaps not for the worse. Jason still remembers a devotional his father shared with him while he was still in the hospital, “turning trials into triumphs.”
“I’ve used that to kind of ground me and center me,” Jason explained. “To keep me from doing the ‘woe is me’ stuff. To know there is a purpose.”
He said he and Kris celebrate the “little victories,” and find the silver linings when they can.
“You talk about casting all your worries to God,” Jason said. “That’s what we constantly talk about when there’s a medical bill, or a little hiccup in the road.
“There’s a plan,” he added. “He’s got a plan.”