SUMNER, Iowa (KWWL) -- Kelli Judisch and her family don't worry about what could have been, choosing instead to focus on the progressing milestones in the recovery of eldest son, Kason.
Since last May, Kason has been recovering from a traumatic brain injury, one informally classified as a 9.5 on a 10 point scale, according to his mother.
"There's no reason to be sorry for ourselves or wish away what's happened," said Kelli during a Zoom interview.
Kason was severely injured in a car accident last May and to this day, Kelli says they've never gotten a clear diagnosis. In hindsight, she says it's a blessing.
"We don't have any expectations. Just expect that he's going to get as better as he can. Every milestone is a celebration," Kelli said.
While his achievements continue today, Kason ended his high school career last May with a long list of accomplishments. He was a banner winner in speech competitions, an All-State vocalist, he played the saxophone in the school band, performed in show choir, ran cross country, and so on.
His parents, Kelli and Tom, were excited to see him accepted into the musical theatre program at Millikin University in Decatur, IL.
"He works very hard. I think his hard work ethic before the accident has really carried over to after the accident" Kelli said.
On his way to a friend's house, Kason's car collided with a truck after he ran a stop sign on May 18th, 2020. The other driver, Thomas Simmons, was pronounced dead at the scene.
The call that your child has been in an accident is one that no parent ever wants to get.
"I actually never got the call," Kelli said.
Call it mother's intuition, but Kelli came upon the scene of the accident after Kason's friend reached out to say that he was late arriving to their house.
"So, I got in the car, and I asked her to give me her address and I put it in the GPS. Because he'd never been there before to her house, and so I put it in the GPS as he would have followed it," Kelli said. "So, I'm driving, kind of panicking, and I come across a whole slew of emergency vehicles and I see his car."
Kason had already been airlifted to Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
It was on the drive that Kelli and Tom decided on the mindset that would carry them through to this point.
"My husband and I made a deal with each other, a promise, right then and there that we weren't going to play the dangerous 'what if game' or the 'if only,'" Kelli said. "Because that gets you nowhere."
Faith carried the Judisch family through the next several months as Kason slowly recovered. He underwent multiple surgeries last fall until eventually fitting him with a new skull flap that had been removed.
Kelli explains that the doctors shared that Kason was experiencing "sunken skull" syndrome, a rare complication following surgery on the skull.
Surgeries for "Sunken Head" Syndrome
After the skull flap was replaced, Kason's recovery increased quickly, according to Kelli. He began to improve in his mobility, eventually getting to the point he is now where he can confidently walk without assistance.
Kelli recounted the first tests used to gauge the extent of his injuries.
"They would take a feather and tickle his feet, or ring a bell behind his ear. And I'm willing with every fiber of my being 'move! move! Look at them! Respond!" Kelli said. "And here it is 8 months later and... he's considered now independent."
Kason is independent within a protected environment, like the "On With Life" rehabilitation facility in Ankeny that specializes in helping those recovering from a brain injury.
"I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become."Quote from Carl Gustav Jung, painted on the wall of "On With Life"
How has his personality changed?
"I've met a new child. He's a different person," Kelli said of how the accident impacted Kason's personality.
She says Kason has become more affectionate and loving. Kelli is grateful, knowing that for too many that suffer from a brain injury they can lead towards anger and frustration instead.
"He still likes the same things. He's extremely into music and musicals," Kelli said.
Various forms of therapy, from physical to speech to music, have all aided Kason in his recovery. However, that recovery has been paced with the pandemic.
"I am the only one who's able to be with him in-person," Kelli said.
While Kason was able to spend Christmas at his home with family, it was only recently that the family was able to come into the OWL facility for "family training." That training will help them support Kason when he returns home to continue his recovery.
Kelli shared that people who experience a brain injury like Kason's can benefit from going out to experience the world.
"Whatever it is can stimulate all of your senses in ways that you can't get in a static environment as much as they try," Kelli said, referencing the staff at OWL who she constantly bragged upon in the interview.
While most visitors have been restricted to seeing Kason's infectious smile through a window, his story garnered more than its fair share online.
Support from #fightKasonfight Facebook Group
"He turned 19 last week, and I think he got something in the range of 1500 cards," Kelli said.
The public Facebook group called "#fightKasonfight" has nearly 6,000 followers, which is about 3 times the amount of people in his hometown of Sumner.
Being more of a private person, Kelli says they were encouraged to share Kason's story by family friend, Debra Seamans Smith.
In talking about her faith, Kelli says the family is humbled by the continued support they receive and the fact that Kason continues to recover.
"You know the worst part of this whole scenario is there's a family who's lost a dad, a brother, a husband," Kelli said. "It's something I pray about every single day of my life."
Kason's Story Still Supported 8 Months After the Accident
"Tragedies happen everywhere. This was 8 months ago and people are bound to go on with their own lives but they still give us the support even after all this time, which is something I can never repay," Kelli said.
Family, friends, and complete strangers continue to post in the Facebook group daily while Kelli shares regular updates on Kason.
Through this platform the family has connected with people from all over the country and here locally.
"I met the daughter of the other man involved in the accident. Her and the gentleman's wife and their family has been extremely gracious and wonderful to us. As far as just, just being wonderful human beings and gracious human beings," Kelli said.
Each post gets hundreds of interactions online as group members continue to be invested in Kason's recovery. He'll hopefully be home soon as Kelli posted Thursday that they're closer to treating a baffling stomach issue.
Kelli says a number of fundraisers and events have been held in Kason's honor since last May.
A GoFundMe account is ongoing with a goal of $25,000 to be given to the Judisch family to help offset the cost of Kason's care.
It may sound cliché, but a story like Kason's, and that of his entire family honestly, should serve as an example to us all that hope matters.