As snow covered the ground, brothers Jurian, 13, and Jaden, 10, went outside to sled ride. An adult neighbor started slowly towing the boys’ sleds behind their snowmobile. A few moments later, the boys’ parents, Josh and Tenniel Shaffer, heard screams.
“It almost sounded like they were just playing,” Josh Shaffer, 42, of Kalamazoo, Michigan told TODAY Parents. But, he said, “I had the vibe that something was wrong.”
They rushed out and found a horrible sight.
“Both of them were pretty much flat on their backs. Our oldest, Jurian, was alert. He started screaming,” Josh Shaffer explained. “Jaden was definitely unconscious … You could tell that he had hit a tree because his face was already cut and bleeding and then his breathing was very shallow.”
The Shaffers worried that their sons wouldn’t survive.
“I wasn’t real confident that Jaden was going to make it. It didn’t look good,” Josh Shaffer said. “The sheriffs and first responders looked at us with this shock.”
Tenniel Shaffer agreed.
“I was in shock,” the 41-year-old told TODAY Parents. “I don’t think you can ever prepare yourself for a moment like that — especially when it’s both of your kids.”
Snow day and rare chance to sled
Jaden and Jurian didn’t often go sled riding, in part because Tenniel Shaffer said she considers herself a “type A” overprotective mom. But on January 27, 2021, the parents encouraged the boys to join their neighbor sledding during the year’s first big snowfall.
The neighbor was driving the snowmobile so slowly that the Shaffers could walk faster than it. But their neighbor was riding with their toddler in their lap, and the toddler accidentally hit the throttle.
“His son pulled the throttle, which whipped it forward real fast, and threw our boys into a tree,” Tenniel Shaffer explained. “It was a freak accident. You’d never expect it.”
The Shaffers felt stunned when they saw their sons. Jurian’s leg was behind him with his foot twisted the “wrong way.”
“His leg was pretty much mangled,” Josh Shaffer said. “It was pretty brutal.”
Jaden laid motionless and struggled to breathe.
“We didn’t know if he was going to make it,” Josh Shaffer said.
When the ambulances arrived, first responders immediately attended to Jaden and rushed him to the local hospital. About 10 minutes later, Jurian followed. The chaplain greeted the Shaffers.
“They were preparing us for the worst,” Josh Shaffer said. “Then the doctor started bombarding us about Jaden. The doctor said they needed to put a pressure monitor into his skull so they basically drilled a hole in the front of his skull.”
At the same time, Jurian needed emergency surgery to fix the breaks in his leg. Then they received a laundry list of Jaden’s condition: He was in a coma. He broke his pelvis in three spots. He broke some facial bones. And he experienced a traumatic brain injury. Doctors were unsure if he'd wake up and what he would be like if he did.
The uncertainty was daunting.
“I don’t think I ever felt (like they were) out of the woods,” Tenniel Shaffer said.
After two weeks, though, Jaden started improving. Doctors removed his breathing tube and he was breathing without assistance, which was a a huge milestone. Jurian underwent another surgery and had an external fixator, a type of metal brace, placed on his leg from his ankle to knee to help him heal.
“He broke his femur just above his knee and then broke his tibula and that was pretty much shattered,” Josh Shaffer said. “He broke his ankle, (and) that break went through the skin.”
He lost a lot of blood and underwent three blood transfusions. A few days after Jaden was weaned off his breathing tube, he was moved to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Still, doctors didn’t know what Jaden’s future would be like.
“It just felt like we got over one hurdle and we were able to move onto therapy,” Josh Shaffer said, “which was also a very long, grueling process.”
While Jurian was able to return home, Jaden needed a lot of rehabilitation. He couldn’t hold up his head, speak, sit up or walk. Therapists started first with helping Jaden control his head.
“His head would just basically flop to the side or flop down so for two straight weeks; they worked on his head, neck to being able to hold his head up,” Josh Shaffer said. “That was very very tough. When you start looking in the future, you’re like, ‘How long is this going to take?’”
When Jaden could hold up his head, the therapist helped him strengthen his core so he could sit. Being unable to speak complicated life for Jaden.
“He said his first word two months after the accident. To try to communicate with him was very difficult,” Josh Shaffer said. “Not being able to hear his voice either was tough.”
At times, Jaden seemed frustrated. They tried to have him write, but his right hand has a tremor, making writing difficult. Jaden kept trying.
“Jaden is definitely a fighter. He always tries to keep up with his brother and friends,” Josh Shaffer said. “His determination has gotten him as far as he’s come already and I wouldn’t put it past him to continually get better.”
Meanwhile, Jurian’s stay at home was cut short when an infection sent him back to the hospital.
“Jurian really struggled early on. He lost a lot of weight. I’m going to say that he was struggling with depression,” Tenniel Shaffer said. “I think the infection was a factor in his attitude.”
Grappling with both children undergoing numerous surgeries and treatments felt tough.
“It would be hard with one kid. But Jurian and Jaden were separated,” Tenniel Shaffer said. “We were trying to balance our time together but also our time with both kids.”
Support from friends, family and their church helped. Soon after the accident, the community held a prayer vigil outside the hospital. When an unconscious Jaden heard his favorite song, “The Blessing,” his brain pressure lowered.
“All the nurses in the hospital said they’ve never seen anything like that,” Tenniel Shaffer said.
The family cheered him on in rehab and after about 80 days he went home.
“He really didn’t walk on his own for maybe six weeks after we got home. We had to constantly walk behind him and shift his weight because he wasn’t physically able to do that,” Josh Shaffer said. “They could tell that we were getting tired and weary and we all wanted to be together at home.”
Life at home
Jurian can try running soon and he recently hit a few golf balls at the driving range, a first since his accident. Both boys enjoyed basketball, baseball and golf and Jurian looks forward to playing them again. Jaden might be able to golf some day but doctors are unsure.
“We’ve basically been told since day one that every brain injury is different and they cannot predict what his future will be,” Josh Shaffer said. “He is constantly improving and obviously our hope and prayer is that he heals until he is back to where he was.”
They returned to school, and Jaden has two aides to help him. He said he loves math and science. When he’s not in speech, occupational and physical therapy or in school, he said he enjoys “playing mini-hoops and annoying my brother.”
Jaden jokes that his brother didn’t help him recover at all, but that's not true. Jurian FaceTimed him up to 10 times to keep him motivated.
“We’re very close,” Jurian told TODAY Parents. He believes their close bond and God helped them recover.
After everything the Shaffers have been through, they’ve reevaluated what’s important.
“I probably used to yell at my kids a little bit more than I do now. Every day I try to enjoy the day and tell them I love them and show them I love them,” Tenniel Shaffer said. “You never know what tomorrow is going to bring and it takes experiencing something like that to fully understand it.”