There was a time when Ben Cunningham's biggest goals in life were throwing a wicked curve ball on the pitching mound or scoring a buzzer-beater on the basketball court. Life changes in an instant.
"We're just going to poke a hole in the neck. We'll give you some sedation and we'll go down there and if we get a hold of that hook we'll get this thing out," a doctor said.
The 18-year-old is having surgery to remove a device that helps prevent blood clots. This is probably the easiest procedure he's been on the table for in the last couple of years. Ben has had ten surgeries, which serve as the only reminders of the accident he does not even remember.
"I had my seatbelt on and I stayed in. The vehicle must've turned and the back end was in the water, but the front was up facing the other side," Ben said.
Two years ago, the Round Lake-Brewster High School student was showing cattle the Nobles County Fair in Worthington, Minnesota. On his way home, he crashed his truck. The top of his truck fractured his face, part of his vertebrae, seriously damaged his eye and crushed his skull. His brain started to bleed. Cunningham was taken to Sanford Children's Hospital, but he was not expected to make it through the night.
"The difficulties you have with severe brain injuries is the brain swells like any other organ. But it's contained within a fixed box. So that brain swelling can lead to severe brain swelling and injury that can lead to death," Sanford Pediatric Intensivist Dr. Joe Segeleon said.
Doctors had to remove half of Ben's skull and reconstruct it with titanium.
"They had to fold all his skin forward to re-break and re-do everything," Miriam Cunningham, Ben's mom, said.
Ben's road to recovery was just beginning. Doctors managed his brain injury and work was done to reconstruct the right side of his face, create a new tear duct and repair a torn ligament in his eye.
"We didn't know whether he was going to make it. It was just a struggle. A lot of prayers and support; that's what really got us through. It was the family and friends and support from all the staff," Miriam said.
It was a nightmare.
"How can somebody that strong be in that condition?" Paul Cunningham, Ben's father, said.
His son's strength never went anywhere. Within weeks after the accident, Ben was on his feet walking again and ready for months of daily rehab sessions with some persistent nurses.
"They were really nice," Ben said. "I didn't like doing it every day because I'd get tired of it, but they were nice and they had fun."
From premature babies to strong athletes like Ben, the Children's Miracle Network's support is not just a one size fits all approach.
"When a child is critically ill, it's not just that child that is critically ill. The family is also going through this stress and they need support. That's why CMN has always been there for us. We provide them with a variety of support whether it be lodging, food or resources," Segeleon said.
Just an hour away, the Sanford Children's Hospital allowed family and friends to be an active part of Ben's recovery. Miriam says what Ben went through seems like something off of a TV show.
"You know, you always watch that and think, 'Boy that is really something,' and then you actually go through it and realize how much of a blessing it is to have doctors and nurses that can cure and do amazing things," Miriam said.
Here is another amazing 'thing' to add to this story. Ben was back on the basketball court four months after the crash.
"At least he can get back to what he loves to do. That is probably the biggest thing," Paul said.
The moment is now frozen in time.
"A lot of tears. The biggest thing, the most important thing was to see all the people who came to support him and the standing ovation," Miriam said.
Now he is ready for college, and with that comes college sports. So, as time goes on, it is not that Ben has different goals. He just has more reasons for wanting to succeed.
"I'm really looking forward to it because I play sports pretty much every day and I have for I don't know how long," Ben said.
For more inspiring stories like Ben's, tune into the Children's Miracle Network special this Thursday. The hour-long broadcast will air this Thursday at 7 p.m. right here on KELO-TV.