At 2 a.m. quiet and darkness have settled over most of Becker County.
But heading north past the tiny town of Richwood toward Strawberry Lake, there sits a modest, green house from which a single light can sometimes be seen shining from a bedroom window.
That’s where Gayle Hochstetler sits up, searching every corner of the internet for new ways to possibly help her 20-year-old son, Landon, who sleeps just across the house.
Her desperation outweighs her exhaustion.
“I’m looking for anything …. what haven’t we tried? What can we try?” she says, ready to keep fighting.
It’s her and her family versus a traumatic, serious brain injury, and they’re fighting for a brown-haired, brown-eyed young man named Landon.
It was Sept. 13, 2010.
“It was my 54th birthday,” said Gayle Hochstetler from her kitchen table. “It was just an ordinary day.”
Landon, who was just a week shy of his 17th birthday, had gotten home from helping his dad, Les, do some shingling when he decided to call up a friend to go rollerblading.
“He was training for hockey,” explained his mother, who says her son asked her to help him find his other roller blade.
“So, I looked around, found it, and handed it to him - now I wish I hadn’t done that,” she said, looking haunted by the memory.
Roughly 15 minutes after Landon and his friend left, Gayle heard the phone ringing.
“I couldn’t tell who it was, but he said, ‘Gayle, you have to get here right away, I think I hit Landon - Oh God, you gotta get here.’”
Just up the road, Hochstetler says they found her only son curled up in the back seat of the car that had just struck him.
“I guess the young man driving was digging for something that had dropped on his floor, and so he had his head buried and he kind of turned his steering wheel,” said Hochstetler, “and since Landon was on the outside, he clipped him going 60 miles per hour.”
Landon was thrown up over the car, smashing first the windshield, then the back window and landing inside the car.
The fight that has been a way of life for the Hochstetlers began with a life flight, continued with five weeks with Landon in a coma and another five months in Twin Cities hospitals.
“The doctors told us initially that he might open up his eyes, but that would be about it and that we should put him in a home,” said Gayle Hochstetler, who says pure denial had them not accepting anything but the idea of a full recovery.
The Hochstetlers refused to put Landon in a home, but instead, began turning their own home into a place where he could heal.
The communities they had become a part of through hockey, church and friends pulled together in many ways to help the Hochstetlers build an addition onto the house for Landon.
But day by day, as Landon’s friends and peers went on to pursue the hopes and dreams every parent wishes for them, his world has remained defined and halted by that same, split-second accident.
For Landon’s close-knit family, it was heart-wrenching to accept that fact that the once athletic kid who could do triple-flips on the trampoline, was now confined to a wheel chair unable to even speak or move much.
“It was consuming - it felt like we would never laugh again,” said Gayle.
Three and a half years into his injury, Landon remains in that wheelchair and time has had a way of forcing the Hochstetlers to face reality.
Landon is still unable to walk, feed himself or speak, but slow, small improvements now have him making noises of communication, smiling and laughing.
“When he watches America’s Funniest Home Videos, he laughs at the same moments you or I would laugh,” said Les Hochstetler, who says his son recognizes friends and family, and gets excited to see his sisters.
Hochstetler says he reacts to the same things he loved before the accident - long, hot showers and hockey.
“We’ll take him out to the hockey games, and I don’t know if he can really follow the puck, but he loves the noise and when the players come banging up against the glass,” said Les.
Landon also goes to school at the special education department of the Detroit Lakes High School, while endless doctor’s appointments and once-a-week therapy sessions in Fargo keep Gayle and the family busy running.
“It has consumed our lives,” said Gayle, who says personal care attendants help with the daily routines of caring for Landon, which includes keeping his muscles worked and limber.
“His body is ready to go, it’s still just his brain, she said.
And it’s trying to figure out that brain which has Gayle tirelessly searching for answers.
Food for thought
Repairing a brain isn’t easy.
It’s complex, puzzling and unpredictable - none of which things are desirable for a mother desperate for something to help her boy.
“They tell us once a brain is injured, those dead cells don’t ever regenerate,” said Gayle, “and humanly speaking, we know that, but we also know that a brain can rewire itself and other parts of the brain can take over the parts that are damaged.”
Fueled by hope and love, Gayle, Les and their girls continually try techniques believed to help that process along.
“We give him fish oil supplements, we turn Landon in circles to the left very slowly…” said Gayle, who admits that while she isn’t sure it’s helping, but she isn’t sure it isn’t, either.
“We’ve been doing things like this for three years, and we plan to continue,” she added, always looking for new theories and studies to get him into and putting hope into the continual advancement of modern medicine.
During one of her recent 2 a.m. internet searches, Gayle came upon some information on a new machine called the Quadriciser, which works all four limbs at one time, adjusting to each limb’s strength.
“A young gal on this machine who was around Landon’s age was four years out of her (brain) injury, and her parents had been told there would be no more progress,” said Gayle, “But when she got this machine, she started making significant improvements, and I said … I want one!”
With a $15,000 price tag, the community once again rallied around the Hochstetlers when a family friend set up an online donation site and began spreading the word.
Gayle said $10,000 was raised on that site, and nearly the rest was mailed or handed to them by community members.
“I can’t say enough about the support we have had,” said Gayle, who says she just sent the check off Thursday.
“This machine is to not just help with his range of motion, but also to build the cognitive,” she said, “…to build new neurons and new pathways.”
The Hochstetlers say they hope this new machine, which is not yet in any local therapy centers, will not only help Landon, but also other people in the community who suffer from brain-related diseases or injuries.
“There is a girl just up the road with cerebral palsy who I think is comfortable enough to come over here and use this,” said Les Hochstetler, who says from what he understands, therapy centers and hospitals cannot get reimbursed through insurance or government funds for these machines, making them hard to come by.
“It seems pretty backwards to me, but if these machines can do what they say they can do, then we’d love to have people come over here to use it - the community bought this, anyway,” he added.
Although the Hochstetlers know there aren’t any promises when it comes to brain injuries, they say they won’t stop trying.
“They’re doing such amazing things in neurology and things change so quickly,” said Gayle, “so I just have to keep on top of it and keep looking.”