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Rodeo champion determined to ride again

The Olson family visited Jayden at Craig Hospital during his rehabilitation. Submitted photo1 / 2
Jayden and one of the physical therapists work on the treadmill in the therapy pool at Craig Hospital. Submitted photo 2 / 2

Jayden Olson doesn't remember being thrown from a pickup truck last December and incurring a life-threatening traumatic brain injury.

There's a period of time before the accident that he's forgotten too — including his 20th birthday. His last memory prior was the North Dakota Rodeo Association Finals Rodeo, where he won first place.

"This is basically the kind of traumatic head injury where ... hours count. This guy, when he was in the emergency (room) had less than a day to live ... As far as salvageable head injury, it's as severe as it gets," said Eric Belanger, Olson's neurosurgeon.

Olson was comatose when he arrived at Sanford Health in Bismarck for surgery. He had a blood clot on his brain, so Belanger had to remove part of his skull and place it in his side until the swelling went down. Olson likes the "gnarly scar," it left and takes every opportunity to show it off.

After surgery, he spent months in rehabilitation at the Craig Hospital in Denver, Colo., where his determination to heal was an inspiration to others.

"There was a guy right next to Jayden. He was probably 60 years old, and he'd given up. He quit," Mika Olson, Jayden's father, recalled. "...Jayden couldn't walk when he got there, couldn't remember nothing. It was pretty bad, but he worked really super hard. ... This guy seen the progress that Jayden made in such a short time, and it inspired him to work. ...

His wife and daughter came and talked to me and thanked me... (Jayden) was an inspiration to a lot of people down there."

After two days of being there, he was walking.

'Everything that he did before'

Though his mother said Olson was always driven, part of his determination comes from his desire to get back to rodeo.

"That's his big driving— that's what pushes him to get better, get better, get better.

No one ever said that he wouldn't be able to," Mika Olson said.

Now back home with his parents, he's starting off small.

"He's like 'Can I go to the branding with Jonathan?' I'm like 'Okay, what are you going to do?' 'Well, I want to wrestle some calves or maybe rope.' And I look at Mika and I (sigh) like do we want this to happen already?'" Janine Olson, Jayden's mother, said.

Jayden's father went with him and said he roped cows all day long.

"It's like nothing ever happened to him. Everything that he did before, it's there," his father said.

However, his situation is still somewhat precarious.

"Dr. Belanger said to him, 'If you hit your head one more time, whether it's a fall or somebody punches you or whatever, you will die or you will be a vegetable in a nursing home. He said 'This is your second chance. You won't get another one,'" Janine said.

The thought of her son back at the rodeo makes her nervous.

"Bucking horses is a different story," she said. "There, your head is banging, so he won't be doing that — soon. I mean, I hope never, but he and his dad think maybe. We'll see, I guess. It scares me. I just don't think it's worth his life ... Accidents happen in rodeos. That's the name of the game. So we're on different pages there. I just don't press it because I know he's not going to do it this summer."

So far, Olson's parents have been protective of him, and he's moved back in with them.

"It was hard for him to adjust to being home and having to live with us again and have rules and regulations. We were limiting where he could go and who he could go with, 'cause we were scared. We wanted people to understand that this is serious and you just can't mess around with it," his mom said.

After about a month, Olson's parents regrouped. Now they just ask that he let them know when he's leaving, where he's going and with whom.

'Such a different kid'

Olson has come a long way since his time at Craig.

He couldn't stand on his own when he first got there, and when he did start walking, he would drag his foot.

Now that he's back home, his mom said it's difficult to tell that he doesn't have complete control over his right ankle and foot. He no longer drags his foot, and although his balance isn't perfect, he walks fine on his own.

When he first arrived at the hospital, his short term memory was gone.

"His speech therapist ... he couldn't even get from his room to her room, couldn't find it, and he'd go there everyday," Janine Olson said.

Now, he remembers more and more everyday, but his memory still hasn't fully recovered, a process his neurosurgeon said could take a year.

"He's able to retain things for longer periods of time, especially if they're very meaningful to him," Janine Olson said. "If they're just little details, you know, like can you run to the store and pick up some milk, he might get to the store, but he'll have no idea why he's there. We've learned to send text messages."

Even his personality has changed.

"He used to be my very introverted child, very reserved," his mother said. "If talked to, he would talk back, but he never was outgoing and spoke to people like some of my other kids. Now people are like 'Oh my God, I can't believe how much Jayden visits with us, and he's so happy.' I had him go down to the bank to get something, and the president saw me at church and she's like 'Wow Jayden's just such a different kid,'" she laughed.

Jayden Olson said it's the only good thing about the accident.

"I'm more talkative to people, way more talkative. I go out of my way for like 30 minutes to talk to someone if I'm not doing anything," he said.

Though he's come a long way, Jayden isn't fully recovered. Belanger said his skull will take 1-2 years to fully fuse back together, as bone grows slowly.

"What we see now is not the final result. He's going to get a lot better," he said.

Belanger said Jayden's age and family — whom he said were extremely nice to deal with— are key to his recovery.

"His family were always there with him and the fact that he has a great family support makes a tremendous difference in the recovery," Belanger said. "... Say he would be a single guy in the middle of nowhere, it would be a lot harder for him to recover."