PILLAGER, Minn. — When Brady Feist opens his eyes in the morning, relief washes over him as he sinks into the familiarity of his own bed.

Brady’s loved ones are just relieved the 26-year-old opened his eyes again after the events of May 26. A horrific motorcycle crash in Baxter left Brady unconscious and gravely injured -- so battered and broken, doctors warned his parents to prepare for the worst. But that was the first day Brady defied the odds, and he’s been doing it ever since.

“I just started to pray and I just started thinking, ‘No, you are so wrong, this is not how our lives are going to be,’” said Brady’s mother, Kim Feist, recalling the moment a surgeon at St. Cloud Hospital gave his bleak assessment. “And, here he is. He proved them wrong.”

Not only did he prove them wrong, he made all those who watched him grow stronger each day -- doctors, nurses, family members, friends -- believe in miracles.

“His doctor said, ‘I don’t know who you have praying for him, but you better have them pray for me, too, because he is a miracle,’” Kim said.

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‘Something was wrong’

Listening to his mom share the story of his recovery from the couch in his parents’ Pillager living room, Brady didn’t say much, but his smiles spoke for him. The traumatic brain injury he suffered from the crash left him with aphasia, a condition affecting his ability to express language. It’s one of a number of complications for him looking into the future, including upcoming surgeries to reconstruct his face and to repair his damaged brachial plexus, or the group of nerves controlling the use and sensation of his left arm.

On the couch at the Pillager home of his parents, Kim and Mark Feist, Kim talks about her son Brady Feist's recovery following a motorcycle crash May 26 in Baxter. Feist suffered life-threatening injuries and still has upcoming surgeries and continuing therapy. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
On the couch at the Pillager home of his parents, Kim and Mark Feist, Kim talks about her son Brady Feist's recovery following a motorcycle crash May 26 in Baxter. Feist suffered life-threatening injuries and still has upcoming surgeries and continuing therapy. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

But Brady and those surrounding him know it could’ve been much, much worse -- particularly if he hadn’t worn a full-face helmet the day he was thrown from his motorcycle.

May 26 was a beautiful day for a ride, with temperatures topping out at 74 degrees as the lakes area barrelled toward summer. After lunch with his girlfriend of more than three years, Nicole Vogt, and Nicole’s cousin, Brady ran errands before he planned to pick up Nicole for a ride on the bike in Crosslake.

It was shortly after 1:30 p.m. when the crash occurred: Brady’s motorcycle struck the passenger side of a pickup truck near the intersection of Highway 371 and Design Road. A witness stated Brady flew from the bike, hitting the pickup truck’s topper, and a Baxter police officer at the scene noted the topper was nearly pushed off the truck bed. Brady had a pulse, according to the crash report, but was not conscious and was bleeding from the head. He was transported by ambulance to Essentia Health-St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd before he was airlifted to St. Cloud Hospital.

Meanwhile, Nicole grew concerned when Brady didn’t show up as expected. She called the cellphone of Brady’s father Mark to ask whether he and Kim had heard from their son. Kim said it was unlike Brady not to answer his phone -- particularly a phone call from Nicole -- unless he was riding. A few calls to Brady’s friends later, a feeling of dread swept over Kim. She placed calls to her friends who are first responders in the Pillager area, though none had heard of a nearby crash. While they checked with their own contacts, Kim said she couldn’t wait any longer and called the Brainerd hospital.

“I got transferred three times,” Kim said. “By the third time, I knew that something was wrong.”

She soon received the directive that changed the Feist family forever: Get down to St. Cloud as soon as possible. She relayed the news to Nicole, and then she and Mark left their hunting land in Long Prairie. Nicole and her mother, Nancy Vogt, left Baxter, and Nancy’s parents, on their way to Brainerd to visit, returned to St. Cloud.

Brady Feist (left) and girlfriend Nicole Vogt pose together during the summer of 2018. Submitted photo
Brady Feist (left) and girlfriend Nicole Vogt pose together during the summer of 2018. Submitted photo

Once at the hospital, the severity of Brady’s injuries became clearer as he underwent immediate emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain. In addition to a head injury, Brady also had five broken ribs, a broken collarbone, bruised vertebrae, a collapsed lung and multiple facial fractures.

“I talked to a nurse a couple times, and I just said, ‘Just do whatever you can do,’” Kim said. “Originally they said if he would’ve been older, they wouldn’t have done anything. They said the injuries were so bad, they wouldn’t have done anything. But because of his age and because we said, ‘Nope just do whatever you have to do,’ they did.”

“I was kinda shocked at first,” Nicole said during a phone interview this week. “I didn’t really believe it. ‘No, no, this didn’t happen.’ … It was just so crazy. We were all crying, it was just crazy. You just want to help, but you kind of just had to wait. Honestly, it never really sunk into my head. I just kept saying, ‘He’s going to be fine, he’s going to be fine.’ They kept saying it (was bad), but it didn’t really click.”

Hundreds of miles away, Brady’s brother, Jayson Dinkel, headed toward St. Cloud from Devils Lake, North Dakota, where he was on a fishing trip Brady originally planned to attend as well.

“That was probably the worst six hours, seven hours of my life driving back from there,” Jayson, 34, said by phone. “They didn’t know if he was going to make it. When I heard that, that was, it pretty much silenced me. I didn’t say anything or do anything for pretty much nine days. I don’t think I ate or anything for like nine days. I just couldn’t deal with it. I didn’t know what to do.”

A new normal

The initial days following Brady’s crash were the beginning of what would be months in hospitals for Brady and his family. Signs Brady would defy expectations came early. Two days after the crash, on May 28, Brady responded to tickling on his foot, Kim documented in a CaringBridge journal she continues to update to this day. Not long after that, he puckered up in response to a kiss from Kim.

“It was within the first couple days that we knew that it wasn’t going to be -- we knew that it was still bad -- but I’d say within that first week for sure, we knew that things weren’t going to be as horrible,” Kim said.

Nicole spent every possible moment with Brady in the hospital, eventually leaving to go to work and then returning right away. Jayson called and left a voicemail for his brother daily, visiting as often as he could. Mark juggled hospital visits with continuing to run the family’s plumbing business, Pine Country Plumbing & Heating, for which Brady also works. Brady’s friends rallied together as well, creating #BradyStrong bracelets and stickers to begin raising money for his medical and living expenses. A family friend also created T-shirts to support the cause.

Kim and Brady Feist wear wristbands to encourage people to pray for Brady and his parents. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Kim and Brady Feist wear wristbands to encourage people to pray for Brady and his parents. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

After two weeks in intensive care, Brady was ready to begin rehabilitation, transferred first to Regency Hospital in Golden Valley and then to Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Centers in Minneapolis and Golden Valley. All the while, Brady took tremendous strides in his recovery, according to his loved ones.

“It’s been pretty amazing, pretty much watching him go through his whole childhood again in four months,” Jayson said. “Relearning everything, how to walk, talk, use his hands and arms and everything. It’s nuts. … He’s totally changed since before and after the accident. Before the accident, he used to get frustrated pretty easily and he would kind of give up on things. Since the accident, that’s gone. He’s not like that at all anymore. It’s total motivation and 100% effort trying to get better.”

Now home in Pillager -- months earlier than anyone expected -- Brady agreed he’s glad to eat regular food and sleep in his own bed. Medical care continues not only with the expected surgeries, but also planned participation in a brain injury rehabilitation program at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, and an outpatient intensive aphasia program through North Memorial Health. The extensive hospital stays and ongoing care means medical costs, travel and living expenses are piling up for Brady. A benefit is set for 2:22-10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, at the 2 Tall Tavern in Cushing, in an effort to keep Brady from having to apply for Medical Assistance, Kim said.

Nicole said all she can do is go with the flow, do whatever needs to be done to help Brady get better and to be there for him as much as possible.

“Nobody knows what’s going to happen or anything. It’s different right now because I help him more obviously than before,” Nicole said. “Brady’s always kind of been really strong and like a fighter. So it doesn’t really surprise me that he’s doing so good, because that’s just how he is. It’s just really cool to see all the progress, and it makes me feel good.”

Brady Feist (center) smiles with his brother Jayson Dinkel (left), father Mark Feist, mother Kim Feist and girlfriend Nicole Vogt while at a wedding. Submitted photo
Brady Feist (center) smiles with his brother Jayson Dinkel (left), father Mark Feist, mother Kim Feist and girlfriend Nicole Vogt while at a wedding. Submitted photo

“He’s going to have a new normal,” Kim said. “Whatever that new normal is, we want him to be able to still go out and do some of the old normal things: plumbing and enjoying life and golfing and fishing and motorcycling, hopefully, someday. … I never knew how strong we all were, and how much something like this can keep us even stronger and closer.”

Motorcycles are a passion for the whole family, and Brady intends to make sure it stays that way. Mark, Kim and Jayson offered to sell their rides in the wake of the crash, but Brady wasn’t having it.

“When he did come out of the coma, I asked him if he wanted me to sell my bike and he looked at me like I was the one with the brain injury,” Jayson said.

Before getting on the motorcycle again, however, Jayson made one critical change: He bought a helmet.

“If it wasn’t for his helmet, I don’t think he would be with us,” he said.

Kim said if she could speak to a mother in a hospital waiting room right now, facing a similar situation, she has one message for her: pray.

“Get anyone and everyone that you can to pray with you,” she said. “We had literally thousands of people praying for Brady. We have prayer groups in Idaho. We have prayer groups in Utah, Colorado, Wisconsin, Minnesota. The power of prayer. … There’s a reason, we’re not sure if we know the reason yet.

“… I just feel that someday, it might not be for five years, but someday all of a sudden something’s going to pop and I’ll go, ‘Oh, it’s all making sense. This is why. This is why.’ Because I think he’s got huge, huge things ahead of him. And I just don’t think we know exactly what they are, but there’s a reason, and God is powerful.”