Young Laguna surfer Brayden Belden is on the long road to recovery after a brain injury during a snowboarding accident
This is it, Matt Belden thought as he rushed to his son’s lifeless body.
Brayden Belden had just propelled 30 feet into the sky off a massive jump while snowboarding at Mt. Bachelor in Oregon. The 11-year-old landed the jump, but he was going too fast.
He caught an edge and went down hard.
“All the doctors agreed, if he didn’t have a helmet on, he would have been dead on impact,” Matt Belden said, his eyes tearing up as he recalled that fateful day on Feb. 20 during a family snowboarding trip.
When Belden got to his son, the boy was catatonic. The pupils of his eyes were unresponsive to light. There was no pulse.
Belden began CPR, breathing into his son’s mouth, until he got a faint heartbeat.
Then he waited, a half an hour, maybe more, not wanting to move his son for fear that he had a spinal cord injury. Finally, a rescue team showed up and carried Brayden to a hospital in Bend via helicopter.
When Belden and his wife arrived at the hospital — after battling a blizzard — the doctor said Brayden had just two hours to live.
A priest wanted to speak with Belden.
“I said ‘don’t even pull those rosary beads out yet’,” Belden said.
A young surf star
Brayden has always had cat-like reflexes — a gnarly, nimble athlete riding a wave toward surf stardom.
The oldest of three kids, Brayden started surfing at age 8. For the past few years he accompanied his father on surf trips to Mexico, Hawaii, Panama and Costa Rica.
“He’s my best friend,” Belden said on a recent day. “It was one of my core sources of happiness, to share that passion.”
Last year, Brayden won the boys division in the Brooks St. Surfing Classic, a long-running community surf contest. He ranked second in the 2016-17 season in Explorer Super Groms for the National Scholastic Surfing Association, a impressive showing for a first-year competitor, according to Janice Aragon, executive director for the National Scholastic Surfing Association.
His father taught him to be respectful in the water:
Always greet and smile at elders.
Never snake waves, especially at the Belden’s home break at Brooks Street and Thalia in Laguna — where the locals can be a tough group to crack.
If younger kids need help catching waves, push them in.
“He loves the sport. He was just nice and respectful,” Belden said. “I think that’s why a lot of guys rallied around him in the community, because they do know him.”
Brayden was getting even better at snowboarding. He told his dad taking big air off jumps felt better than getting barreled.
They had gone to Mt. Bachelor for a week of skiing with a few family friends — not knowing it would be months before they would return home.
Fighting for inches
After the first doctor in Bend, Oregon gave Brayden just two hours to live, Belden had his son airlifted to Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland. It’s one of the top pediatric hospitals on the West Coast.
Doctors told Belden the type of traumatic brain injury Brayden suffered was rare. His basal ganglia — a group of clustered neurons deep within the brain — were shaken so hard that the impacts ruptured important areas needed to do the most basic of tasks.
Only a small percentage of traumatic brain injuries affect this area of the brain, and it has a high mortality rate, Belden said.
“It’s like a car – the tires and alignment are great, the radio works, the upholstery is perfect,” he said. “But the engine doesn’t work.”
For the first week or two, doctors wouldn’t even say if he would live. Then, they warned, if he woke up from the coma, he could be in a vegetative state for months. Maybe years.
But when the doctors weaned him off drugs that kept him in a medically induced coma, Brayden started coming to life.
First, he was able to move his hand on command. Then, he could give a thumbs up for yes, thumbs down for no — and a middle finger if he really didn’t like something.
Belden handed him an iPad and asked, what do you want to work on?
“Everything,” Brayden typed.
He had to relearn everything: how to eat, how to talk, how to walk.
“You’re just fighting for inches,” Belden said. “That’s what it is now, just fighting for inches and feet, and getting his life back.”
Doctors used hyperbaric oxygen treatment, usually reserved for burn patients, to help speed up healing, .
“I believe in my gut it played a huge role,” Belden said, noting that journals and doctors want to do a study on Brayden’s recovery.
There were the prayers from the community that Belden believes also helped.
“Prayer works,” he said.
After 120 days in Oregon, the family came home two weeks ago.
Brayden’s voice is so weak, it’s barely a whisper. But his determination is strong.
He hits a milestone during a recent physical therapy session when asked to move his toes
“His toes are curling, but he can control it, he can pull them apart,” Kevyn Dean, CEO at DSC Performance in San Clemente, said. “The great thing is, he’s a fighter, you can see it.”
Belden catches Brayden doing crunches at night in bed, trying to strengthen his core.
The community has been with him through the fight. A GoFundMe account set up after the accident has raised more than $200,000 to date to help with Brayden’s medical bills and continued therapy.
Stance, a sock company out of San Clemente, hosted a fundraiser in his honor recently with local World Tour surfer Griffin Colapinto. Another of the world’s top surfers, Kolohe Andino, gave him two surfboards.
“It was insane,” Brayden said.
What does he want to do as his 12th birthday approaches in August? Play ding-dong ditch with friends.
And one day soon, he hopes he’ll be back out in the water catching waves.
Not long ago, Belden had dreams of his son becoming a doctor, maybe a lawyer. Now, it’s just about the small steps toward recovery.
“This is his mission now, this is his calling, just to beat this,” Belden said. “As far as I’m concerned, he beats this and the rest of his life is gravy.
“It doesn’t get any harder.”