FARGO — The five-year anniversary of an event that forever changed a Fargo man’s life might easily have been one marked by anger and somber reflection.
March 16, 2015, is when Elias Youngblom lost his vision — and almost his life — at the hands of a wrong-way drunk driver on Interstate 94.
Instead, it’s a time for Youngblom, 28, his family and his girlfriend, Kaity Young, 26, to celebrate what he considers to be a sort of “weird birthday."
“While it is the day that you almost died, it is also the day that you lived,” she said, as the two sat together in their north Fargo home.
Youngblom has mostly recovered from his physical injuries and adapted to living life as a blind person.
He continues teaching the drumline of North Dakota State University’s Gold Star Marching Band a few nights a week.
“It’s a passion project,” he said.
But the driver who crashed nearly head-on into Youngblom’s vehicle that day closed doors that might have otherwise been open to him.
Still, he doesn’t wonder what might have been, and instead chooses to focus on the upside. The outpouring of love and support from family, friends and many people he didn’t even know after the crash was unexpected and remains with him, even today.
“I'm not glad that this happened to me. That would be a wild thing to say. But there have been a lot of really incredible things that have come out of it,” Youngblom said.
What saved his life
On the day of the crash, Youngblom was headed from Fargo, where he had been attending NDSU, back to his family’s home in the Twin Cities.
He was on I-94 near Fergus Falls when, around 2 p.m., his life’s trajectory changed in the blink of an eye.
A woman under the influence of alcohol had entered the interstate from an exit ramp and driven west in the eastbound lanes for several miles before coming directly into Youngblom’s path.
The Lincoln Town Car driven by Jana Battern, then 43, from Fergus Falls, hit Youngblom’s Honda Civic nearly head-on, causing it to roll and come to rest in a ditch 50 yards away.
Youngblom suffered a lacerated liver, bruised lungs and multiple compound fractures, and all of the bones in his face below his eyebrows were shattered.
Battern had injuries that were not life-threatening.
A number of things happened afterward, Youngblom said, that helped save his life.
A person who witnessed the crash called 911 immediately. Another driver who stopped to help was headed to an event for first responders and had emergency equipment with him, allowing him to stabilize Youngblom.
Paramedics and firefighters removed the vehicle’s roof and windshield to get Youngblom out. Sleet that had been falling let up to allow a helicopter to land and take him to Sanford Medical Center in Fargo.
Blood loss was significant, and at some point, his optic nerves were damaged by lack of blood flow, robbing him of his eyesight.
Youngblom said even though he was told he never lost consciousness, he doesn’t remember anything about the accident or for several days afterward.
“Your brain blocks out traumatic things,” he said.
'This is permanent'
After months of recovery, Youngblom went back to the home he grew up in and felt a harsh reality when he found himself bumping into things in the familiar environment.
“That was the first time that it really sunk in, like, this is real. This is permanent. I can't see anything, and so that was a very hard day," he said.
To help him adjust to life without sight, Youngblom went to a vocational rehabilitation school in Minneapolis.
The focus was on learning to use adaptive technology, learning Braille, performing daily tasks and navigating the world while blind.
Now, he is comfortable in his own house and able to do just about anything with the help of markings on the kitchen stove, microwave, spice jars and the washer and dryer.
He’s applied to receive a guide dog, which would help him maneuver life outside his home more easily.
For now, he mostly relies on Young’s help while out in public, prompting some people to mistake her for Youngblom’s nurse or caretaker.
They also incorrectly assume he may not be “fully there,” mentally or physically, she said.
She’s quick to point out that he can do everything but drive, and that their relationship is mutually beneficial.
“He takes care of me just as much as I take care of him,” Young said.
The path ahead
While Youngblom’s loss of sight is the most limiting of the crash consequences, he becomes more frustrated with other issues that continue to surface.
A blocked tear duct led to a serious skin infection and a weeklong hospitalization.
His injured left arm is weaker, and he recently hurt his elbow while trying to get dressed.
As a couple, they mourn for the impact on their future lives together.
“If and when we get married ... he won't see me walk down the aisle. If we have children, he will never see them. And that's the stuff … we both get emotional about,” Young said.
Youngblom said he never considered suing Battern over the crash and his blindness. He did receive a financial payout by way of health insurance and car insurance settlements.
Battern was convicted of Criminal Vehicular Operation - Great Bodily Harm and was sentenced to 180 days in jail and five years of supervised probation. At the time of the crash, she had more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in her system, and it wasn’t her first DWI.
Hearing about Battern’s struggles with addiction and seeing the lack of family support for her in the courtroom made it almost impossible for him to be angry, and that sentiment remains.
“My life has been pretty good, aside from this one thing, and hers hasn't,” he said.
Getting to know Youngblom in the year they’ve been dating and seeing the obstacles he's overcome has changed Young’s life as well.
“He brings a lot of people joy, and I feel lucky,” she said.