Alaska has brown bears, black bears, polar bears…. But the strongest, fiercest, toughest of all is a Mama Bear. Specifically Tina Ervin, of Chickaloon, Alaska – aka Mama Bear to her cub, 5 year old Austin Ervin.
On March 22, 2013, Austin was on his way home from a school play with family friends in Wasilla when the car he was riding in was hit head on by a driver who hit a patch of black ice. According to his mother, that’s when the first of many miracles happened. Austin had died on impact but through the efforts of the first responders, he was revived and immediately taken to the Mat-Su Regional Hospital, and then transferred immediately to Providence Hospital in Anchorage.
Tina, who had been out with friends celebrating her 40th birthday, got the call no parent ever wants to get… that her 5 year old son had been in an accident and was barely clinging to life. Upon seeing her youngest child in a coma, connected to tubes, machines, wires, ivs, she dropped to her knees. Family and friends physically had to hold her up. This is one tough Alaskan cookie – she is the only female operator out in the field at Northstar Island, a 5 acre manmade island in the Beaufort Sea, 6 miles offshore. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t even keep a cup of water down. She was shattered.
That’s when the 2nd miracle happened. Tina & her husband Hunter had been told that Austin was brain dead. They were in discussions about loving him enough to let go, about donating his organs to others in need, when Tina noticed that Austin had grimaced when she kissed him. At that moment, she “knew he was still in there” and began to unleash her Mama Bear in full force. Her advocacy and determination took them to Seattle Children’s Hospital for 12 weeks where Austin was stabilized with a spinal fusion from C1 to T5. His spine is now a web of titanium and steel. Doctors diagnosed Austin with Atlanto-Occipital Dislocation and severe spinal cord injury at the C1-C2 vertebrae level.
That’s when Mama Bear Tina got to work again. She spent days and nights researching the best, next place for Austin to heal. She learned that there are only 20 places in the United States dedicated to Spinal Cord Injury… only 10 of those take children… and only 5 of those take children who are on ventilators. Of those 5, there was no doubt in Tina’s mind that Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore was the best. And so with the help of fundraising efforts of family & friends, they came to Maryland.
East Baltimore is a different world. No moose can be seen out the window, no snowmobiles, and no mountains. But the things that really matter are here. According to Tina, “when we got here, we were so scared. But the people here love the kids and they do everything for these kids. The doctors and nurses are amazing. They talk to you; they talk to your child. They care. They are amazing.”
When we visited Austin, he was in the hospital, connected to machines and visited routinely by the doctors, nurses and caretakers he has grown to love at KKI. But upon meeting him, we were instantly drawn instead to the part of him that is still fully under his control – his sweet, comical, elfin, mischievous face. He can’t move his legs (yet) but he can wink at his new friend Ella, and he can raise his eyebrows up and down, like Groucho Marx, when he hears something funny, and he can pucker up for his mama for a big kiss. It’s immediately clear that his body has been damaged but his spirit is fully intact. Testing shows that he is developmentally above average for most kindergartners. Meeting his parents Hunter and Tina, and it’s easy to see why. They have never given up on this beautiful boy. And the streak of mischief no doubt comes from his mom, who is sneaking him little bites of Reese’s cups when no one is looking, much to his delight (shhh.. don’t tell).
Austin’s hospital room is covered in photos of him: Before the accident holding the tail of a squirrel he caught in the yard, driving a mini John Deere, shooting a bow and arrow and After… riding in a lifeflight, being visited by therapy dogs, and hanging out with new friends. There are even pieces of artwork that Austin has designed through art therapy at KKI.
Tina is a lifelong Alaskan. Her heart is in the wide open spaces and panoramic vistas. She says it’s the best place to raise a child. That said, she and her husband Hunter, are now faced with the reality of needing to live closer to adequate medical treatment in order to take care of their medically fragile child in the years to come. They are determined to stay in Alaska, but likely will need to sell their beloved current home and move closer to town to access resources and specialized therapies Austin will need the rest of his life.
Austin will be returning to Alaska in early November, learning to live his life differently abled than before. They don’t know what his future holds. But the dynamic duo of Miracle Man and Mama Bear has overcome so much already. The mountains they have climbed make Denali look like a hill in comparison. They are ready to go home but are grateful for the Baltimore Home away from Home that has carried them through this part of the journey.