Hermantown boy finds humor again after harrowing accident nearly takes his life

The Irving family of Hermantown won't ever forget May 26 -- an otherwise normal day that turned desperate and life-altering. The family of four on Sugar Maple Drive was mobilizing for a Chipotle supper when 14-year-old Keanu Irving told his paren...

Keanu Irving gives two thumbs up to having his first meal at "Mickey D's" (McDonald's) after 40 days of hospitalization. On the menu? Chicken nuggets, fries and a Mountain Dew. Bob King /
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The Irving family of Hermantown won't ever forget May 26 - an otherwise normal day that turned desperate and life-altering.

The family of four on Sugar Maple Drive was mobilizing for a Chipotle supper when 14-year-old Keanu Irving told his parents he was going to run outside to play for a few minutes.

Moments passed, and when it came time to leave, the family - father Rob, 49, mother Sherri, 47, and Keanu's older brother Zoa, 16 - couldn't find Keanu.

After 10 minutes of searching, Rob found his son unconscious in the nearby woods, having been struck by a dead poplar tree that had uprooted on what was a nearly windless day. The treetop that fell onto the boy caused multiple skull fractures and an exceedingly swelling brain.

"He doesn't remember what happened, and nobody was there," Rob said. "It was a pretty good size tree. I don't know that we'll ever know other than it was a freak accident."


After 41 days of hospitalization that saw the boy fight through a coma, two brain surgeries and weeks of rehabilitation, Keanu will be discharged today from Essentia Health-Polinsky Medical Rehabilitation Center.

When asked what he was looking forward to most, Keanu said seeing the family's two dogs and "eating a million Chicken McNuggets."

After having braced for the worst at one point, the Irving couple will take their son home to a temporary bed in their own bedroom, continuing a vigil that started in the Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center's pediatric intensive care unit and carried through the boy's inpatient recovery at Polinsky.

"Kids will always surprise you with injuries that seemingly can't be overcome," said Dr. Bert Meric, the neurosurgeon who performed back-to-back decompressive craniectomies on both sides of the boy's skull, removing roughly 3-inch-by-5-inch plates that are in a freezer awaiting further surgery to return them to a head that has its skin sutured closed and currently requires Keanu to wear a helmet for protection.

During a physical therapy session on Tuesday, Keanu displayed a fist-pumping enthusiasm and knee-slapping sense of humor that made him the pride and joy of Hermantown Middle School, where students, faculty and staff gathered outside late in the school year for a mass photo with all of the students wearing his favorite color red while holding letters that spelled out "Keanu Strong."

"We've run the gamut of every emotion; we didn't know if he was going to survive," Sherri said during a touching interview as her son ran through a gamut himself - of activities with his physical therapist, Marcie Crain, clutching tight to his gait belt.

Keanu's balance is off-kilter, and his short-term memory has been impacted.

"He keeps me on my toes," Crain said. "He works really hard."


A student with special needs who is readying to enter his freshman year of high school, Keanu displays uncommon dexterity with a video game controller in his hands. Even in recovery, Rob said he hasn't beaten his son on Xbox.

"He's kind of a daddy's boy," Rob said. "He's my right-hand man."

The first night's surgery to remove a flap of skull on Keanu's left side was followed by another identical surgery the next morning on the right.

"Our goal was to keep the pressure off the brain," Dr. Meric said, "so he could go on to have the best recovery that he could."

After avoiding a high risk of stroke, Keanu was using a "fart machine" under his sheets only weeks later to play practical jokes on the nurses as they walked into his room.

The humor that endears him to everyone within orbit can mask a boy who is keenly aware of the harrowing event and uncertain future.

"He tells me he's scared and afraid," Sherri said. "He knows he's not the same as before."

Dr. Meric credited the nurses in the pediatric intensive care unit for supplying exemplary total care. The Irvings' son entered the hospital as a boy who hated needles, but they say he learned to fight through every complex medical procedure with which he was confronted - including being intubated with everything from a tracheotomy to catheters in his brain used to relieve the pressure of accumulated blood and cerebrospinal fluid that was forcing the brain out of the boy's skull on his first night.


He wore dressings on his head "that looked like a turban," Sherri said.

The Irvings were desperate for their son to respond during the early stages of his recovery.

Dr. Meric said it's often the familiar voices - not the professionals' - that will elicit the first responses. When their son, in the throes of a coma, reached for a bag of Skittles from his mother, "we were beyond words," said Rob, a building contractor who owns both Northland Custom Homes and Dirt Inc.

Sherri is a bodybuilding trainer, and she passed off her clients onto a partner to be by her son's side every day.

To see him give play-by-play of his therapy - "I am walking up the stairs," he said - brought a smile to her face to match the one Keanu got when he repeatedly blasted a beach ball in therapy with a baseball bat.

Keanu said he's "very excited" to go home today, and looking forward to a greeting from the dogs, Yuka and Rhino. Of course, he'll be treated to a plateful of McNuggets.

"With coffee," he said, cracking a wide smile.

"He doesn't drink coffee," Sherri said. "He's joking again."


To learn more

For more information on Keanu and his recovery, check out his CaringBridge site at . There is a benefit fund set up in his name at North Shore Bank of Commerce to help the Irving family offset the costs of Keanu's medical expenses. A fundraising benefit is planned for sometime in August. Email for more information about the upcoming benefit.

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