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Community rallies after married Aitkin teachers hit by wrong-way driver

"It's a tough road, but at least it's a road we can still travel."

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Kris and Jason Long, both teachers at Rippleside Elementary School in Aitkin, were hit by an allegedly drunk driver while driving home from the Twin Cities Feb. 16. Both are still recovering from their extensive injuries but are expected to make a fully recovery. Submitted photo
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What started as a birthday/Valentine’s Day weekend getaway ended as a nightmare for a Deerwood couple.

Jason Long didn’t even have time to react.

He remembers seeing a maroon Pontiac Grand Prix as he drove north on Highway 10 toward home. His next memory is the sound of crunching metal and the airbags deploying. His left arm was crushed between the seat and the door frame, and his wife on the passenger side was moaning as she slipped in and out of consciousness. Kris Long had been asleep when it happened.

“It” was an allegedly impaired driver driving the wrong way, striking the Longs nearly head on.

“It sounded like a NASCAR scene, just the crunching metal and bending metal and skidding around,” Jason Long said by phone Friday, Feb. 28, of the crash two weeks earlier that severely injured him and his wife.

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His first thought was getting to his phone in the center console so he could call his family.

“I wasn’t really worried about 911. I knew there was enough people that 911 was going to be called,” he said. “... My first thought went to, ‘I need to get my family notified. I need to get the prayer warriors out there going and the word of mouth so people can send positive thoughts and prayers toward what was happening.”

The couple had been in the Twin Cities for a Minnesota Wild game with Jason’s sister and brother-in-law. A Valentine’s weekend getaway is a tradition for the Longs, not only to celebrate the holiday but also Jason’s birthday Feb. 19.

“This is our time to splurge and just do one getaway weekend between the two of us,” he said.

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Jason and Kris Long (right) pose for a selfie at a Minnesota Wild game with Jason's brother-in-law and sister, Mark and Jodi Eich, just a day before the Longs were hit head-on by a wrong-way driver on their way back home. Submitted Photo

The crash happened when they were traveling home Feb. 16, getting back to their kids, dogs and another week of teaching at Rippleside Elementary School in Aitkin.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, they both ended up in the hospital. Jason’s left arm and leg were severely mangled, as the oncoming vehicle hit his side of the car slightly more than the other. He said he never felt pain quite like he did as emergency responders underwent the difficult task of extracting him from the vehicle.

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How to help

A GoFundMe page is set up at https://bit.ly/2TyegSi to help cover medical and other expenses resulting from the crash.

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They hooked a chain around the dashboard, repositioned the chain on the boom of a tow truck and then lifted the dashboard up while pulling away from the car, essentially peeling the vehicle away from Jason. Responders then lifted the whole driver’s seat of the car out.

“I could feel every single thing on that left side that was broken just move again and reposition, and … I can’t describe that pain,” Jason said.

He described the subsequent ambulance ride as the most painful five minutes of his life.

“Every single Minnesota road bump that we all love I could feel shoot through my whole entire body,” he said.

Coming out of the emergency room after the crash, Jason had a large metal fixator holding his left leg together. Other injuries include a cracked sternum, a sore jaw and some damage to dental work.

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Kris lost a kidney, bruised her spleen, had broken ribs and suffered a severe concussion.

“All in all the car did what it should do,” Jason said. “I talked to a couple who have worked in the automotive business and whatnot and they said they’ve seen a lot of cars wrecked on a lot, but they haven’t seen very many that looked like that in which two people survived.”

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Jason and Kris Long's 2013 Nissan Altima was destroyed after they were struck nearly head-on by a wrong-way driver Feb. 16, near the Twin Cities. Submitted photo

Jason was on his way to an in-patient therapy facility in Rochester as he spoke to the Brainerd Dispatch over the phone Friday, while Kris is receiving in-home care but is still dealing with the effects of her concussion. She also suffers from migraines to begin with, Jason said, making the injury just that much worse.

“I talked to her for five mintues last night and it was kind of like, you know, that wasn’t my wife. I wasn’t just talking to my wife,” he said.

While Jason is in Rochester, Kris’ mom and brother are at home caring for her. During the hospital stay, her best friends — cousin Jessi Kiefer and ex-sister-in-law Romona Forbord — alternated shifts so someone was always there.

Kiefer was vacationing in California’s Muir Woods near San Francisco when the crash happened. She got word of it a few hours after it happened, as she was in an area with poor cell reception.

“When we came out of the woods, our phones had blown up with all these messages,” she said Friday. “... Jason had tried to call me while they were still trapped in the car.”

Fortunately Kiefer had already planned to fly home that day and went straight to the hospital from the airport.

Now, Kiefer said Kris is sleeping a lot, which is exactly what the doctors want her to be doing. She gets up for meals and therapy appointments but is otherwise mostly confined to a quiet, dark room.

“You don’t expect to ever see one of our close family members, let alone your best friend, be in a situation like that,” Kiefer said. “It’s been challenging, but you know, there’s so much adrenaline involved in caring for them that I don’t think we’ve really even gone through the emotional aspect of it yet.”

In terms of emotion, Jason is just glad he and his wife are both still here, despite the mounting hospital bills and unknown recovery time ahead of them.

“It’s a tough road, but at least it’s a road that we can still travel,” he said.

The Longs have been married since June 2018 and have six kids together, three each from previous relationships. Four of the kids — Gabe, 18; Madison, 15; Mackenzie, 15; and Kira, 13 — live with the Longs right now. Jason’s other two children — Isabelle, 16, and Daniel, 12, live with their mother during the school year and him during the summer.

“We communicate via Facebook a lot,” he said. “... I want Daniel and Izzy to know that I’m progressing and fighting so that I can get better for them.”

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Jason and Kris Long of Deerwood pose with their six combined children: Daniel, Isabelle, Gabe, Madison, Mackenzie and Kira. Submitted photo

A lot of tears have been shed among the kids, Jason said, but luckily the Longs’ family members have stepped up to help.

“Both families have good support systems and aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas, and so, you know, they look out for the best interest of the kids and make sure they’re OK,” he said. “Even teachers will check in with the kids and make sure they’re OK. It’s good that way.”

Teachers in the community have not only been helpful in checking in on the Longs’ children, but also work-wise. Both are teachers in Aitkin — Jason in sixth grade and Kris in first grade.

“The school has been extremely supportive,” Jason said, noting neither he nor Kris has had to worry about much in the way of work.

“Everybody has just picked up and done the lesson planning for us and provided the sub with all the necessary tools for our kids to be successful,” he added. “And that’s amazing.”

Rippleside Elementary Principal Andy Dokken said the school has its regular base of substitutes helping to fill in for the Longs for the foreseeable future.

Though both Longs are expected to make a full recovery, no one knows exactly how far away that could be. Jason said it will likely be at least eight more weeks for him, as he relearns to walk on his mangled leg and to start using muscles again after being bedridden for so long.

Dokken said the subs are short-term right now, and the district has yet to determine if longer-term replacements will be needed. That isn’t necessarily his biggest worry though.

“It’s emotionally tough just to see some of your colleagues going through something like this,” he said. “And teachers are such caring people that they want to immediately help and support. Teachers are fixers, right? They want to be there to help and support and help everything get better.”

“Truly special” is how Dokken described the level of support he has seen the other Aitkin teachers and staff members provide.

“The Longs are very special people,” he said. “We’re grateful that they’re still here after going through such a traumatic accident.”

Oddly enough, though, this traumatic event wasn’t the first incident the Longs encountered on their yearly Valentine’s getaway.

Two years ago, Kris surprised Jason with a couple’s massage at the Radisson Blu Hotel at Mall of America. After a morning of pampering, the couple felt like they were on cloud nine. Upon leaving, Jason volunteered to get the car and drive up to the door to pick up Kris, as it was a bitter cold Minnesota day. On his way out to the car, a hotel valet driving a Honda Acura struck Jason, knocking him off his feet.

“It kind of knocked the qi right out of me that had been putting in the good zen, the good energy,” he said, noting he was not injured badly and opted not to pursue legal action after the hotel offered the couple another massage and another night’s stay.

After the incident, which Jason described as not much more than a funny story looking back, he said his family and friends liked to give him grief, telling him not to get hit by a car next time.

“So a lot of the staff at the hospital are saying, ‘We think you need to change your Wild/Valentine’s getaway weekend,’” he joked.

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Kris and Jason Long, both teachers at Rippleside Elementary School in Aitkin, are grateful to be alive after being hit nearly head-on at a high speed by a wrong-way driver on Highway 10 just north of the Twin Cities. Jason's left arm and leg are badly mangled, while Kris lost a kidney, broke several ribs and has a severe concussion. Submitted Photo

On a more serious note, Jason said he plans to have a conversation with his kids about distracted and impaired driving when he gets home and the impact one person’s choices can have on so many others.

Jason said the other driver was transported to a Level I trauma facility. As of Feb. 23, the driver had not cooperated with state troopers, though Jason said law enforcement officers expect to bring criminal charges against him.

The Longs hope automobile insurance will help cover medical bills.

A GoFundMe is also set up for the Longs’ benefit at https://bit.ly/2TyegSi and has raised more than $14,000 so far.

Kiefer said it’s heartwarming to see the outpouring of support for her best friend.

“I knew our family members would always be there for her and Jason, but the whole school system, the Aitkin community and even schools where they’ve worked previously, they’re just waiting to do anything that they can,” she said.

Help also came from Northland Auto Center in Milaca, where workers offered to fix Jason’s other vehicle free of charge so he could have something that functions.

After everything, Jason now has his sights set on getting better and getting home to his wife.

“It’s tough,” he said of the two being apart. “I don’t want to live in a world without her.”

But despite the tragedy, Jason has kept his faith.

“I absolutely believe that God’s not done with me yet, that there’s going to be some messages and there’s going to be some triumphs that are going to result out of this. I really believe that,” he said. “I really believe in the power of prayer and people keeping us in their thoughts.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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