The long journey back

Months after accident, Ethan Asher continues to beat the odds

Posted 11/13/19

Since his earliest days, Ethan Asher’s life has been a miracle.

Twenty weeks into her pregnancy, Tiffani Asher told her husband Andy she wanted an ultrasound picture of their baby to put in …

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The long journey back

Months after accident, Ethan Asher continues to beat the odds


Since his earliest days, Ethan Asher’s life has been a miracle.

Twenty weeks into her pregnancy, Tiffani Asher told her husband Andy she wanted an ultrasound picture of their baby to put in a scrapbook. But the image came with an ominous discovery.

“They found an adrenal tumor … and by the time we got to delivery, it had tripled in size,” Tiffani recalled; the signs indicated it could be cancer.

Yet when Ethan was born, his oncologist was unable to find the tumor during a CT scan.

“She came back in the room and said ‘I know exactly what I’m looking for, I’ve seen it since he was 20 weeks. It’s gone, and I can’t explain it. Take your baby home and enjoy him.’ I had that faith and trust in God, no matter what.’”

Eighteen years later, the family’s faith was tested again.

Ethan — now a Powell High School senior and a captain for the Panther football team — was severely injured when his truck rolled on the way to school in late August.

Doctors, again, feared he wouldn’t survive. But the Asher family believed God had another plan for their son.

Following several weeks and four surgeries in Billings, Ethan was able to transfer to Denver’s Craig Hospital last month — a facility that specializes in spinal cord and traumatic brain injury (TBI) rehabilitation.

From his hospital room Friday night, Ethan listened on the radio as his fellow Panthers beat their rival Cody Broncs for a ticket to the state championship game this week.

It was the team’s second straight upset win in the playoffs, after getting the season off to a so-so start. Ethan was the inspiration for this team all season, and for Tiffani, last week’s win over Cody was almost too good to be true.

“It’s so unbelievable,” she said.

The story is set to take another turn that would have been hard to believe a few months ago: Ethan and his family plan to attend Friday’s championship game in Laramie to cheer on his teammates.


Defying the odds

Tuesday, Aug. 27, started out as a typical day in the Asher household, with Ethan and his younger sister Payton preparing for their second day of school. Ethan had a big breakfast as part of his efforts to bulk up for football, and he sang worship music as he showered.

Ethan left the house at 7:31 a.m. — Tiffani remembers the time distinctly — and as he headed for his truck, he bantered good-naturedly with his dad at the front of the house, wrestling around the way a father and son do. Ethan called out, “Love you, Mom!” as he walked out the door.

The call that would change the Asher family forever came at 7:58. Andy and Tiffani’s brother-in-law, Eric Menning, was on the other end of the line; he’d seen crews attending to the wreckage of Ethan’s truck in a field off Lane 9.

“Andy was trying to ask questions, and Eric was trying to see if Ethan was in the ambulance,” Tiffani said. “There was a lot going on, and Andy ran into the house and said Ethan had been in an accident; we have to get to the hospital.”

Tiffani and Andy arrived at Powell Valley Hospital at the same time as the ambulance, and things moved quickly from there. Tiffani was hit by memories of her father, longtime sheriff’s deputy Roger Dunn, who passed away in February.

“I had been in that ER with a totally different outcome, so standing in that ER with Ethan there was very hard,” she said. “You look around, and because it’s Powell you know everybody, and it was all the same people who were working on my dad. That was a tough pill to swallow. And we just sat in Ethan’s room and watched the doctors basically try to save his life.”

The injuries Ethan sustained were severe: a torn aorta, massive head trauma, a broken right clavicle, a hairline fracture in his scapula, two fractured ribs, lacerations on his rib cage and a fractured sternum. He had also dislocated his spine between the T-9 and T-10 vertebrae.

Ethan was life flighted to Billings while his family, including sister Payton and brother Brooks, followed on the ground in Menning’s truck. And that was when faith began to take over.

“We got about to the [Fort] Rockvale area, when you start going on those back roads. There was just this complete and total peace across the whole vehicle,” Tiffani explained. “The tears stopped, and we all just kind of looked at each other. We all just went, ‘It’s going to be OK. He’s going to be OK.’ And we held on to that feeling the whole day. … We knew it was the beginning of a new journey for us, and that we’re not done.”


Faith to move mountains

EMTs later told the Ashers that they didn’t think Ethan would make it to the ambulance, let alone the ER. Doctors at PVHC weren’t sure he’d make it through the flight to Billings. And the doctors in Billings weren’t confident he’d live to see another day.

On the morning of Aug. 28, while Andy and Tiffani sat in Ethan’s hospital room at Billings Clinic, a doctor came in to speak with them.

“The neuro came in and looked at Ethan, looked at us, then looked back at the monitor,” Tiffani recalled. “He said, ‘Well, I guess we better come up with a plan.’ And Andy and I looked at him like, ‘What did you just say?’ And he goes, ‘We weren’t expecting him to make it through the night.’ At no point before that did they tell us that. But they didn’t have a plan until Wednesday morning, because nobody honestly expected us to still be there.”

An initial MRI showed Ethan’s spinal cord had been cut in two, but a surgeon later found it was whole. “God performed a miracle,” Tiffani later wrote.

Tiffani and Andy were both raised in Christian homes, and they’ve passed those values down to their kids. The Ashers are the first to admit that Ethan’s accident tested their faith, but giving it over to God gave them the strength to rely on that faith.

“Both of our parents encouraged us to experience God for ourselves, but also to seek out truth for ourselves,” she said. “It’s really easy to say I believe in the Bible and I believe in God, but it’s a whole other story to turn everything over to Him. … I knew God was there, but it wasn’t actually until I was pregnant with Ethan that I discovered who the God is that I still serve.”


A community rallies

What followed in the wake of Ethan’s accident was an outpouring of support that rivaled anything a Hollywood studio could dream up. Beginning with the Powell Panthers’ Zero Week game in Riverton just days after the accident, school after school and community after community began offering donations and support to the Asher family.

Ethan’s story went viral. The Ashers were deluged with social media posts and photos from across the nation and around the world and created the #EthanStrong Facebook page to share their story.

“We’re learning to receive, which is really hard to do,” Tiffani said. “We’re so humbled by the outpouring of support. … As we’ve watched that number go up, I just kept hearing what that pastor told me in my head: ‘Before [he’s] done, [God] will affect millions through your son.’ And I’m hanging on to it. I don’t know what that means, but I’m hanging on to it.”


Waking up

Despite his eyes being open for three weeks, Ethan remained comatose.

“It was just a blank stare for days,” Tiffani said.

The morning the lights finally came on, Andy and Tiffani had just walked into Ethan’s room. He turned his head toward his parents, and their eyes connected with recognition.

“Andy grabbed my hand and looked at me and got all teary-eyed,” she said. “I was just like, ‘OK, here we go.’ I wasn’t emotionally in the same spot, but my husband had been praying since the accident that he could just look at him again. Andy walked across the room and Ethan followed him [through] the whole room. Then Andy walked over to him and held Ethan’s hand and said, ‘Hey, welcome back. It’s nice to see you.’”

“We would have been OK then, if nothing more had ever happened,” Tiffani said.

After spending the morning with their son, the Ashers went to the cafeteria to visit with some friends while Ethan slept. Midway through lunch, however, a nurse burst into the cafeteria and said the family needed to return to Ethan’s room.

“The look on her face was almost like a panic, so we were freaking out,” Tiffani said.

However, the nurse explained that Ethan had turned to her and said, “Hi, how are you?”

Tiffani went running down the hall to Ethan’s room.

“I put his head in my hands, and I said, ‘Hi baby, how are you?’ The nurse asked him if he knew who I was, and he said, ‘Mom,’” Tiffani recalled. “I was like, ‘I’m done! That’s all you ever have to say again. That’s all I ever needed.’”

When she got ready to finally leave the room, Tiffani asked Ethan if she could hug him. He shook his head yes.

“So I leaned in and I hugged my son for the first time since the accident,” Tiffani said. “And as I held him and I was pulling back, he said, ‘I love you.’ And I had to walk away so I didn’t cry in front of him.”

“The thing I needed from God, I totally got,” she added. “Every day is just another miracle.”


The journey begins

When Ethan was told that doctors only gave him a 2 percent chance of ever walking again, his response was “totally Ethan,” according to Tiffani.

“Well, that was generous of them,” he said. “I only need 1.”

His quip prompted Payton and Tiffani to burst into laughter.

“That was Ethan through and through,” Tiffani said.

A typical day at Craig for Ethan consists of therapy from between 8 and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Classes include everything from physical and occupational therapy to musical therapy; eventually, he’ll get into a pool to work on his balance and other skills.

“... he has a pretty full schedule,” Tiffani said. “Therapy is pretty much our whole day.”

Much of his therapy is geared towards teaching Ethan how to live in a wheelchair.

“That’s the focus right now, which makes sense,” Tiffani said. “I personally feel like that’s not our story, but it’s OK if it is for now.”

During a recent day of therapy at Craig, Tiffani emphasized to Ethan that it will take time for his memory and other skills to improve — and that there’s no rush.

“In the very beginning, do you remember what I told you? I say it a lot: we have to start with ...?” Tiffani asked.

“My brain,” Ethan finished.

“That’s right,” she said. “We have to start with your brain, get your brain fixed. And then your arm. And then your legs.”

“OK,” Ethan agreed.

“So we’re in no hurry,” Tiffani said. “Your sister might be, but I’m not.”

At another point, as Tiffani reiterated that there’s no hurry, Ethan laughed along with his family.

“I hope not,” he said.

Because of his friendly nature (not to mention good manners), Ethan has become something of a favorite among the staff.

“Everybody enjoys working with Ethan because he can be so kind,” Tiffani said. “He’s funny, he doesn’t complain. He’s just a good kid. Little moments like that, even now as a parent, you think to yourself, ‘OK, I’m glad he remembered his manners.’ A lot of times with a TBI, that’s not something they hang on to.”

Remembering things can be a slow process for Ethan, at times frustratingly so; the Ashers surround him with posters and pictures of his life before the accident to help stimulate his memory. A lot of what he is able to carry on conversations about, such as knowing which therapy, or “class” he’s scheduled for next, is based on repetition.

“The majority of the stuff that he remembers right now and repeats back to us over the last four weeks is stuff that we’ve told him,” Tiffani said. “That’s the stuff that he’s actually hanging on to a little bit more, which is part of the process as well.”

Once Ethan was out of amnesia, doctors were able to start moving forward in giving him information. Up until that very recent development, any new information given him would have been too much to process.

“Overstimulation with a brain injury is a huge deal,” Tiffani said. “It slows down the progress. We just try to be patient, and repeat everything over and over again.”

Breaks throughout the day are also important to give Ethan’s brain time to rest — though convincing him to take one can be easier said than done.

“It’s hard, because he is still Ethan,” Tiffani said, laughing. “He still has that sense of humor, and he still has that drive to go. He’ll never say ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ Occasionally he’ll say ‘I think I need a nap.’ But that’s about the most he’ll say. Most of the time, it’s all about what’s next. That’s kind of our role here — that we are shutting him down and letting him rest.”


Family bonds

With Ethan settled into a routine at Craig, his family has been able to slowly return to their lives outside the hospital to take care of things on the home and school fronts — though there is always a member of the immediate family with Ethan. Tiffani was in Powell last week for just the second time since the move to Craig (she and Payton were in town over Homecoming, where Payton was a junior attendant); Andy is home about a week a month, though that will continue to slowly change.

Ethan’s older brother Brooks and younger sister Payton also spend about a week every month with Ethan.

“Payton would love to just be here all the time, but she also has to graduate eventually too,” Tiffani said. “The high school has been phenomenal with her, just overly gracious. We can’t thank them enough. Everyone’s just rearranging, and we’re making it work.”

The events of that Tuesday morning in late August may have bent the Ashers, but they’ve refused to break.

“It rocked our foundation, for sure,” Tiffani said. “It’s rewired the way we do things. We were just talking about that this weekend — it’s like our whole lives are before the accident and after the accident. But that’s just kind of how things are right now, and probably always will be.”

She credits Brooks and Payton for providing her and Andy strength, as well as reminders of how incredible this journey has been so far.

“Payton is the first one to remind us, ‘The miracle isn’t the spinal cord, mom. The miracle is that he’s here,’” Tiffani said. “For her to be as young as she is and as strong as she is, it’s inspiring for all of us. She doesn’t waver in her faith. She’s just amazing. She’s constantly reminding us of the miracle that it is. ‘Ethan is here with us. He can talk. If we never get past right here, this is good enough.’ She’s a powerhouse — I’m so incredibly proud of that girl.”


Laramie bound

The Panthers will be in Laramie Thursday, practicing for Friday’s 3A State Championship game against Star Valley. They’ll again be the underdogs.

Tiffani said the Ashers are excited to be making the trip to Laramie, and are going in with no expectations.

“I’m so proud of those boys for fighting through this season, and for honoring Ethan before each game,” she said. “I’m just impressed with their character.”

Tiffani explained they will be cautious with Ethan’s interaction with the crowd and with his teammates to avoid overstimulation.

While listening to last week’s game against Cody, Ethan’s blood pressure shot up to between 160 and 180; it dropped to 140 when the game was turned off.

“We’re not saying that was the reason for it,” Tiffani said, laughing. “But we’re also cautiously walking into this event. We’re just really hoping to enjoy it like the rest of the fans do.”

Ethan is nervous; on Monday, he told his family that, “I haven’t seen anybody, and I don’t know what they’ll think.”

But each time the Ashers tell him they’re heading to Friday’s game, he’s excited.

The Panthers dedicated this season in Ethan’s honor, and are now one win away from a storybook ending on the football field.

“There’s lots of sadness that we feel, just because he’s not playing,” Tiffani said. “But just the overwhelming compassion — the boys have been phenomenal. Checking in with us, checking in with Ethan. It’s really emotional, but in such a cool, amazing way.”

“Win or lose, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “The journey has been the battle, and that’s just been phenomenal.”