Grief, healing, hope for family of kids hurt in playground crash

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Father Paul Jarvis and members bless the Peltier family.
The Rev. Paul Jarvis of the Parish Community of St. Bridget and parishioners bless the Peltier family's newborn son Killian on Dec. 2, 2018.
Ellen Schmidt for MPR News

Little Kayden Peltier watches closely as older sister Ellie, 6, cartwheels across the family living room before leaping into a split. Kayden decides he wants in on the action.

The 2-year-old launches himself forward into a somersault, smiling triumphantly as he lands on his back. He gets up quickly for another. Soon, he's tumbling all over the room alongside Ellie.

It's a scene as precious now as it was unthinkable a few months ago.

Lillie, Kayden and Konnor watch a video on a tablet.
Five-year-old Lillie, 2-year-old Kayden and 3-year-old Konnor Peltier watch a video together on a tablet inside the family's home on Dec. 3, 2018. All three were injured in June when a driver fleeing the State Patrol hit them in a north Minneapolis park.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Kayden and siblings Konnor, 3 and Lillie, now 5, were gravely injured June 11 when a driver fleeing the State Patrol crashed into the Minneapolis park where seven of the Peltier kids and their father Kyle were playing. Kayden was run over. He suffered a spinal fracture and brain injury. His spleen was removed. He was hospitalized for weeks.

As Kayden's family wondered whether he would pull through, they were dealt another blow: something was wrong with Nicolle's pregnancy.

"2018, it kind of broke me," said Kyle Peltier. "Not our best year, for sure."

Nicolle and Kyle Peltier say their family is on the mend now. They are grateful for the church friends who caught them as they buckled. They've chosen love over hate, which seems amazing given their story.

Nicole Peltier holds her newborn son Killian.
Nicole Peltier holds her newborn son Killian as the rest of her children play in their living room.
Evan Frost | MPR News

'I couldn't help them'

Nicolle and Kyle met and married in a whirlwind 2009. He was a Minnesotan stationed at the Twentynine Palms Marine base in California. She was from San Bernardino, visiting her sister nearby. One day in July, both happened to be in the lobby of a Ford dealership in Yucca Valley, Calif. They exchanged numbers; by December they were married.

The couple welcomed their first child, Kyle Jr., in 2010, followed by Jullie, Ellie, Lillie, Konnor, Kayden and Millie over the next seven years. They moved across the country several times before returning to Minnesota in 2016, seeing it as a better place to raise their children. They settled in north Minneapolis last March.

The family loves parks, so it wasn't surprising to see them on the morning of June 11 at Bohanon Park in north Minneapolis next to Jenny Lind Elementary School, where classes had just ended for the summer. Kyle had the kids while Nicolle went to class across the river at St. Paul College.

A few miles between them, Kabaar Powell hit the gas.

The State Patrol had tried to pull him over on Interstate 94 near 46th Avenue for speeding and for a revoked driver's license. He made a run for it.

The six-minute chase, which happened mostly through residential streets, reached speeds topping 80 mph. Powell ran at least 22 stop signs during the pursuit, authorities said.

Toward the end of the chase, Powell veered into Bohanon Park. The Peltiers never had a chance to make it to safety.

Seconds after crashing in the park, Powell struck two of the children on the basketball court, running completely over 2-year-old Kayden and partially over Lillie, then 4. Three-year-old Konnor was also hurt but not as severely.

A family portrait from before Killian's birth.
A family portrait from before Killian's birth and the accident hangs on the wall of the Peltier family home.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It's a scene Kyle Peltier hates reliving. "I just felt like I couldn't help them," he said.

Across the river in class, Nicolle Peltier, 25, first thought the phone call she got about the crash — a good Samaritan from the elementary school who'd stayed with the kids who weren't hurt — was a cruel prank.

But when she tried to call her husband, he didn't answer. That's when she knew something was wrong — Kyle Peltier always answered her phone calls.

She made her way to the emergency room at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, not knowing what to expect. In that first conversation with the good Samaritan, she could hear one of her anguished children crying that Kayden was dead.

"I got a ride from one of my classmates and another was helping me walk, she recalled. "I had buckled my knees. I just didn't feel very well."

At the emergency room, she saw Lillie first and knew right away she'd be OK. Though she had suffered bleeding between the brain and tissue covering the brain, Lillie appeared to be in good spirits and was in the middle of a coloring book contest with a police officer.

Kayden was alive but the prognosis was grim. His injuries included a fractured pelvis and neck. His skull had separated from his spine and he was bleeding between his skull and brain. His spleen had to be removed because it had been crushed beyond repair. And he had lost a lot of blood.

"I said, 'Where's Kayden?' And I couldn't see him. And then that's when I met Kyle's gaze and he said, 'I don't know if he's going to make it.' "

Kyle Jr. Peltier prays during Sunday service.
Kyle Peltier Jr. prays during Sunday service at the Parish Community of St. Bridget's St. Austin campus in north Minneapolis.
Ellen Schmidt for MPR News

Kayden was transferred to Children's Hospital in Minneapolis for additional surgery on his spine. On the drive there, Nicolle and Kyle Peltier actually beat the ambulance to the hospital because Kayden's condition was so delicate.

"The (emergency medical technicians) had to go so slow and had to be so careful over every little bump, because if they would have moved him the just the wrong way, it could have killed him," Nicolle Peltier said.

At Children's, neurosurgeon Dr. Kyle Halvorson took charge. He and the operating team outfitted Kayden with a halo — a metal ring surrounding the head — before screwing in two pieces of rib between his skull and spine. It would start the process of healing, allowing his bones to start fusing themselves together.

Kayden was in a coma for almost three weeks.

In the second week that Kayden was in critical condition, Nicolle Peltier got a call from her doctor regarding her pregnancy. I need to talk to you, the doctor said. She left more messages when Nicolle didn't reply.

Kayden and Lillie Peltier.
Kayden and Lillie Peltier smile after seeing each other for the first time since the crash in late June 2018.
Courtesy of Nicolle Peltier

"I knew she wanted to tell me something important but I was really scared to find out. No. 1 and No. 2, I was preoccupied with what was going on with Kayden and I didn't want to leave his side because I didn't know if he was going to wake up or not," Nicolle Peltier said.

When they finally did connect, the doctor told Nicolle she wanted to talk in person. Should we set up an appointment, Nicolle Peltier had asked.

No, the doctor said. We need to talk now.

'Is he going to live?'

In the months that Nicolle and Kyle Peltier have spent in hospitals, talking to various nurses and doctors, they've become pros at rattling off medical terms and explaining surgical procedures.

They know Lillie had a hematoma. They can tell you all about C1 and C2 of your upper cervical vertebrae.

Kyle Peltier holds his newborn son Killian.
Kyle Peltier holds his newborn son Killian with his son Konnor, 3, and daughter Ellie, 6.
Evan Frost | MPR News

And they could probably write a report on omphalocele, the condition of their newborn baby, Killian.

It's when some of the baby's organs grow outside of their body in a thin, transparent sac. In baby Killian's case, his liver, some of his intestines and some of his stomach stick outside of the belly. The cause of omphalocele in most babies is unknown.

"I just remember looking at (the doctor) and saying, 'Is he going to live?' And she said, 'I don't know,'" Nicolle Peltier said about the day they first learned the term.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 775 babies — about 1 out of every 5,386 infants — are born in the United States each year with omphalocele.

Many born with the condition also have other health problems such as heart defects. That's true for Killian, who was born with two holes in his heart.

He came via cesarean section three weeks early in mid-October. Doctors were anticipating a 2 1/2-pound baby. Killian defied expectations and weighed in at 5 pounds 5 ounces.

In some babies, their omphalocele is small enough — maybe just part of their intestine protrudes from their body — that they can have surgery right away. But Killian's condition is such that he likely won't have surgery to fix his organs until he's about 4 years old.

He'll need heart surgery once he hits 10 pounds.

He spent more than a month at the hospital before being cleared to come home. During that time, his brothers and sisters were eager to spend time with him, but they couldn't because of strict visitor restrictions at the hospital.

At that point, though, they had been afraid Kayden might not come home. The fact that everyone was home made it easier for all the kids to cope.

"It's almost like we know everything is going to be OK. Even though we might miss mom and and the baby and dad, they'll always come back and everything will work out," Nicolle said.

Kayden Peltier at home.
Two-year-old Kayden Peltier tumbles on the couch at home.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Road to recovery

Kayden didn't come home until August. He moved from Children's to Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, undergoing rigorous physical and speech therapy. During that time, Kyle pretty much lived at the hospital with Kayden.

Kayden slowly began to heal over the summer. His halo came off after about six weeks. And he began learning how to walk again.

A visitor watching him tumble with his sisters and run with his brothers might not even realize he's the same little boy who was run over in June.

"For somebody who really shouldn't have made it from the scene alive ... I think his motor or ability to walk and move his arms or legs and act as though he had never had this injury is going to be very, very much preserved," said Halvorson, the Children's neurosurgeon who operated on Kayden.

Still, there are signs of the trauma he and his siblings suffered.

Scars dot his head, where pins from his halo were screwed into his skull. He can't turn his head from side to side because of the rib grafts that helped fuse his skull and spine back together.

It takes longer to calm him down if he gets upset. And he has to take antibiotics every day for the next few years because he lost his spleen, an organ that helps the body fight infections.

Nicole Peltier does flashcards with her 4-year-old daughter Lillie.
Nicole Peltier does flashcards with her 5-year-old daughter Lillie.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Lillie still has night terrors. For a while, she regressed emotionally, doing things a 2- or 3-year-old would do.

Konnor began stuttering and couldn't be on his playground at school anymore, along a busy road in St. Paul where police cars and ambulances would frequently drive by. He'd cry and shake long after he heard a siren.

That's something that's affected every single one of the Peltiers.

"We do still, as a family, feel like we're on pins and needles when we hear any kind of siren because we know it means danger at this point," Nicolle Peltier said. "We know they're going to save somebody or get the bad guy but it still makes us worry. ... Our experiences with sirens are not the best."

A church steps up

Though they had only moved in earlier this year, the Peltiers left north Minneapolis behind in October, feeling like they needed to get "far away from where we were," Nicolle Peltier said.

Father Paul of Saint Bridget's Saint Austin campus blesses Kyle Peltier.
The Rev. Paul Jarvis blesses Kyle Peltier and his son Kayden while Ellie hugs his legs.
Ellen Schmidt for MPR News

But they couldn't bear to leave their north Minneapolis church. Though they had only started worshipping at the Parish Community of St. Bridget a few months before the crash at Bohanon Park, the congregation had become family.

That was especially crucial over the summer, when Kayden was hospitalized. The Peltiers say they are estranged from his parents, who live in the Twin Cities. Nicolle said her one friend in the Twin Cities dropped out of sight after the accident.

So, Mary Majkozak, the Rev. Paul Jarvis and the parishioners of St. Bridget stepped in.

Majkozak, director of faith formation at the church, helped coordinate meals for the family and care for the children. She continues to do outreach on their behalf. Nicolle describes Majkozak as her Minnesota mom.

"I think the whole church tried to step up," Majkozak said about the outpouring of support the family received.

It hasn't gone unnoticed. Even though the church is 30 minutes away from their new home, the Peltiers make the trek every Sunday for Mass.

"Before the accident, I had asked (God) for a family to be able to be invited to things and have the kids be loved and be part of a community that cares about them," Nicolle Peltier said. "My answer was St. Bridget."

Jarvis has become a regular visitor — and champion — of the family, too. For a family that endured incredible challenges this year, he wants nothing but the best in 2019. The silver lining in such a difficult year is that they know they're not alone here in Minnesota, he said.

The congregation circles around the Peltier family.
The St. Bridget congregation encircles the Peltier family for a blessing.
Ellen Schmidt for MPR News

"Love is the best antidote," he said. "Support in good times and bad, and that's what (the Peltiers) have experienced," he said.

Choosing love over hate

Earlier this month, the State Patrol concluded that troopers operated within agency guidelines during the high-speed chase.

"They were doing the best job they could to mitigate potential risks," State Patrol Chief Col. Matt Langer said of the troopers in the June pursuit. "It's a subjective analysis ... we continue to search for best practices in our policy," adding that the patrol's policy review on chases was ongoing.

The Peltiers disagree.

"That high-speed chase was completely unnecessary. He didn't rob a bank. He didn't shoot anybody. He didn't kill anybody, so (for) them to pursue him like he had just done one of those things is very disheartening," Nicolle Peltier said. "It really could have ended my children's lives, along with other people, too."

Their attorney, James Schwebel, said the family will likely pursue a lawsuit against the State Patrol, in part just to pay the family's medical bills. He said troopers should have ended their pursuit and sought some other, safer way, to apprehend Kabaar Powell.

"There are experts on police pursuits that just see this as a textbook example of the insanity of subjecting the public to injury and death to catch a speeder," he said after the State Patrol released footage of the chase.

Powell pleaded guilty to two counts of fleeing police and was sentenced to 33 months in prison in August.

Police also found a loaded handgun and drug paraphernalia in the crashed SUV, according to the criminal complaint.

Lillie Peltier pages through a hymnal during mass.
Lillie Peltier pages through a hymnal during Mass.
Ellen Schmidt for MPR News

He has yet to apologize to the Peltiers; Nicolle doesn't think he's sorry at all about what happened. Still, she doesn't hate him. She doesn't resent him. She just feels badly for him, and for the state troopers who chased him.

"Whether (Powell) is sorry or he's not sorry, it's not going to change the outcome," she said. "It's not going to rewind the hands of time and give us our time back, our normal family day-to-day routine back. Holding this resentment over him is not going to fix that.

"And I feel like if I were to focus on just hating someone, I wouldn't have enough time to focus on loving my kids."

As the Peltiers close the book on 2018, Nicolle and Kyle are savoring the moments together as a family, knowing things could have turned out very differently. There's hope, not dread, for the new year.

"The only thing we could have ever asked for was for our kids to be home for Christmas," Nicolle Peltier said. "And we got it."

If you'd like to help

A GoFundMe has been set up to help the Peltier family with medical bills and other costs.

You can also send checks written out to Kyle and Nicolle Peltier, c/o Parish Community of Saint Bridget, 3811 Emerson Ave. N., Minneapolis, MN 55412.

MPR News reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this report.