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Alex Balluff and his mother, Debbie, shared their story of his traumatic brain injury caused by a impaired driver Tuesday morning at the Northern Minnesota Safety Conference. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer
Alex Balluff and his mother, Debbie, shared their story of his traumatic brain injury caused by a impaired driver Tuesday morning at the Northern Minnesota Safety Conference. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

‘I lost my old identity’; Drunk-driving victim shares his story at conference

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BEMIDJI — Sometimes, as she thinks back to the drunk-driving accident that nearly killed her then-18-year-old son, Debbie Balluff admits to sometimes feeling pissed off.

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Now 22, Alex, who now has no short-term memory and requires 24-hour care, said his word choice would be a bit stronger

“My life is forever changed,” he said. “I’m no longer who I once was.”

Alex and Debbie gave the keynote address Tuesday morning during the Northern Minnesota Safety Conference at Bemidji Evangelical Covenant Church. The annual conference, now in its ninth year, is aimed to improve workplace safety and included breakout sessions on ladder safety, employee and management communications, signage requirements and heat stress.

Debbie, who with her son has spoken at numerous high schools and conferences around the state, said she was thankful for the conference’s goals, as she has another son working in construction and her family owns a machining shop in the Twin Cities.

But the main reason she was there was to talk about Alex, his journey, his successes, and their goals to reduce drunk and distracted driving throughout Minnesota and the country.

One moment and everything changed.

On Oct. 31, 2009, Alex and three friends were walking in Duluth when he was struck from behind by a drunk driver. His head went through the windshield and he suffered a severe traumatic brain injury.

In a video played during the presentation, you could hear the 911 call from his friend, reporting the hit-and-run and requesting aid for his friend.

“We were just walking along the road and some car just hit us … he’s breathing but he’s bleeding from the mouth,” the friend said.

For 17 days, Alex laid in a deep coma at St. Mary’s Medical Center. Photographs from that time showed his father sitting at his side, then his mother, and then, eventually, the first day he opened his eyes.

He survived, but he was dramatically changed.

Alex had graduated with honors in 2009 from St. Francis High School in the Twin Cities, where he was a two-sport athlete and held the school’s third-highest total for three-pointers in basketball.

Long gone are the six-pack abs, replaced by what he humorously called a “one roll,” and every morning he wakes up not remembering anything from the day before. He has his journal, cell phone and iPad — his “external brains” — to keep track of his experiences and memories.

“I’m no longer the old me,” Alex said. “I lost my old identity.”

But he maintained his sense of humor, which he shared with the 100-some people in attendance. At one point he said he still likes music — “especially rap” — which he himself shared at the conclusion of the presentation as he offered his own rap recalling his experiences.

Alex also displayed a T-shirt that he occasionally wears during presentations that said, “At my age, I’ve seen it all, I’ve done it all, I’ve heard it all, I can’t remember (expletive).”

“We are blessed because of his humor,” Debbie said. “It’s gotten us through a lot of the grief in his journey.”

While he was in the coma, Alex said his parents played music for him, but his friends wanted them to play foreign language tapes, “to see if I’d wake up speaking Japanese.”

He didn’t do that, but the important thing was that he did wake up.

Debbie said recovering from a traumatic brain injury is a sprint and not a marathon, and in reference to that, the family decided Alex himself would symbolically run a marathon, or actually a 5K. On June 21, 2013, Alex completed the Grandma’s Marathon 5K in 28 minutes.

“I am not ever running 26 miles,” Alex interjected. “I was dead after 3.2 miles.”

The overall message was meant to be one of hope, hope of accomplishing the goal of zero deaths from drunk driving incidents. Debbie shared sobering statistics from 2012: 114 deaths in Minnesota, 28,418 drunk-driving arrests, 21,548 convictions.

“We’re going on, we’re going on with our lives,” Debbie said. “We’re thank for every sunshine, for every sunrise.”

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