PROFILE: Strong like Eli

Published 6:00 am Sunday, March 28, 2021

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By LAUREN H. DOWDLE / For the Reporter

More than a year after an accident that nearly cost Eli Hairston his life, there are three constants that have helped keep a smile on his face: his faith, family and fighting determination.

With parents Jay and Leisha—along with siblings Sam, Luke and Campbell—by his side, this Chelsea High School freshman has come a long way since a golf cart accident left him with a traumatic brain injury on Nov. 16, 2019.

The day of his accident started like any other for the then 13-year-old. He slept in after going to the movies with his father the night before and worked on his Christmas list when he woke up. A little after noon, he went to ride a golf cart around Chelsea Park with some fellow football players. It was just a normal Saturday.

But that all changed when one of the boys knocked on the Hairston’s door, letting them know Eli was in an accident. His mother, Leisha, first thought it might be a broken leg or arm until she heard the ambulance and reached the scene.

Eli wasn’t talking, his pupils were fixed and the first responders were breathing for him. He was rushed to Children’s of Alabama and taken into emergency surgery to repair a bleed on the back-right side of his head. He had fractured his skull, and one of his veins was severed, causing a brain bleed.

“The doctors said he wouldn’t make it if they didn’t take him back now,” Leisha remembers.

Eli was in a coma for a week, which is when his parents found out he had experienced several strokes between the accident and the end of surgery. They wouldn’t know if he would talk or have a good quality of life until after he was taken out of the coma. The doctors also warned patients with traumatic brain injuries often woke up angry, so no one was quite sure what to expect.

But on Dec. 8, Eli talked. His voice was quiet at first, but now more than a year later, he talks all of the time. And he’s been nothing but joyful.

“He’s been proving people wrong right and left. He’s a fighter. We are very blessed,” Leisha says. “He always has a smile on.”

Of course, it has been a long journey from speaking his first words until now. Eli has had to relearn how to walk and talk, going to therapy every weekday. But, he hasn’t let his injuries or recovery slow him down.

“I’m just thinking that a negative person wouldn’t have the drive I have,” Eli says. “My drive has been making it positive.”

Jay and Leisha decided to only speak positive thoughts about Eli’s recovery in front of him, but there were still times when it was difficult to feel optimistic. And those were the moments Eli shared wisdom well beyond his years, reminding them how amazing their son was.

“Eli said, ‘I used to think that if God can control what happens, why did he let this happen to me. Now, I know it’s so I can tell people about God and my recovery,’” Leisha recalls.

He has even expressed a calling to go into the ministry when he grows up and share how God has brought him through this experience. But until then, he’s excited to be a freshman at Chelsea High School.

“He was so glad to see his friends again,” Leisha says. “There were some kids he hadn’t seen since before the accident. It was great for him just to be in that group again with kids his own age.”

Eli’s determination is even more evident at school. Not wanting to be in a wheel chair, he walks to his classes using a walker — even on days when his aid is not there to assist him. He goes to school until 11:15 a.m. each day, and he’s excelling in his subjects, earning all As and Bs.

He continues to make great strides and set goals for himself, like being able to walk unassisted.

“I love that he sets those goals for himself. It gives him something to work toward,” Leisha says. “Recovering from a brain injury is a slow process, but he’s getting stronger.”

Another goal topping his list is getting back on the football field. Eli played wide receiver and cornerback on the football team in middle school and says he misses the sport.

“I wish I was playing,” he says.

The family says it has been a huge blessing to have the support of their friends, doctors, therapy team and community since his accident. When Eli came home after nearly three months in the hospital, the city of Chelsea came out to welcome him. The crowd held up signs with messages like, “Welcome Back Eli,” and the Chelsea Middle School cheerleaders chanted, “Strong like Eli.”

“I wish I could relive that homecoming,” Eli says.

But the support and prayers for Eli haven’t only been on a local level. The Facebook group, “Praying for Eli,” has more than 15,000 likes from people across the world.

“It hasn’t been an easy road, but there’s so much to be thankful about still,” she says. “Things happen for a reason, even if we don’t know those reasons right now.”

Through it all, Eli hasn’t lost his contagious smile or positive attitude. His perseverance has impacted not only those close to him, but also everyone who hears his story. While his journey might not be an easy one, he has found a way to focus on the good.

“Just stay positive while you’re going through anything, and it will make it feel like it’s going faster,” Eli says.