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10 years after near-death experience, man reflects on faith, why he survived

PARK RIVER, N.D.--On April 6, 2007, Good Friday, Ben Hylden, 16, was running late for an appointment in Park River, so he took the shorter but more dangerous route from his farm home, a gravel backroad, rather than the highway.

On the 10th anniversary of a car crash that nearly cost Ben Hylden his life southwest of Park River, N.D., Hylden revisits the field where his parents discovered him after being thrown from his vehicle. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
On the 10th anniversary of a car crash that nearly cost Ben Hylden his life southwest of Park River, N.D., Hylden revisits the field where his parents discovered him after being thrown from his vehicle. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

PARK RIVER, N.D.-On April 6, 2007, Good Friday, Ben Hylden, 16, was running late for an appointment in Park River, so he took the shorter but more dangerous route from his farm home, a gravel backroad, rather than the highway.

A half-mile from home he lost control of his car on the icy road and drove into a ditch where he struck an approach, causing the car to flip end-over-end into a field.

With no seatbelt on, Ben was tossed around "like a ragdoll" in the car, he said. When the passenger door ripped off he was ejected and thrown face first into the frozen soil.

"As I laid there I remember feeling like my face had been crushed from the inside out and that my body was hit by a freight train," he said. "It felt as if a bomb had exploded inside me."

Extensive injuries made breathing increasingly difficult.

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"I soon began to realize, this is the end of my life, at the age of 16," he said. "I felt there was no hope, since no one drives down this road."

Knowing he was about to die "is something that's really indescribable," Ben said. "It was so real. I remember thinking, this is really going to happen."

Sprawled on the ground, "I thought about my whole life," he said, and how much he loved his family.

"I remember wishing I could see my parents one last time to tell them I loved them and that I was sorry for how I had treated them."

He regretted balking at the farm work his father asked of him, he said. "I wished I could've taken it all back."

With ears packed with dirt, eyes swollen shut and face "crushed like a potato chip," he couldn't see and could barely hear the couple who came to his aid about five or 10 minutes later.

"I could make out a woman's voice," he said, "and then later I could tell there was a man's voice."

They were so faint, he didn't recognize his parents' voices.

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"I thought, it's nice that these people are going to help me, but I knew I was going to die. I was thinking, this is my last breath," Ben said.

Driving by, Kenny and Lana Hylden had seen the wreckage and stopped. But the reason they took that road remains a mystery.

"We have no idea," Kenny said. "Nobody keeps it up."

His habit was to turn left onto the highway, "That's the safest and cleanest route," he said. "We don't even remember turning right."

It was an unexplainable but fortunate choice.

"That's the only way he lived," Kenny said. "Nobody would have traveled that way for days."

They didn't know, at first, that it was Ben who was lying there.

"We didn't recognize him-the car was so beat up, he was so beat up," Kenny said.

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When Lana found a coat in the field to cover the victim, she recognized it as one that belonged to their family. Then she noticed the shoeless feet. They were long and slender.

"She said, 'This is Ben,' " Kenny remembered.

'Not a lot of hope'

At Altru Hospital in Grand Forks, where Ben was hospitalized, family and friends waited and prayed.

"There wasn't a whole lot of hope in that waiting room," Kenny said.

"Ben had exploratory surgery but there were complications that caused more trouble."

The teen was put on life-support and doctors put his odds of living at less than 5 percent.

"They told us that, as time went on, his lungs would swell and he wouldn't be able to breathe-and that would kill him," Kenny said.

"(Later) doctors said the fact that they didn't swell was, for lack of a better word, a miracle."

"I was supposed to be dead by Easter," Ben said.

He was discharged after 19 days, much earlier than normal, Kenny said, because doctors trusted Lana to do the therapy with him at home. They had seen the effect of her presence. She seldom left his side.

Even in an induced coma, Ben would fight off every effort to insert a breathing tube, until his mother held his hand and reassured him it was necessary.

"She was the only one who could calm him down," Kenny said.

Changed life, faith

Ben doesn't focus on the past, he said, but he is struck by how a single event can impact one's life.

"One moment I'm in the driver's seat, in my own head. I'm on top of the world. And the next moment I'm humbled to the point of death," he said. "I thought I had everything all planned out, the way I wanted it. (In that moment) it all literally came crashing down."

His perspective has changed dramatically. So has his relationship with God.

"I went from going through the movements to living a spiritual, genuine life," he said. "I've been transformed from the inside out."

He wrote a book, "Finding Faith in the Field," released in 2014, to share his journey of faith and recovery. He hopes it "helps people with whatever trial they are dealing with, and give them hope that, with God, all things are possible," he said.

Through public speaking, his main focus for several years, he shares his story at schools, churches and other venues.

He has launched a clothing line, Purified, made in Park River, to market shirts and hoodies that graphically convey a message of faith.

Ben believes he was saved for a purpose, he said, because, in a flashback of a near-death experience, "that's what the man said who was walking with me-and I saw that city-he said I was to share my story."

His goal is to inspire others "to never give up, no matter what (and) to see the reality of Jesus Christ (who has) truly given me life, even though the odds were stacked against me."

"There is a reason for everything. God has a plan for us that's greater than we could ever imagine," he said.

"Our job is to let go of our own plan and trust that he will take care of us no matter what obstacle is in our way."

Ben Hylden walks across the field where he nearly died 10 years ago in a car accident. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Ben Hylden walks across the field where he nearly died 10 years ago in a car accident. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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