He was a star athlete at his high school until an ATV accident paralyzed him
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THREE FORKS, Montana — In the early morning hours of Sept. 10, 2017, something happened to Gavin Foth and his friends that would make it a day they would never forget.
For Gavin, in particular, it was a day that changed his life forever.
It was around midnight when the 16-year-old athlete and his buddies went off-roading in the Toston area, just like they had many times before. Between Three Forks and Townsend off Hwy 287 in southwestern Montana is a privately-owned trail Gavin had been driving on since he was six-years-old.
He got behind the wheel of his 2,000 pound Dune Buggy and, like a seasoned pro, took off down the uneven, rocky terrain with friends in tow.
He was in his element. This was second-nature to Gavin.
He wasn’t wearing a helmet. Gavin, after all, was tough. He was a star athlete of three sports at Three Forks High School. His accomplishments in track made college scholarships a likely possibility. If that didn’t work out, his passion and skill in construction could take him places. A bright future lay ahead. There was no reason to think anything bad would happen to him that night.
But something bad did happen.
Gavin missed a corner at high speed. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and the buggy threw him partially out of the vehicle. The buggy then rolled, ultimately landing on top of him.
Gavin was stuck in a downward slant position, his legs above him, with his foot caught near the pedal.
His friends who had been riding with him in the buggy had minor injuries. But they, along with the two others on a separate 4-wheeler, instantly came to Gavin’s aid.
“I can’t feel my legs,” Gavin told them, according to Gavin’s mom Kortney Combs.
Then Gavin waited until help arrived.
It was about 1:30 a.m. when Combs received the phone call no parent wants to get.
“Your son has been in an accident,” Combs recalls hearing from the Townsend police that night.
Gavin was airlifted to Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital. Doctors soon discovered Gavin had crushed his C4 and C5 vertebrae — the big ones you can feel on your neck.
“It took 50 pounds of pressure to (stretch out his spine) for surgery,” Combs says. “An insane amount.”
After an 8-hour surgery and further complications came the verdict: Gavin was paralyzed from the chest down and would most likely never walk again.
Trends in ATV operation
“Every year, tens of thousands of kids are severely injured or even killed in ATV accidents, some at a very young age,” according to Concerned Families for ATV Safety, an organization dedicated to raising awareness of the potential danger ATVs pose to children.
A dune buggy is considered a recreational off-highway vehicle by the Consumer Federation of America. CFA says off-highway vehicles fall into three main subset categories: all-terrain vehicles, recreational off-highway vehicles and utility task vehicles. In this article, we use “ATV” as an all-inclusive term.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission tracks the number of ATV deaths and injuries that occur on public roads every year.
The CPSC reported 53 children nationwide died in ATV accidents in 2016, the latest year data was available. That number accounted for 16-percent of all ATV deaths nationwide. Nearly 27,000 kids nationwide were seriously injured that same year, which represented 26-percent of all ATV injuries.
The CPSC gathers this information from hospitals across the country and the National Center for Health Statistics, which collects data throughout every year.
In Idaho, there is no central entity that collects data on ATV accidents, according to Idaho Dept. of Parks and Recreation off-highway vehicles program manager Troy Elmore.
The Consumer Federation of America collects their own death data from media reports. Between 2013 and 2017, they estimate 57 deaths occurred in Idaho from ATV accidents. The ages of the victims were not included in this report.
Understanding the law
Elmore says there is no age requirement to operate an OHV in Idaho.
OHVs are not allowed on state highways or interstates. But Elmore says certain counties allow OHV travel on public roads to licensed drivers. Children under 15 are allowed on these roads if they are directly supervised by a licensed adult operator and have taken a mandatory safety class, as per state law.
“I would encourage people to take the Idaho Parks and Recreation ATV Safety Course,” says Elmore. “Not only does it teach rules of the road but it also teaches safe operation and responsible use on public lands.”
Elmore also encourages people to wear a helmet. According to Idaho Law, anyone under the age of 18 is required to wear a helmet on an OHV.
Making ATV safety a priority
Rachel Weintraub, a spokeswoman for CFA, tells EastIdahoNews.com there are too many ATV deaths and injuries and that more preventative measures need to be taken.
“We need to make sure children are not operating ATVs that are too large and too powerful for them,” Weintraub says.
Sue DeLoretto-Rabe is one of the co-founders of Concerned Families for ATV Safety. Rabe’s son died in 2002 after a 250 Arctic Cat rolled on top of him. He was 10-years-old.
“Parents don’t get it until it happens to them. Every ATV enthusiast will fight me to the end saying things like, ‘You don’t have any right to tell me what my kids can ride because they are experienced.’ I thought the same thing,” says Rabe.
Rabe feels children under 16 should not be allowed on ATVs and that a license should be required to be able to operate them.
“Whether or not you’re using (an ATV) on your own property, there still needs to be some guidelines,” says Rabe.
As for Gavin Foth, Combs says he has no interest in getting anywhere near an ATV.
“He’s always been a daredevil, but he’s real cautious now, about everything.”
This month marks 5 months since Gavin’s accident. He is currently recovering at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, a noted spine and brain rehab facility.
For now, Combs is giving him constant care. Though Gavin’s chances of walking again are unlikely, Combs says he is showing remarkable progress in other ways.
“He has movement in one arm, and he’s starting to recover movement in the other arm.”
Three Forks and surrounding communities have rallied behind Gavin and his mom with donations through a GoFundMe page and multiple fundraisers. Combs says those funds have allowed her to be there for Gavin.
Gavin was a running back for Three Fork’s high school football team. A week before the accident, Gavin helped his team win their first home game in years.
“All our rival schools wore Gavin’s number on the back of their helmets,” Combs says. “Every single school we played passed around a helmet for fundraising gifts to Gavin.”
But the support for Gavin and his mom has not stopped there. Gavin’s recovery has gained interest across the entire state through a movement called #Gstrong.
“The day after the accident, a family friend started a Facebook page under that name and it’s grown. The hashtag Gstrong is really (Gavin’s) mantra,” Matthew Foth, Gavin’s dad, told Bozeman TV station KTMF in September.
“It doesn’t stop,” says Combs. “We still continue to get stuff in the mail, from gift cards to donations. It’s mind-blowing.”
Even though Combs is grateful for all the support, she has a message for ATV riders.
“We don’t think this will ever happen. My son had been doing this since he was 5 or 6. It was just another day.”