After child fractured skull at popular sledding hill, family warns of danger

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the single most terrifying moment in Kerri Chamberlain’s life.

“I saw it happen. I saw his head hit the tree,” recalled the Wyoming-area mom, who on Sunday visited Provin Trails for the first time since her son’s accident.

“I ran down (the hill), and there he was in the snow with blood, and he was unconscious,” said Chamberlain, recalling the sight of her son, Jackson, 7, in the seconds after the collision.

It was Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, the last day of Christmas break.

The park was full of hikers and sledders, with cars lining 4 Mile Road and spilling into the parking lot at nearby Robinette’s.  

“I felt unsure about the safety of the conditions at Provin Trails since there were so many trees surrounding the hill and at the bottom,” wrote Chamberlain in her initial email to News 8.

But, despite her apprehension, Chamberlain allowed her kids to sled. 

“I just thought, ‘Everyone else is doing it. It’s such a popular place to be so, therefore, it must be safe.’ Clearly, it wasn’t,” she said.

On Jackson’s very first run down an icy hill adjacent to the main sledding hill, he slammed head-first into a tree.

“His face was glazed over. I had never seen him with his eyes open but a completely blank look on his face. But, after what seemed like forever to me, he kind of stirred,” Chamberlain said.

The collision fractured Jackson’s skull and caused bleeding on his brain.

But after several days in the hospital and multiple brain scans, doctors told the Chamberlains their son would survive, likely with no long-term damage.

MOM: DOCTORS CALLED RECOVERY “MIRACULOUS”

“The neurology team at Helen DeVos explained that if his head had hit at any other angle, it is likely he would not have survived. They used the word ‘miraculous’ to describe his recovery after such a serious head injury,” Chamberlain said.

In the year since, Chamberlain has learned of at least two other families whose children sustained serious injuries sledding at Provin Trails.

The 46-acre park, located off 4 Mile Road NE west of Robinette’s, is heavily wooded and surrounds a large sand dune, which is a popular sledding spot.

“I find it concerning that Provin Trails is such a popular place for sledding in Kent County with all its trees. I’m not sure what can be done, but if I can help protect another child with my son’s story, I would like it shared,” concluded Chamberlain in her email message to News 8.

Jackson, now 8, acknowledged that he wasn’t looking ahead of him when he flew down the hill that day one year ago.

“I didn’t look up at all. I was on my belly. So, my head was looking at the snow,” he said, explaining that he never saw the tree coming. “I was going down the hill, and then, like, everything went black.”

COUNTY: PROVIN TRAILS TOO HEAVILY WOODED FOR SLEDDING

Chamberlain recently reached out to Kent County to share her concerns.

County leaders responded to News 8’s inquiry with a statement explaining that it, too, considers Provin Trails too heavily wooded for sledding.

“We want all our residents to safely enjoy our parks thus we carefully select the appropriate activities for each park,” wrote Lori Latham, the communications and government relations director for Kent County. “In fact, our website lists the activities available in each of our parks during the winter months. At this time sledding is recommended at Johnson and Wabasis Lake Parks (only) and appropriate signage is posted at these parks. The activities recommended at Provin Trails Park are hiking and cross country skiing due to heavily wooded terrain.”

Latham said the Chamberlains notified the county that Grand Rapids Kids lists Provin Trails as a popular sledding site on its website.

“Our team has reached out to Grand Rapids Kids to ask that this location be removed from its site. … Also, in light of this information, we are reviewing our signage policy, and we are urging all parents to seek other venues for sledding. … We are pleased to hear that Jackson has recovered from his accident and we appreciate Ms. Chamberlain’s offer to help promote sledding safety in our community. Our team will keep Ms. Chamberlain updated on the Grand Rapids Kids website and what, if any, changes need to be made to our signage,” concluded Lathan in an email to News 8.  

Right now, there’s no signage at Provin Trails related to sledding.

News 8 also reached out to Grand Rapids Kids, which responded shortly thereafter.

“This error was just brought to our attention. We have removed it from our list of sledding hills,” wrote Elizabeth Rudd, a writer and guide specialist at Grand Rapids Kids.

DEVOS CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL: A LOT OF “SIGNIFICANT” SLEDDING INJURIES LAST WINTER

A French study published in June 2021 reported a “dramatic” increase in sledding accidents during the COVID-19 pandemic as more families looked for outdoor activities amid restrictions. Doctors at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital reported a spike in sledding injuries throughout West Michigan in 2020. 

“Last winter sledding injuries were a huge factor in our winter trauma season here at DeVos Children’s Hospital,” said Dr. Erica Michiels in a Zoom call with News 8.

“It was a really big factor last year with a lot of significant injuries and then a lot of injuries that, from our perspective, were minor but certainly weren’t minor from the child’s perspective or the parents’ perspective,” explained Michiels, the associate director for the pediatric emergency department at DeVos Children’s.

On average last winter, the hospital saw one to three sledding accidents a week out of five to ten total injuries attributed to winter sports in general (ice skating, tubing, skiing etc.).

“If it’s a big steep hill but there’s nothing for them to hit at the bottom, that’s going to be a lot safer than a hill that looks more tame but there’s a fence post at the bottom,” Michiels said.

Michiels said it’s critical that parents carefully survey the area where their child is sledding.

“Make sure they can’t slide into a parked car or a fence post or a tree. Make sure that it’s wide open. That’s the biggest cause of injury that we see is that kids get going and they slide into a big stationary object that causes a big injury for them,” Michiels said. “We always recommend wearing helmets too. So, just like you would put your child in a helmet to go snowboarding or down the ski hill, having them in a helmet on the sledding hill is very important.”

Michiels requires that her own young teenager wear a helmet when sledding, a rule she follows as well.  

“I always tell people we’re great at fixing arms and legs and, gosh, we can usually even fix the belly, but when you have a massive head injury that’s something that is very difficult to manage,” she said. “Unlike bones, brains don’t fix themselves. So, protecting the head is the number one recommendation for safety when you send your child out to sled.”

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