KODIAK, Alaska — As the holiday season comes to a close, Aaron Cooper has many things to be thankful for, most importantly his life.
Four years ago in Fairbanks, Cooper, a 2007 Kodiak High School graduate, was involved in a life-threatening snowmachine accident.
The veteran rider was practicing freestyle tricks when things turned for the worse. While doing a jump, Cooper lost control of his sled and had to abort.
He jumped, and when he came back down to earth he broke his back, causing bone fragments to tear through his nerve sac and shatter his nerve system.
He lay in the snow with no feeling on the left side of his body for nearly 30 minutes before being airlifted to Anchorage.
After numerous tests doctors confirmed Cooper had arachnoditis, a debilitating condition that causes severe stinging and burning pain.
Several surgeries and many long painful nights later, Cooper is back in Kodiak with his own miracle story.
"It feels good to be back," Cooper said Thursday afternoon.
Cooper has been back for two months and plans to stay here while working with the Kodiak Assembly of God youth group.
He said many people are surprised to see him, but are glad to see his improvement.
He had to learn to walk again and was just able to sit upright a little over a year ago.
"My left leg and left foot, I still don't feel them, but the motor nerves are still there, so I have been able to learn how to walk on that," Cooper said.
He has a spine stimulator that blocks pain signals from reaching the brain. But even that sometimes doesn't work.
"There is still a lot of pain," he said.
After more trips to the doctor than most people endure in a lifetime, Cooper can do pretty much everything he did before the accident, except for running.
"Not much of my life I have really lost," Cooper said. "The quality of life at times is difficult. A lot of internal organs are not working. They have lost that ability to.
"But with the medical equipment and what they have for medications you can have quality of life that is still good and enjoyable to live. For me, if I can work, and get through work, hunt and work with youth, I think that is good living to me."
Cooper never doubted he would recover.
"I never really thought I wouldn't be able to," he said. "Obviously, it was more difficult than I had imagined. It took longer than I anticipated.
"The pain was what was horrible and the pain only got worse as time went on."
After the accident, Cooper's family moved from Kodiak to Wasilla to help him. He eventually went back to school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and got a technical certificate in power generation in 2010.
Because he couldn't sit in school chairs, his dad put recliners in each of his classrooms.
After graduating, Cooper went to Phoenix, Ariz., to have surgery on his spinal cord. Doctors removed scar tissue from his nerves.
It was there where he met his fiancÉe Melody Nosworthy. The two plan on getting married next year.
"Every once in a while I find myself complaining about a current situation and I'm like, 'Wow, Aaron went through so much more than I did. I need to stop talking," Nosworthy said.
"I have used his story with some of my friends and it has really inspired them. He is our little walking miracle."
Cooper's accident has not kept him away from his love of snowmachines. He got back on a sled in the spring of 2008.
"I didn't want to do it, but my dad pushed me pretty hard just to go around the block and I am glad he did," said Cooper, a former Iron Dog competitor. "I enjoyed it. It was a very painful minute and a half, but it was good."
Cooper, a former Kodiak baseball player, still does not believe how much the community rallied around him.
"The help of family and friends and people who we didn't even know that sent money to help me finish school," he said. "This community and how it came together is amazing."
Information from: Kodiak Daily Mirror, http://www.kodiakdailymirror.com