ST. CLOUD, Minn. — When Max Kiffmeyer plays sports, he typically goes at them at one speed and style.
"He's a very aggressive kid, not afraid of confrontation or contact," said Eric Johnson, who has coached him in youth hockey and baseball. "He plays games at 100 miles an hour. He's always going fast. There's not a 50 mile-per-hour gauge on his speedometer. It's usually 100."
Kiffmeyer, a 13-year-old from St. Cloud, Minn., had all of his activity come to a stop on Dec. 14, though. On that morning, his older sister, Klaire, and younger brother, Jack, took turns trying to get him to wake up to get to some activities with no luck.
His parents, Jolene and Dean Kiffmeyer, eventually got him out of bed and downstairs. But Jolene called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. Within an hour, he was flown to Children’s Minnesota Hospital — Minneapolis and was in surgery for 3-4 hours.
"What they saw on his brain was a mass that was an abscess," Jolene said. "It's swelling and puss, but it hardens up. There was the start of an abscess and it was 2.5 centimeters to start with.
"They went in and they opened up his nasal passageway and power washed out his sinuses."
That was the beginning of Max's time in the hospital. He would be in the hospital another 11 days, have another surgery to drain the abscess and then another surgery to repair his skull in February. But Max started playing baseball again in May, started skating again in July, played in a hockey tournament in August and recently started playing tackle football as an eighth-grader at South Junior High School.
Here is a sign of his toughness and perseverance: Max played in a peewee hockey game on Dec. 13, the night before his emergency surgery.
His story in the last 10 months has had some hellacious turns, but appears to be on a straighter and healthier stretch.
A helicopter ride
Max played center last season for St. Cloud Youth Hockey Association's peewee "AA" team, which is its top team for 12-and-under boys. Max played his last game for the team at Plymouth. Before the game, his parents did not have any clues that something bad was on the horizon.
"He actually came home from school and shoveled the driveway without being asked," Jolene said. "It gave me no reason to think that anything was wrong.
"There was probably some irritability leading up to it, but he didn't say anything to us. He fell asleep on the way down to the game, which is odd because he usually won't sleep before a game no matter how long the drive is. On the way home he said, 'I've got a headache. Can I take some Advil before I go to bed?'
"It was late and it had been a busy week. He said, 'Leave me alone in the morning. I'm going to sleep in.' So we got Jack to hockey at 8 (a.m.) and came home around 10 and we had a full day ahead ... A little after 10, I sent Klaire up to wake him up and she yelled down a couple times, 'He won't wake up.' So I went to the bottom of the stairs and started yelling, 'Let's go. We've got to go.' Jack came out of his room and said, 'He's not waking up.'"
After his parents got him downstairs, Max was taken to St. Cloud Hospital in an ambulance. Max had meningitis as an 8-year-old and Jolene thought that's what was wrong with her son.
"When we got to the hospital, I said, 'I know it's meningitis. He's had it before. I want a spinal tap now,'" she said. "They said, 'Well, he played hockey last night. We want to take a scan of his brain to make sure he's not bleeding anywhere before we do a spinal tap.' They came back and said there was a mass on his brain that they couldn't identify and they couldn't do a spinal tap. Because if they drained spinal fluid out of that mass, it could collapse and kill him."
The Kiffmeyers were told that Children’s Minnesota Hospital — Minneapolis was the best place he could go and it was an 18-minute flight.
"They said the helicopter will be here in eight minutes," Jolene said. "We knew that it was something serious."
Dean flew in the helicopter with Max while Jolene went home to pick up some items to take to the hospital and got a ride to Minneapolis with her brother-in-law, Darren Kiffmeyer. As you can imagine, Dean's mind was racing on the trip to the next hospital.
"Scariest thing in the world," said Dean, who is executive vice president and general manager for Central McGowan. "You got to get on the helicopter and you go through the double doors with the gurney with your kid. There's a trauma unit sitting there. All these people in their trauma gear and you're sitting there ... I'm telling you, I thought I was going to lose my shit."
2 procedures in 10 days
The helicopter landed and Dean needed more information.
"The first thing the doctor said to me was, 'Everything will be OK, Mr. Kiffmeyer. We've booked the (operating room) for approximately four hours for brain surgery.' I said, 'You did what for what?'" Dean said. "I don't why I said the next thing, but I said, 'I need to see a picture.' I think I literally needed to see what they were talking about.'
"When I landed and got there, they said it was going to be 22 minutes before the neurosurgeon would be there and that would be about the time Jolene would show up. It was like clockwork. Excellent staff and it was amazing ... They talked us through the whole thing and decided that they were going to go through his nose and not the top of his head because it was less invasive and possible."
The surgeon drained the fluid and Max went to recover from the procedure.
News of Max's situation spread fast in the youth hockey association. On Dec. 15, the association got the word out for players to put a strip of blue tape on their sticks as a show of support for the Kiffmeyers. On Dec. 20, the association sent out an email that it would be distributing stickers that had "Kiffy 21" for all of the youth players to put on their helmets.
On Dec. 22, Max's hockey team had a game in Shakopee and stopped by to visit him at the hospital after their game.
"The nurses adjusted his meds. We went down to the cafeteria and met the whole team down there," said Jolene, who had to help Max with his walking on the trip. "We had just gotten the news that there was going to be another surgery. He had another MRI and it had shown that the abscess had fully formulated and was about 3.5 centimeters. So they had to drill a hole in (his skull) and drain that abscess out."
Max had that surgery on Dec. 24 and there were some good signs.
"He decides he wants Panda Express for dinner — we had a lot of Panda Express," Jolene said. "He ate three full plates of Panda Express hours after having brain surgery. And he beat my dad in a game of cribbage."
The best news came on Christmas Day.
"The neurosurgeon walked in and said to Max, 'You're out of here, you're going home. We don't need to keep you here for any reason,'" Jolene said.
"I didn't get anything better than that any other time," Max said of the Christmas present of being able to leave the hospital. "I was excited."
February surgery, recovery
Shortly after surgery, the Kiffmeyers decided that Max should go and watch his hockey team play. His team was playing in a tournament in Bemidji and Dean drove Max through a snowstorm to watch the team play Dec. 28-29.
"I think everybody thought I was crazy," Dean said. "But it didn't do us any good to sit at home and mope or dwell on it. I knew it would be hard, but if you can be around your buddies and try to keep him in the element ...
"What keeps you driven? Hope. It was bad weather. I didn't care. I'd do it again and that long drive was hard. But for him to see the guys and interact with the coaches and have that hope that he could skate again ... I wouldn't do it any other way."
Dean said he also made the trip to help Max's teammates deal with the trauma they were dealing with about Max's health.
"They needed to know that Max was going to be OK," Dean said.
When they got to the arena, one of the coaches saw Max and brought him into the locker room. Then he watched the games from the stands with Dean.
On Jan. 17, Max was able to get a hockey helmet back on his head. All youth hockey players who are in a bench area for games must be wearing helmets.
"One night he came running into the house and said, 'I got it on,'" Jolene said of getting his helmet on. "I took a picture of him with it on and sent it to (head) coach (Brad) Bierschbach and said, 'Can he sit on the bench?' and he said , 'Absolutely.'"
Max was able to attend a handful of games and be on the bench with the team.
"It was driving him crazy," Johnson said of Max being on the bench and not able to play. "That's where I knew he was starting to feel better. He'd make little comments and he'd say, 'I could probably do this right now or do that.' I told him, 'Dude, let's just ride it out and let's get to baseball (season) and see.'"
Since the surgery on Dec. 24, Max was on antibiotics and his doctors wanted him to be on them for 9-12 weeks to make sure the infection was gone before performing another surgery. This surgery would be to ensure that what Max went through would not happen again.
Jolene, who works in special education for the St. Cloud school district, was going to South to give Max his intravenous medications daily. Max was scheduled to have surgery on Feb. 12.
"On Feb. 4, I went to school to hook up his IV and when he came into the office, he said , 'I don't feel good. I've got a headache,'" Jolene said. "This was becoming more frequent. I would come to school and he would want to leave, which is odd for Max. So you knew he wasn't feeling great.
"We went back to my work (at Roosevelt Education Center) and our nurse was there. When she felt him, he felt warm and his temp was rising. By 6 o'clock, we decided to head down to Children's."
He had his next surgery on Feb. 7.
"They took a rectangular piece out of his forehead, drilled out his two upper sinuses," Dean said. "So he no longer has upper sinuses.
"They took muscle from over (on the sides of his head) and put it on top of his nasal cavity and now that's completely closed. They did some cosmetic stuff on his forehead. Now there can be no more leakage."
Jolene said that after surgery, Max's eyes swelled shut for a couple days, he was sensitive to light and sound for six days and he had a temperature of 104 degrees for almost 12 straight days.
But since he left the hospital, the abscess continues to shrink. On May 15, he was cleared to play non-contact sports. Shortly thereafter, he was asking Johnson to play catcher in a game for his Waite Park 13AAA baseball team.
"It was our first game and, in true Max fashion, he said, 'I can catch,'" Johnson said of the boy, who also plays center field. "Jolene and Dean weren't there yet and I said, 'Max, I don't know, man. Let's wait until I talk to your mom and dad before I give you the green light.'
"Jolene said they gave him a green light that he could do anything this summer, including catch. He was able to catch for us quite a bit."
Back on the ice
Once the arenas at Municipal Athletic Complex had ice again, a group of St. Cloud area youth players had some organized skating sessions and Max was asked to help out. He has been skating since July.
"That was a big deal," Max said. "There was no fear."
On Aug. 13, he was cleared for contact sports. After his first practice with a local AAA hockey team, Max was asked to play in two tournaments with the team. After his second practice, it sounded like Max was in midseason form.
"When (coach) Chad (Keller) came out after the second practice he said, 'At first, I was a little hesitant. I was worried about Max's safety. I actually had to be worried about everyone else's and tell Max to lay off and settle down,'" Jolene said.
Max played in both tournaments and will be a bantam in hockey this season. Bantams, who are 14-and-under, are the first level of boys hockey when body checking is legal and Max said that is what he is looking forward to in the coming season.
"He'll find a way and he'll persevere," said Johnson, a former Cathedral High School boys hockey and softball coach.
So what caused the initial leakage in the first place? The Kiffmeyers said that Max was born with metopic craniosynostosis. The front suture of his skull was already fused at birth. He had a cranial vault reconstruction on his skull at 6 months to try to correct the problem.
"There's a possibility that this is from all that," Dean said.