MOORHEAD — Holding back tears, 19-year-old Malachi Rohrer can't help but get emotional when thinking back to the accident that changed his life.
"Explaining what happened doesn't hurt my feelings a lot, but when I slowly explain it and go through all the details in my head, that's when it really hits me," the Moorhead resident said. "Keeping it simple makes it easier to talk about."
For Rohrer, that simplicity can be hard to find ever since an accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down, dashing his dreams of joining the U.S. Coast Guard as a helicopter pilot.
But he's moving ahead with new dreams, including a goal of once again driving and getting a job.
A "Malachi Fest" fundraiser to benefit Rohrer will take place from 5 p.m. to midnight Friday, May 19, at the El Zagal Shrine, 1429 3rd St. N., including a silent auction, raffle, dinner and music from the Front Fenders. Donations can also be made at any local Gate City Bank location or by visiting www.lendahandup.org.
A 2017 graduate of Moorhead High School, Rohrer wanted to serve his country. Last summer, he was in the process of joining the Coast Guard.
During his senior year of high school, Rohrer worked at the south Fargo Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant. Not far away, he'd frequent the nearby YMCA before or after work, knowing he had to get in better shape with basic training only months away.
He requested a list of all trainers at the Schlossman YMCA, and Jason Fuller caught his eye.
"It said he used to be in the Army and he does a lot of high-intensity sports training, and I was like, 'Perfect,' " he said.
The connection between the two was immediate, and the results showed. In just two months, Rohrer says he packed on 15 pounds of muscle with Fuller's training, increasing his total body weight to 165 pounds, and his strength and conditioning was officially Coast Guard-ready.
After breezing through an initial physical skills test at a Coast Guard base in Chicago last fall, Rohrer returned to the normalcy of his north Moorhead home. But before heading back to Chicago for basic training on Jan. 4, Rohrer and his uncle, Nathan McCleery, decided to take one last vacation to Utah, followed by a short stay in Las Vegas.
On Nov. 27, 2017, as they neared the end of their stay in Utah, Rohrer and McCleery embarked on an adventurous off-roading excursion. The two rented a pair of ATVs, something Rohrer said he was familiar driving from his youth, to ride on the breezy, desert landscape of Sand Hollow State Park.
Then, in the blink of an eye, tragedy struck.
After driving down a large, sand-covered hill, Rohrer's ATV struck a berm, forcing him to fall off.
"When I tried to jump off the ATV, it rolled in the same direction I jumped," Rohrer said. "I was barely off the ATV when it rolled over me."
Rohrer laid face-down, motionless in the sand as he struggled to breathe.
"I was pretty mad ... I was swearing and cursing and just really angry," he said.
The impact knocked the wind out of him. McCleery rushed to his nephew's aid, consoling him as he called for help.
"My uncle was trying to tell me it was a pinched nerve and it was all going to be fine, but I knew," Rohrer said.
What Rohrer knew when he caught his breath was he could no longer feel his legs. The impact of the ATV had crushed his spine and shattered one of his vertebrae, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Rohrer would spend nearly a month in a Utah hospital recovering from his injuries. His mother, Christine, and his stepfather, Keith Huff, received the devastating phone call hours after the accident from McCleery's girlfriend.
"My uncle couldn't talk to Keith and my mom," Rohrer said.
Following a full-body CT scan and emergency surgery, Rohrer spent three days in the intensive care unit. The medical staff that tended to Rohrer were always happy and eager to tend to him, he said, because he was likely the only person in the ICU at the time that would survive.
After leaving the ICU, Rohrer was moved to another hospital where he'd begin the next step in his rehabilitation process: physical therapy. While there, Rohrer befriended a 22-year-old motocross driver named Matt who suffered a similar spinal cord injury.
Rohrer recalled wanting to get out of rehab as soon as possible, though Matt's presence and newfound friendship eased the process.
"The therapists will help you, but they only have what they see to understand what you're going through," he said. "They never experienced it themselves, but I never pulled that card on them."
Throughout the rehabilitation process, Rohrer's support system never waned.
The family's church home, Living Hope Baptist Church in West Fargo, covered the family's lodging expenses for the entire nearly monthlong stay in Utah.
"The church has been there from day one," Huff said.
On Dec. 23, Rohrer would finally begin his journey back home.
Life after the accident is much different for Rohrer, who said the simplest tasks are now some of the most tedious. Stairs have proven to be the toughest challenge, though small improvements are made each day, Huff said.
"Our whole lives have slowed down, which is a good thing and a bad thing," said Huff. "Right now, we're just focused on trying to heal and just learning basic life skills."
For Rohrer, not being able to fulfill his Coast Guard aspirations is the most frustrating thing.
"I really don't like the question 'What are you going to do now?' because I had my future planned out already," Rohrer said. "So when you ask me that now, it's a constant reminder, 'Well, you can't do that anymore.'
"So right now I'm just taking it step by step. I don't want to think too far ahead, because I just want to think about what I'm trying to do now and what I can do now," he added.
Most days, Rohrer can still be found at the Schlossman YMCA in south Fargo. His trainer was one of Huff's first stops upon returning to Moorhead, and they've already begun working on a new training program for Rohrer to regain upper-body strength.
He's also ready to get a new handicap vehicle license. His car was recently modified to accommodate him, and he said he'd like to look for a job and move into his new apartment once he begins driving again.
"I'm definitely considering going back to college," Rohrer said. "I think I want to go to college to be a psychologist."