Dangling from Cole Burton’s right wrist are four rubber bracelets: a grey, two orange and a navy.
He can’t tell you exactly when the bracelets got there — it was sometime last summer, sometime when his brain hadn’t become totally alert yet — but he can tell you they’ve never come off since.
In white ink, the grey reads God is Bigger, a gift from his preacher. A matching orange and navy read I know God’s working so I smile.
“They’re from Philip Lutzenkirchen’s dad,” Cole says, his bright hazel eyes blazing in the sunshine as he sits in the shade of a leafy green tree at the Atlanta Shepherd Center’s garden patio, a picturesque hideaway in a fortress of clipboards, catheters and rehabilitation equipment.
The last one, another orange, reads TeamNickChole.
“One day, sometime after I’d emerged, I was looking at it.” Cole rolls his wrist to inspect the band he’s donned the last 11 months. “I said, ‘Mom, who’s Chloe?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Cole, that’s you.’”
Less than 330 days ago, the doctors told Cole’s parents their son would remain in a vegetative state the rest of his life.
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It was nothing against the doctors. The examinations pointed to no meaningful recovery, towards a life dependent on tubes, machines and wires. Even if he woke up, Cole would probably never walk again or sit up on his own. He might never laugh or smile or talk.
“Thank God for doctors,” Cole says with a grin that’s nearly as permanent now as his nose and ears. “But thank God they can be wrong sometimes.”
On May 24, 2018, Cole and 17 other Auburn students studied rock formations off a U.S. Highway near Glencoe, Alabama, as part of a geology field trip when an impaired driver veered off the road’s side, striking Cole and his lab partner, Nick Hood. The two were airlifted to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital. Cole, 21, from Decatur, Alabama, sustained a diffuse axonal injury, a number of broken bones and an unknown tear in his small intestine that sent his body into spouts of septic states, nearly costing him his life four times. For 21 days, he remained in a coma.
“Talking to your best friend when he can’t talk back is the hardest thing anyone can go through,” says Cole’s sister Libba, a freshman at Troy University.
Hood, unfortunately, later passed away.
Five days after arriving at UAB, doctors offered to withdraw services and place Cole into palliative care, but Cole’s family refused, clinging instead to Ephesians 3:20.
“This is a huge paraphrase, but it says God can do more than we can even imagine to ask,” says Charlie Burton, Cole’s dad. “Medically speaking, a path forward wasn’t practical, but through God…”
“We just wanted to give him a chance,” Tina Burton, Cole’s mom, says.
“So we said, we’re going to keep praying, and doctors you keep doctoring. We’re going to trust God,” Charlie says.
Today, Cole walks into the Center from the garden with a gentle glide, a scarcely noticeable limp to the left. A Wednesday, he’s on his way to his noon physical therapy session, a four-times-a-week routine that encompasses anything from E-stem biking to harnessed treadmilling to lifting weights. Over his six-foot-two-inch slim frame, Cole wears his usual uniform – a navy ROTC t-shirt with a yellow Navy emblem over the heart and matching gym shorts with the same emblem on the left thigh.
His light brown hair is cut short and fades along the sides. Nikes adorn his feet, though he’s more of an Under Armour guy. They’re grey, his favorite color, partly because of its neutrality but mostly because it’s the color of the Navy ships and planes he’s dreamed of serving on since he was old enough to hear his grandfather’s aviation tales.
Cole knows these halls. His old inpatient room is just there, room 243, previously glazed in enough Auburn paraphernalia to put Charles’ Barkley’s March Madness desk to shame. Casing the window was a display of get-well cards, photographs and notes – so many, nurses on breaks would waltz into the room just to look at them all. An Auburn flag covered the door.
“I started that,” says Cole as he passes his old neighbors’ doors covered in flags of their own, his friend Jared’s still boasting a purple JMU flag.
He makes his way towards the elevators, smiling and waving at every person he passes –nurses, a therapist, a number of patients – his bracelets still bouncing on his arm. It’s Shepherd culture.
“You see somebody here the way that they are, that’s not always the way they’re going to be,” Cole says. “I was in a chair, I wasn’t treated like I was in a chair. Of course, I was helped like I was, but I felt like a person.”
If you asked Cole’s family 11 months ago if they thought Cole would be walking the halls, they would’ve probably told you no. Cole would’ve been shocked too
Everyone would’ve been shocked.
“The more I learn about my injuries the more I’m like, ‘Crap, I was seriously there?’” Cole says. “It’s really hard to believe.”
On June 15, 2018, Cole emerged from his coma at UAB, seven days before being transferred to Shepherd’s intensive care unit, still largely unresponsive. Four days after emerging, Cole couldn’t verbalize anything. A right-side brain injury left Cole’s entire left side immobile. He couldn’t show emotion, a condition known as a blunted affect. He couldn’t brush his teeth. He took food through a tube, and he couldn’t sit up from his pillow or put on his ROTC t-shirt without assistance.
“We didn’t know if this was all we could get from this point,” Tina says.
Prior to the accident, Cole weighed 175 pounds. He woke up 136. He has no recollection of May 24 or the month following, but he’s seen videos. He mostly lay in bed, lifted an arm or scanned his surroundings blankly. “When I see myself in the coma, per se, I don’t really get mad or anything,” Cole says. “I just get a little bit more thankful every time I see it.”
Emergence is a process, not an immediacy. While he was awake, it was nearly July before Cole became “alert,” or aware of where he was. The problem was, he didn’t know why he was.
“I didn’t know why I couldn’t talk, why I couldn’t walk,” Cole recalls. “Honestly, I don’t know how I wasn’t frustrated.”
One of Cole’s earliest memories is having his feeding tube removed from his side at Shepherd and the taste of waffles. He heard the word “rehab” over and over, but as the doctors advised his family not to relate the accident until Cole himself asked, out of fear of re-traumatization, it was weeks into Shepherd therapy before Cole learned why he wore a bracelet with his name on it, why he sat in a wheelchair and why he couldn’t say the words in his head out loud.
“I had to come to a new reality,” Cole says. “I was 21 for 18 days. Then I went back to truly being like a kid. I had to learn everything twice.”
On August 22, Cole was placed into outpatient therapy, still in a wheelchair and still unable to speak full sentences. A typical day for Cole began at 8:30 am sharp. Breakfast as a community – waffles and an omelet. Speech therapy followed, then occupational therapy, individual physical therapy, group physical therapy, physical therapy meets recreational therapy and neurophysiology group time. Some days, he danced to “Shoot” with Libba in his bed or worked on his mad, sad and happy facial expressions. He went to church with his parents. He spent an extra ten minutes in the harnessed treadmill, an extra 15 on the bike. He played Yahtzee to strengthen his memory and cognitive skills. And after it all, he’d return to his room, only instead of getting ready for bed, he’d take out his tools to practice his eye therapy, and maybe, if he wasn’t exhausted, watch Spongebob to lull him to sleep.
“It was Patrick’s voice,” Cole explains with a grin. “I wasn’t at the point where I could understand huge things, but I could comprehend what they were doing while they were doing it.”
Some people might call it motivation to keep going, to not lay in bed refusing to get up.
“There was maybe one morning,” Cole admits, though it was only a quick thought. An early morning, he didn’t feel great, and he knew he could stay in bed and no one would say anything. “I also knew Philippians 4:13. This means all things, which means I can face the day, even if I have to use it sometimes to do something just as simple as getting out of bed.”
Cole doesn’t believe in the easy way. For him, there’s only one way.
“Mentally, I haven’t given myself another option,” Cole says. “People say I’m motivated. They see motivation as someone who is always ready to do something grand, but motivation is just about consistency. I notice that I’m consistently willing to do the things that are inconvenient. I know I have to work hard to get back.”
At first, it was learning to stand from the wheelchair, to say hello, to say Libba’s name. Then it was performing their secret handshake. By September’s end, Cole left his wheelchair for a walker. He worked his way to over 500 steps on the NuStep machine, an impossibility a month before. He left the walker for a gait belt, then a gait belt for another person’s arm. By November, Cole was walking on his own. In January, he was almost 170 pounds. On March 16, 2019, Cole ran his first 5k. The next weekend, he ran his second, his ROTC group at his side.
“They stayed back, ran at his pace,” Charlie says, his eyes beaming. “It almost looked like a Secret Service de- tail around Cole coming across the finish line.”
But Cole’s not finished yet. Officially discharged from Shepherd’s outpatient program, Cole still attends physical therapy four times a week. He runs on his off days. In April, Cole plans to take a driving test to return to the road in his 1998 GMC Sierra, a moment of anticipated independence for the soon-to-be 22-year-old. He’s enrolled in an online class at Auburn, and come August, he’ll return to campus for his geology degree. And after that?
“I like to tell people I’m on a bus,” Cole said. “I’m not driving it, I’m just a passenger. We have somebody that has tomorrow planned out.”
Ultimately, Cole is still Cole. His favorite football player is still Cam Newton.
His celebrity crush is Jennifer Aniston. His guilty pleasure is a Chick-fil-A cookies-and-cream shake, a daily indulgence when regaining the 40 pounds he lost while in his coma. And he still dreams of serving in the Navy.
“Early on, I set what I thought would be limits for Cole. He has blown through all of them,” Charlie said. “I think becoming part of the Navy is less of an obstacle than all the things he’s already accomplished. We’re already so far ahead.”
As his dad says, Cole’s way is a quieter one, one that revolves around the little things, the baby steps. But sometimes the quietest ways are the strongest. Cole doesn’t believe he’s breathing, walking and talking again for one sole reason. “Ephesians 3:20 tells us, ‘God says for the plans I have for you,’” he said. “I’ve checked every version of the Bible I can. I haven’t found one with just a singular ‘plan’ yet.”
Every day, Cole finds a new reason, or maybe it’s the same reason as the day before, but every day has a reason. So today, as Cole presses the elevator button for the blue-and-white clad gymnasium on the bottom floor, he holds the door open for an older woman in a wheelchair. He says ‘hello’. He asks how her day is, how she’s doing, all with a smile that hasn’t left his face since breakfast.
“The little things, they’re huge really,” he said. “I don’t like to think I’ve got some grand plan for my life. I wake up and think, ‘Okay, God, what do you have for me today?’”
And just as Cole is about to step on the elevator, he pauses, turns to his parents and nods gently towards the stairwell across the hall. Charlie shakes his head with a knowing chuckle, following his son and wife into the stairwell.
“I always want to take the elevator, but Cole always wants to take the stairs,” Charlie said.
He takes them because he can.
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