In September 1998, Anthony Cole was a normal, happy twelve-year-old boy. He loved sports, played competitively on several teams, and enjoyed fishing. He was developing an interest in girls. He had good friends, and a loving and devoted family, including his younger sister, Alex, and doting grandparents. He lived in an upper middle class community and his parents were financially able to provide him with everything he needed.
And then his parents received the telephone call that every parent prays they will never have to answer.
School officials directed Anthony’s parents, Tony and Linda, to immediately proceed to the hospital to which Anthony was being airlifted after collapsing on the court while playing basketball with his friends. Just before falling face down on the pavement, Anthony remarked to his friend, “I have no pulse.” Fortunately, his classmates realized that Anthony was not just playing a prank on them, and called for help.
Shocked numerous times with a defibrillator before beginning the trip to the hospital, en route, Anthony had to be resuscitated a remarkable thirteen more times. Anthony’s heartbeat was erratic and rapid, his brain was deprived of oxygen for a period of seven to ten minutes, and he was comatose. That evening, his heartbeat escalated to more than 280 beats per minute, and was only brought under control with medication.
The next day, physicians deduced that Anthony suffered cardiac arrest as a result of Wolf Parkinson White syndrome. That meant Anthony’s heart had an abnormal electrical pathway that permitted opposing electrical currents within the organ to collide, reducing it to a “mass of quivering jelly.” The doctors informed the Coles that because Anthony was born with the condition, he may have experienced symptoms but not realized that they were unusual and, thus, never reported them. Or the condition may never have resulted in any symptoms prior to that day on the playground. In any event, because he had always been otherwise healthy, there had never previously been a reason for doctors to run the EKG that revealed the abnormal heartbeat pattern. Cardiologists concluded that the extra pathway would have to be ablated (cauterized and permanently disabled), but the surgery could not be performed until Anthony’s condition stabilized.
Three days later, Anthony’s physicians informed the Coles that he had suffered a global anoxic brain injury. Up to that point, they had believed that Anthony was comatose because he hit his head on the pavement when he fell, and naively thought that, because they had been informed that there was no swelling of his brain, Anthony would “come out of his coma and be fine.” They were not prepared for the news that Anthony’s treatment team delivered. They could not predict when — or if — Anthony would emerge from his comatose state, how long he would be hospitalized, or what level of functioning he would regain. They informed the Coles that it was unlikely Anthony would ever walk again, and there was only a twenty percent chance Anthony would ever be able to lead an independent lifestyle, i.e., have the ability to care for his own daily needs.
Thus began the Cole family’s journey.
When asked if I would be interested in reading and reviewing Resurrecting Anthony: A True Story of Courage & Destination, I immediately and enthusiastically said, “Yes.” My response was based upon both my professional and personal experiences.
The Wendland Case
I devoted six years to litigating the case of Conservatorship of Wendland to a victory before the California Supreme Court. The case was a monumental battle played out in headlines (my client and I were interviewed by reporters from countless newspapers and magazines, including the London Times and Tokyo Times) and news broadcasts around the world, and it exacted a physical, emotional, and psychological toll on all concerned. In my case, it literally changed how I see the world because the stress of handling that case directly contributed to my ongoing retinal issues.
Every litigator must develop a theme for the case being presented. Since the Wendland case pit two women — Robert’s wife and mother — against each other in a battle over whether he should live or die, the theme that I developed focused upon the different ways in which the women viewed Robert. His wife and children did not believe that the progress Robert made after emerging from a 16-month coma was sufficient or acceptable, and petitioned the court for permission to bring about his death by ordering that his feeding tube be removed. In contrast, his mother still saw the sweet boy she had raised, even though Robert was 42 years old when he suffered an anoxic brain injury in a motor vehicle accident and was left with profound brain damage.
Thus, it was a classic case of seeing the glass half-empty or half-full. Robert’s wife, Rose, saw no value in the tasks he could perform after undergoing intense therapy, which included operating a motorized wheelchair and responding to verbal commands, and insisted that if he could comprehend the ways in which he had changed, he would be horrified and prefer to be dead. She offensively compared Robert’s therapy sessions to efforts to “train a monkey.” Rose and the couple’s children ceased visiting Robert, leaving him in the care of the staff at Lodi Memorial Hospital. By the time the case came to trial in late 1997, Robert’s oldest daughter, Katie, had not visited her father in well over a year. When I questioned her about her lack of awareness of his capabilities, she blurted out from the witness stand, “I don’t care!” Like her mother and siblings, she had not undergone any counseling or therapy designed to educate them about Robert’s changed life circumstances and assist the family members to come to terms with how Robert’s new physical disabilities impacted each of them.
Courage is the one telling trait that allows us to soldier on in the face of life’s greatest challenges. We never know who we are capable of becoming until we are put to the test.
~ Author Linda Cole
But Florence, his mother, continued visiting with Robert at least three times per week, riding the bus from her Stockton home to the hospital to spend several hours with him each time she made the trip. She celebrated the small improvements in his condition that were achieved after countless hours of therapy. And when she proudly told reporters that she believed he recognized her because he picked up her hand, brought it to his lips, and kissed it, I knew she was telling the truth. I had been to Robert’s hospital room and, while standing in the doorway where he did not notice me, I watched him tenderly and intentionally kiss his mother’s hand. Florence believed that Robert’s life still had meaning and purpose, even though he could no longer hold a job or take his children out to the Delta for a day of boating.
While Rose testified that Robert had told her he would not want to live if he could not be “a husband, father, and provider,” I argued that he was still all of those things. Because Rose bore the burden of proof at trial, I never had to put on my client’s case. Rather, I argued that because Rose presented her evidence first and did not sustain her burden to show that her proposed course of action was legally appropriate, there was no need for the court to entertain my client’s presentation of evidence because the court was precluded from ruling in Rose’s favor. The trial judge agreed. Thus, I never made an opening argument, never called a witness to the stand. And neither the courts nor the world ever heard my witnesses who stood ready to testify, including one who would have described the conversation with Robert several years earlier during which Robert made clear that he would never want to die by starvation and dehydration as a result of having a feeding tube removed. He had closely followed a couple of widely publicized cases and was appalled by the gruesome manner in which those individuals died. It was a fate he never desired for himself, but it was precisely the type of death he would have endured had his wife prevailed in court.
For me, the Wendland case is a cautionary tale for other families, and a reminder of how quickly our lives can change. The real tragedy was never the fact that Robert suffered debilitating injuries. Rather, it was the fact that his wife and children simply could not accept and love Robert as his new self. When his pickup rolled off the on-ramp to Interstate 5 west of Lodi and he was found by emergency responders, having been without oxygen for several minutes, his life — along with the lives of all of his family members — was forever changed. The old Robert died that night, and when he was resurrected, he was a new Robert with different abilities. I would never suggest that it would be easy for a family to adapt to such circumstances, or that his wife and children shouldn’t have mourned the loss of the person Robert used to be. Indeed, I watched his mother do so, but emerge from her grief with the same love she had always felt for her first-born child. She inspired me, and taught me valuable lessons about what it means to be truly courageous and, more pointedly, a parent who loves his/her child unconditionally.
The Journey of Anthony Cole and His Family
Resurrecting Anthony is not easy reading. The story is told in a frank, straight-forward manner, and the subject matter is difficult. The Coles have lived — and continue to live — every parent’s nightmare. No parent wants to deal with what the Coles have faced since September 8, 1998, when Anthony suffered the cardiac arrest that forever changed all of their lives.
But Resurrecting Anthony is an extremely important book because its message is ultimately one of triumph over despair, hopelessness, and loss. It is the story of a family being blindsided by an undiagnosed condition that, had it been discovered sooner, need not have disrupted Anthony’s normal life and prospects for the future. Instead, its seemingly random appearance resulted in devastating consequences.
Resurrecting Anthony takes the reader through the factual details of the days and months following Anthony’s cardiac arrest — the hospital vigil, and eventual surgery that, ironically, permanently corrected his heart condition. But more importantly, the Coles take readers along on their emotional journey — and it is a heart-breaking one, to be sure.
Perhaps most difficult to read about is the way that the Coles — completely unprepared to face the severity of Anthony’s circumstances — naively believed that he would suddenly be fine again. Certainly that myth has been perpetuated by Hollywood. We have all seen movies in which the hero suddenly awakens from a long coma, practically leaps out of the hospital bed, and resumes his previous life with nary a complication or physical compromise. So even after Anthony had been back at home for several weeks, “Linda and I prayed that he would be miraculously restored, that being in a familiar setting would touch something deep inside him, that one morning, afternoon or evening he would ‘wake up’ and ask for something to eat,” Tony writes. “But that hadn’t happened. He had changed very little over the past several weeks and we felt desperate.” That theme is echoed again and again in cases of anoxic brain injury — families are not prepared either through experience or by the medical professionals caring for their loved one to grasp or appreciate the profound extent of the change that has taken place in the patient’s life and impacted his/her ability to function. It was certainly a huge factor in the Wendland case, as Rose and her children repeatedly told reporters essentially the same thing that Tony writes in Resurrecting Anthony regarding Robert’s level of responsiveness and their perception that he failed to recognize them.
To be fair, medical professionals often, as was the case with Anthony’s treatment team, do not know how much progress a patient who has suffered a brain injury can ultimately make because every case is unique. Doctors and therapists cannot predict how the patient will respond to therapy or how motivated family members will be to participate in the process of healing. But as various milestones such as a school dance, Halloween, holidays, etc. came and went, and Anthony’s condition remained unchanged, the Coles faced one event after another with disappointment and discouragement, gradually realizing that they might be facing what would come to be their family’s new definition of “normal.” Still, Tony kept looking for signs that the son he had once known was “in there” and wondered if he “would ever again know the carefree life of a normal seventh grader.” He continued trying to resurrect the Anthony who existed prior to the cardiac arrest.
Understandably, there is also a large element of denial, as discussed in detail throughout the book by Anthony’s father, Tony. A coach and mentor to his son, he believed that if Anthony worked hard enough in his therapy sessions, he would be able to recover fully. Tony writes of his fear that the window of time during which Anthony’s doctors advised the most improvement would likely occur was rapidly elapsing and his frantic need to push Anthony to try harder during his therapy sessions. “I spend hours and days building regimens that, in my experience as an athletic coach, will contribute to his ability to stand or to walk. I coach Anthony as I had coached athletes in the past, pushing and cajoling and berating him to overcome his weaknesses, to work harder, all the while thinking that he isn’t working to his true ability, that he is holding out on me,” Tony sadly relates.
My first son had effectively died on the playground. That Anthony was never coming back. The best doctors in the world couldn’t bring him back. I couldn’t bring him back. That Anthony was gone forever.
~ Tony Cole
The Coles also write candidly about the strain that Anthony’s condition placed upon their marriage. Statistically, most marriages do not survive the kind of devastating changes that were foisted upon the Coles. The medical bills were staggering, of course, and they found themselves embroiled in disputes with their insurer over payment. Tony’s business began to suffer under the strain of his absences and lack of focus upon bringing in new clients. While he was routinely away from home on business trips, Linda was at home with full, unrelenting responsibility for Anthony’s around-the-clock care. Each began to resent the other, feeling that their efforts were neither understood nor appreciated by their partner. In Tony’s case, he felt guilty for being relieved when his professional obligations granted him a concomitant respite from the suffocating reality of Anthony’s new existence, even as he desperately missed his family. Each in their own way, both Tony and Linda had to find a way to overcome depression and disappointment, writing eloquently and poignantly about the little, unexpected moments when they would be reminded of all that they and Anthony had lost. Milestones celebrated by Anthony’s friends and classmates, for instance, continue to bring back memories of the hopes and dreams they once had for their son, forcing them to acknowledge and accept that those dreams will never come true.
Tony movingly describes how he eventually reached the destination where he found peace, and was at last able to fully and unconditionally love his new son, Anthony. Realizing that he had “become relentless and unreasonable in my demands of him,” Tony had no choice but to accept that Anthony was simply incapable of ever again functioning in the ways Tony hoped. He had to admit to himself and his wife that he had been unable to “let go my idea of that radiant son, the handsome, bright and emerging adult that Anthony was becoming prior to his heart attack.” Tony’s raw confessions resonate with any reader who has ever parented a healthy child and dreamed about that child’s limitless, bright future. His description of the process through which he was forced to finally stop railing against reality will bring tears of empathy and compassion to the most hardened reader. With gut-wrenching honesty, Tony recalls that only when he stopped trying to resurrect the Anthony who had existed prior to September 8, 1998, could he embrace the Anthony who took that boy’s place. It’s a breaking point at which no parent should ever have to find him/herself.
And it was from that low point that Tony describes finally finding the courage to move forward, even while admitting that neither he nor Linda will ever fully “get over” the loss they sustained. They know that there will always be times when they will continue to experience depression and indescribable sadness over their son’s lost future. But from that place of acceptance of their son as a disabled person they have learned to enjoy spending time with and learning from him. Because, as Florence Wendland knew, the Anthony who brings joy and happiness to them today is still their beloved boy, and his life has meaning and value. Tony describes Anthony as “charming,” with a delightful sense of humor and reports that “Anthony’s got it figured out.” Due to his short-term memory loss, Anthony does not remember yesterday and is unable to plan for the future. So he lives “in this moment,” which is something that “all of us need to learn to do better.”
The Coles wrote Resurrecting Anthony to help other families “survive” and negotiate a catastrophic illness or injury, and to help them understand that “there is not an option to quit.” They believe that Anthony was born for greatness and their mission is to help him figure out “how to still be great.” The book includes a toolbox filled with coping strategies and available resources.
If you or someone you know is living with a loved one whose life has been changed by a physical or mental disability, I strong recommend Resurrecting Anthony. But I also recommend it to anyone who wants to read about how one family faced and triumphed over one of the biggest challenges imaginable, and learned to accept that a new definition of “normal” is not synonymous with “defeat.”
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Resurrecting Anthony free of charge from the authors. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Reflections on the Wendland Case and My Own Journey
There was a time in my life that I might have callously concluded that Robert Wendland was not living a useful life. There was a time, before my own son suffered an anoxic brain injury, when I might have thought that Robert was better off dead than alive, although I can’t imagine I would be so heartless as to remove his feeding tube.
Unfortunately, it would seem that Rose’s and Katie’s regard for Robert, through their words and actions, would indicate that his value was so diminished due to his compromising brain injury that he was no longer worthy of their time and effort.
I can’t speak to the relationships prior to Robert’s accident since I know nothing about this family. But I would suggest that the basis for their behavior might reflect less than loving circumstances prior to the accident and I wonder how Rose would have treated this situation had it been one of her children, instead of Robert, who had suffered this terrible event.
What I can speak to is that my son, Anthony, while radically different than before his brain injury, is very much alive. He has a feeding tube that is used daily and he would most certainly die of dehydration and starvation if it were removed. He has no memory to speak of and can’t hold a conversation about the weather or even what he did today. But he is very much alive and happy to be with us.
Anthony lives at home with us with the help of three nurses, and while his fully dependent status and his compromised cognitive abilities limit much of what our family can do, we have adapted and still are able to have great quality of life. I love my son desperately, as most mothers love their children, and I rejoice Anthony’s survival. He reminds me regularly how wonderful life is, even when it isn’t perfect, and I can’t imagine my days without him.
There is a line from the movie The Blind Side, when Leigh Anne, played by Sandra Bullock, is having lunch with her friends. One of them tells her that she is doing a wonderful thing; that she is changing Big Mike’s life.
Leigh Anne replies, “No. He is changing mine,” telling her friends and viewers that Big Mike is enriching her life, her family’s life, in a big way.
I could not have said it better. Anthony has changed me. My life. My family’s life.
In a big way. In countless ways.
Thank you, Linda!
More About Linda
Resurrecting Anthony: A True Story of Courage & Destination, co-authored by Linda with her husband Tony, is her first book. It was written to help readers understand how the Coles’ once-perfect family survived the devastating loss of a child, and how a new family has come to be.
In 2009, Linda founded Alexandra Publishing to bring stories of personal courage to those enduring difficult times. Her goal is to provide real life experience, as well as insight, and useful strategies and resources, to empower readers to meet and overcome their challenges. Linda’s vision is to compile thousands of courageous stories from the multitudes of people who have weathered tragic personal storms and have found their way to a new life. Each Personal Courage book will contain narratives from different contributors dealing with a specific life challenge such as dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, a young family’s loss of a parent, or divorce and the aftermath. Anyone can submit their own story of personal courage for a chance to have the story featured in one of the books. (See further details here.)
Linda is also CFO of Anthony Cole Training Group, a successful company that builds sales cultures within organizations nationwide.
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