The Journey Back

The last thing Cole Burton remembers about May 24, 2018, was standing on the cliffs at Vulcan in Birmingham, Ala. looking down over the city. He remembers seeing the UAB Medical Center, but he never would have imagined that just hours later, he would be in that  very emergency room, fighting for his life. Cole was with his Auburn University geology class on  a research field trip. The group made the stop at Vulcan on their way to Glencoe, Ala. to study rock formations along Highway 431. As Cole and his classmates began their work in  Glencoe, an impaired driver ran off the road and hit Cole and another student, Nick Hood. Tragically, Nick did not survive his injuries, passing away a few weeks after the accident. Cole suffered internal injuries, including severe head and brain trauma, resulting in a very bleak prognosis.

“Five days in, the doctors came to us and told us Cole would most likely not have a meaningful recovery,” says Tina Burton, Cole’s mother. “He was unresponsive. They offered the option to discontinue medical services.” Tina, Charlie, her husband and Cole’s father, and Libba, Cole’s sister, gathered in the back of Cole’s hospital room and prayed. They talked and quickly agreed if Cole was going to die, it would be God’s decision, not theirs. So they told the doctors to do whatever they could to save Cole. They felt an overwhelming sense of peace with their decision, regardless of the road ahead of them. They prayed. A lot. And they waited.

Three weeks later, on June 15, 2018, Cole started to wake up from his coma and just six days after that, he was transferred to the intensive care unit at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Ga. The first thing he remembers there is being told he was in a rehab center. “I demanded a drug test,” says Cole. “I was adamant that I had not used drugs, and I wanted to be tested. I was afraid I was going lose my (AU Navy) ROTC scholarship. I could not comprehend that I wasn’t in a rehab center for drug addiction.” That was the last time the Burtons referred to Shepherd as a rehab center; from then on, it was a therapy center. Cole settled in and began his long, improbable—no, make that seemingly impossible—journey. One minute, one hour, one
day at a time.

From the beginning, every task was a test of endurance, perseverance and determination. Cole was compliant and willing to do whatever was asked of him, no matter how simple or how hard the task might have been. Because of his ROTC training, he was in great physical condition before the accident, but now, only a few weeks later, he was almost 40 pounds lighter and basically starting over, a shell of the person he was, but still ready to face each new day with a can-do attitude.

“I always had a peace that tomorrow was going to be better than today and the next day would be better than tomorrow,” says Cole. Cole spent the next two months as an inpatient at Shepherd, making remarkable and quite improbable progress. When he was released, the family moved into a nearby apartment to continue his treatment as an outpatient. For the next year, Cole worked hard to regain everything he had lost. The ability to swallow. The dexterity to write. The competency to speak. His infectious, playful personality.

We were told that often patients with severe head trauma will emerge with a totally different personality,” says Tina. “But, the more Cole healed, the more we realized he was getting back to his ‘old self;’ Cole was still Cole.” Cole set three initial goals for himself: To rebuild his abs, to run in the Peachtree Road Race and to pass the physical training (PT) test to qualify to get back in the Navy ROTC program at AU. He worked hard to get back into shape and rebuild his abdominal muscles. Both of those things were accomplished by the end of 2018.

Cole went back to UAB to thank the doctors and nurses who would not give up on him. They were all stunned at the young man they saw.

“They couldn’t believe it,” says Tina. “One of them seriously looked like he had seen a ghost. They called the head of neurology to come see, and he told Cole, ‘I can’t explain your recovery; you have definitely received a miracle. God has great plans for you.’” Cole continued to progress, reaching and achieving his goals, one by one.

On July 4, 2019, just over 13 months after his parents were given such a grim prognosis for their son, Cole ran—or as he says, “jalked”—his way through the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. He qualified to get his driver’s license again and although it seemed unthinkable, this amazing young man, who scientifically had no chance of a meaningful recovery, took a “tester” class in the summer of 2019 to see if he could handle schoolwork. He took chemis- try—and made a B. So, in the fall 2019 semester, he enrolled at Auburn again, picking up right where he left off as a Geology student. He is set to graduate in December 2020.

Tina began running with Cole to help him reach his ultimate goal of getting his running time within  range to establish his place back in the Navy ROTC program. He fell short on his first try, but easily qualified on his second timed run. Against all the odds, this deter- mined Midshipman met — and exceeded — every requirement to be reinstated to the AU Navy ROTC program. But, in a crushing blow, the Navy denied his request, classifying him as medically incapable for military service.

“That was a huge disappointment,” says Cole. “I worked so hard to meet the demands to get back in the program, but in the end, even though I met the physical requirements, it just wasn’t enough.” But Cole still credits the AU Navy ROTC program for his recovery.

“I was driven by my desire to get back into ROTC,” says Cole. “Those guys were with me every step of the way, visiting me at Shepherd and pushing me every day to work harder to get back. Even though in the end, I was not approved to return, the discipline instilled in me and their companionship and belief in me were immeasurable factors in me getting where I am today. I don’t know if I would have had the same outcome without that support and my determination to get back in the Navy.”

Once the heartbreak of not being able to continue to pursue his military career, Cole set his sights on a new path and has applied to Auburn’s Graduate School to earn a degree in kinesiology and exercise physiology. His goal now? To help with the recovery of others who find themselves in situations similar to the one he was in.

“I so admire and appreciate those at Shepherd who worked with me every single day to get me where I am today,” says Cole. “I couldn’t even hold my head up when I started, much less walk, talk, eat or anything else, but because of them, I am where I am now. I want to be one of the people who does that for others.” The ups and downs, highlights and setbacks have also given the Burtons so much appreciation for the blessings they have received. Cole’s prognosis was grim, and there was no scientific possibility for the family to expect him to have any chance at a normal life, but God had other plans. Cole was recently baptized again, in part to symbolize his renewed life, his new direction and his new goals.

“I was baptized years ago, but after the accident, in so many ways, I had to totally start over,” says Cole. “Being baptized again was a chance for me to once again commit my life to Christ, who got me where I am today. Before, I was a Christian, but I wasn’t ‘in Christ;’ now, I have a much different perspective, a true gratefulness and in every way, a new life.” Cole continues to heal and get stronger. He gives praise for the joy he experiences every day and is thankful for every step — and every supporter — who has helped him come this far.

“You don’t choose your journey, your journey chooses you,” he says. “I’m just trying to make it the very best journey it can be.”