As the mother of 2LIV4’s founder Greg Cooley, Pam Kalstrom recounts her perspective of his accident, brain injury, and the aftermath.
Greg was counting down the days before a fishing trip to northern Canada with his stepdad. Little did he or anyone know, he would come back a different boy. July 3, 1991, changed his path in life from a happy-go-lucky thirteen-year-old to a boy fighting for his life.
While Greg slept on the floor of the minivan in the early morning hours, the driver of the vehicle fell asleep and drove into a tree. We believe the impact launched a metal cooler into the air, which then crushed his skull, or that he was tossed around in the car and hit his head. We do not know for sure what caused the trauma, only that the closed head injury that Greg suffered was severe. When the ambulance arrived in the small town of Douglas, Wyoming, they found Greg unresponsive.
I was awakened by a call at 3 a.m. telling me I needed to get to Wyoming. I was told that my son was unresponsive, and I thought, “What does that mean, unresponsive?” The answer was, “Ma’am, you need to get to Wyoming, NOW!” I had two sons at home who were only a year and a half and four years old. Justina, my 16-year-old daughter, stayed with them while I jumped in the car and drove to Wyoming — 300 miles away.
That trip was the longest drive of my life. I have never been more frightened than when I sprinted into that hospital. The team of doctors and nurses that awaited me were very grim. Greg’s brain was swelling from the trauma, and the next 48 hours would be critical. If he made it through this period, there was a good chance he would survive. He had suffered a basal skull fracture — half of his skull was crushed, and an oblique fracture ran its entire length. He also showed signs of brainstem shearing. A few days later, he went into a coma.
Watching, Waiting, Worrying
When I was able to see Greg in the ICU, he appeared to be sleeping. He had no visible signs of injury. He was on a ventilator and endotracheal tube and was receiving blood transfusions. Every now and then, he would scratch one leg with the other, and I was told by some of the medical staff that this was good as it showed intention. Others said it was an involuntary movement. I preferred to think that it was deliberate. Twenty-four hours passed, then forty-eight, and Greg was still with us. I was at his bedside every hour. At one point, he squeezed my hand and started to show more voluntary movement. On July 8, they determined that he was stable enough to be transferred by air ambulance to Swedish Hospital in Englewood, Colorado, closer to home.
When we arrived at Swedish, I was again separated from Greg. When I was allowed to see him again after several hours, he no longer showed any movement and lay completely still. I learned that he had secondary swelling due to the brainstem shearing. Once again, the next 24-48 hours were critical. But this time, if he survived, there was no guarantee he would awaken from the coma.
Greg had a team of doctors in ICU, which included a pediatrician, internist, neurosurgeon, and neurologist. On his arrival, the team asked me detailed questions about him. How did he do at school? How was his health, his coordination, etc.? I thought it strange that they asked me these questions, but they were evaluating a base point to gauge his recovery. Greg had similar challenges shared by many boys his age, but a few things were certain — he was incredibly witty, extremely coordinated, and had a heart of gold.
The pediatrician gave me the most hope. He told me that a child's brain continues to grow until they reach 21 years old, and therefore, Greg could retrain his brain to compensate for the damaged areas. This was the hope I needed to get me through the months and years that followed.
Weeks went by with no movement by Greg. I read him stories, sometimes finding it difficult to concentrate and repeating pages. During this time, he had a tracheotomy, lung and feeding tubes, and a ventilator. He was hooked up to so many contraptions his room felt like a laboratory.
On July 19, we celebrated Greg’s 14th birthday. My friend brought her guitar and played music for him. Still no movement. Other patients came and went. The physical therapist visited daily to stretch his limbs to avoid atrophy. The doctors worked tirelessly managing Greg’s blood levels administering several transfusions to balance his potassium levels. I never left Swedish; I slept in the waiting room and showered in the doctor’s lounge. Every night, I prayed that the morning would yield positive news on Greg’s prognosis.
On August 5, my prayers were answered. Greg was moved to the rehabilitation floor of Swedish Hospital. He was starting to show signs of waking up, and his condition was upgraded to stable. When he began to come out of the coma, he didn’t just open his eyes and say hello (like movies would lead you to believe). Waking up was a process and included a stage where he was extremely violent and agitated. This frightened me, and no one could tell me how long it would last. The hospital staff had to restrain him so he would not hurt himself or others. I was told that this was a good sign and a necessary step before coming out of the coma. It was hard to watch, but his brain was just trying to reconnect all the wires.
On August 11, he started actively coming out of the coma and making purposeful movements. He held a brush in his hand and tried to comb his hair. He could answer simple questions by shaking his head yes or no and follow simple tasks. I was ecstatic with joy. Two days later, he was transferred to Children’s Hospital in Denver.
Even though Greg had made a lot of progress, he was still not completely aware of his surroundings and was placed in a Craig Bed (a bed on the floor with padded walls) for his own protection. We brought pictures from home, his favorite music, and everything else we could to acclimate him to who and where he was.
The road to recovery was tough. The excellent staff of doctors and physical, speech, and occupational therapists worked with him every day. Greg had to relearn how to talk, eat, creep, crawl, and walk. He had 6th nerve palsy, which caused strabismus. He also had ataxia from the brain injury, making the recovery that much more difficult. Through it all, Greg retained his wonderful sense of humor and was loved by everyone he met, especially his therapists.
On September 20, Greg was discharged as an inpatient from Children’s Hospital. He continued physical, occupational, and speech therapy as an outpatient six days a week thereafter. In addition, he attended equine therapy, which uses the movements of a horse to help with motor and sensory input, and home tutoring to help him prepare to go back to school. We set up a course in our backyard for him to practice the basic steps of an infant learning to walk. He would put on knee and arm pads and creep and crawl through the course. His wittiness and wonderful attitude helped him so much in his recovery.
Back to School
Greg desperately wanted to get back to his friends at Carmody Middle School and worked very hard with his tutor to get to this point. Unfortunately, the school was not wheelchair accessible, so they would not allow him to return. His friend, Chris, begged them to let him help Greg walk up the stairs to class. The answer was no. It was a devastating blow to Greg and all of us. This should never happen to anyone.
As a result, Greg had additional challenges to overcome — an unfamiliar school and making new friends. On January 13, 1992, he started school at Everett Junior High while still attending PT and OT three times a week. Once again, Greg did not let this deter him. He loved his teacher and worked hard to get through the 8th grade.
Back to Life
The following year, he was reunited with his friends at Bear Creek High School. He graduated in 1996 as President of the Aerospace Club. After that, he attended the University of Northern Colorado before earning a degree in Computer Information Systems from Metropolitan State University. I vividly remember his high school commencement, the day he was accepted into the University of Northern Colorado, and his graduation from college.
Words cannot describe how very proud I am of Greg. He never gave up on his 2LIV4 moments. He went on to have a twenty-year career in the oil and gas industry. Today, he enjoys outdoor activities such as rock climbing and scuba diving, has completed a tandem skydiving jump, and wins over the hearts of everyone in his life. He wants anyone who has physical or cognitive challenges to live their life to the fullest and experience their 2LIV4 moments. That is why he founded 2LIV4!
To find resources on brain injury in your area, visit biausa.org.