One day at a time

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FOMBELL, Pa. – Numbers float through Brant Cooper’s mind.
Forty-two, the number of years he’s lived, and 22, the number of years he’s been married to the girl he met at the Big Knob Fair.
Nineteen, the number of years he milked Holsteins on the family farm. Fifteen, the number of years he’s been a do-it-all contractor.
He also measures in smaller increments, like 69, the number of days he lay in intensive care, or 100, the number of days he struggled through rehabilitation.
Today’s magic number is 296. That’s the span between Oct. 25, 2007, and Aug. 16, 2008, his older daughter’s wedding day, the day he’s committed to walking Jaclyn down the aisle.
“I push hard every day. I’m not settling for what the doctors said, that I wouldn’t get out of that bed, or ever get into a wheelchair, or ever walk again.
“It just ain’t happening. I believe, without a doubt, I will walk again.”
* * *
Three inches of snow blanketed the swales and hillsides of Beaver County on Feb. 1, and knee-high drifts piled where the whipping wind dropped flakes the night before.
This day, a Thursday, was a gorgeous one, Brant Cooper recalls: There was plenty of glaring sunshine to make you forget the bone-chilling cold.
A self-employed general contractor, Cooper was up at his normal 6 a.m. to prepare for the day. He bid one job first thing in the morning, then headed home.
Killing time around the house before his second appointment, Brant took a phone call from son Ryan’s high school principal.
There was a bomb scare in the county. Would it be OK if Ryan and his buddies spent their morning at the Coopers’ house? Would Brant or his wife, Janice, who worked at home for the contracting business, take responsibility for the boys? Sure, they said. Send them over.
Out in the garage, their typical hangout, the boys felt the snow blanket beckon and pulled out the family’s snowboards.
“That looks like an accident waiting to happen,” Brant remembers telling Janice as they watched the boys outside.
No way would one of those boys fall and break an arm on Brant Cooper’s watch.
Pushing for something safer and feeling a little boyish playfulness himself, he bundled up and dug an old tractor tire tube from the shed.
Soon they were all taking turns sliding down the Coopers’ 40-acre hillside.
* * *
“That hill, you don’t walk up it,” Brant Cooper said. “We always used the quad to bring [tubes and riders] back up.”
And so it made total sense for Ryan and his buddies to wait at the bottom with the four-wheeler while Brant took one last trip down that hillside.
He admits he was showing off. He lay across that tube on his belly, his face just inches from the snow, and pushed off. Part way down the hill, Brant somehow flipped onto his back.
He also hit a drift and veered off the course, the tried-and-true path the rest of the riders had safely ridden to the bottom of the hill.
The tube and its rider rocketed down the hill at 35 mph, Brant’s eyes oblivious to his ground-level surroundings as he watched the February sky above.
He couldn’t see the accident about to happen.
His skull cracked and his body crumpled when he hit the rack on the front of that drift-bound four-wheeler. The force of his body knocked the machine back 12 inches, despite the fact it was stuck in more than a foot of snow and unmovable by the pack of high-schoolers waiting beside it.
The tube and its rider ricocheted off the quad, slingshotting 25 feet across the hillside.
Somehow, when the tube stopped moving, Brant was still alive.
* * *
It was a fluke accident.
I used to go nuts in the snow, sliding at 85 mph behind a Chevy truck with a 40-foot bull rope and car hood.
And now, there’s an entire 40-acre hillside with a single quad on it, and I hit it.
I didn’t know it was there, or else I’d have rolled off and wouldn’t be in this situation.

* * *
Ryan’s friends ran to the house to alert Janice, and the Cooper family’s worst nightmare began its spiral.
There was blood, lots of it, dripping into the snow. It looked like someone had taken a hatchet to Brant’s head.
Do something, do something. Ryan turned the tube so Brant’s head would be uphill. Maybe that would slow the bleeding. He packed his father’s hat full of snow and held it on the wound.
And then the boys, counting the minutes, waited.
* * *
Bleeding from the top of his head, Brant Cooper lay on the tube in the reddened snow, his wife beside him and his son and his horrified friends watching.
“Just hold my hand,” he told Janice. “Just hold my hand.”
She was holding his hand, she told him.
He just couldn’t feel it.
* * *
Each minute felt like an eternity. A pickup truck eventually crept over that hillside to shuttle Brant to the waiting ambulance.
Nearly an hour had passed since the collision when medics finally pushed the gurney into the LifeFlight chopper down at Fergie’s Lake.
Brant, still not knowing the extent of his injury, heard the EMTs talking about his trip to Allegheny General Hospital.
“We’ll never get there in time.”
* * *
The nightmare continued for 12 unknowing days. Janice and Jaclyn and Ryan and Jessica camped out 24/7 in the Allegheny waiting room, hoping for news that Brant’s condition had stabilized enough he could undergo surgery.
The doctors said he was paralyzed; he had absolutely no feeling in his arms or legs.
A case manager told Janice to start looking for a nursing home to keep her husband.
He’d never get out of bed again.
He’d never go home again.
Janice refused to listen.
Brant was alert and awake the entire time, they remember. He couldn’t talk, so Jaclyn learned to read his lips so he could communicate with his family and doctors.
Doors opened for visitation four times a day, and they took turns going in and out and keeping him and each other company.
On Day 12, doctors said he was well enough and did the first surgery on the front of his neck. Four days later, they flipped him over and operated again.
Forty-five stitches closed the gashes on his scalp. The X-rays showed the C5 and C6 vertebrae were shattered, and C4 was cracked. The splintered bones had pierced his spinal cord, but it wasn’t severed.
Five titanium plates, 14 screws and a donor bone would fuse the bone splinters together and heal the wound.
For 69 days, Brant lay in intensive care, gnashing through feeding tubes and watching a ventilator work for him.
He remembers none of it.
* * *
Owning his business has always been a perk for Brant Cooper. He learned to lay block and run pipe and pull wires and most any skill he’d need to build a home. He built hundreds of additions for friends and neighbors and completely rebuilt his own home, decimated by a tornado in 1985.
But being self-employed is difficult, too. The costs all fall in his lap, including the family’s Blue Cross Blue Shield medical coverage that had soared to $800 a month.
Brant dropped the coverage.
He figured if something came up, he could pay $800 a month on bills instead of paying it ahead.
That fateful Thursday, Brant was vulnerable.
And then the hospital started billing: $169,000 just to stay in the ICU; $59,000 for the first neck operation, $1,500 each day for rehabilitation.
Brant Cooper’s accounts dried up.
Medicare finally kicked in.
* * *
By April 9, 2007, Brant was weaned off the ventilator that kept him in Allegheny, and doctors released him to the Harmerville Rehab Hospital.
Brant’s sense of feeling ended at an imaginary line mid-chest. Everything below it was numb.
It was almost a done deal that he would never walk again, and doctors freely admitted it.
Brant had seemingly lost it all.
Things at home came to a standstill. He and Janice and his father and Ryan all became unemployed the day of his accident.
There was no income.
There was no insurance.
“I’d always been the provider, the leader. It’s hard for me to lay there and be so helpless.”
Things at Harmerville weren’t easy, either. Brant’s left lung collapsed and severe bedsores pained him.
And then came the physical therapy. The stretches and work left him exhausted mentally and physically.
“I was so focused on doing the best I could and getting better,” Brant said.
The therapists taught him to sit upright in a specially-designed wheelchair and worked on tasks like eating, brushing teeth, combing hair. He made great strides and was almost able to move his arms enough to take care of himself.
He had developed feeling all the way to his wrist in his right arm.
Then came news that Medicare’s therapy limit had passed. They couldn’t offer any more help.
Brant had to go home.
* * *
The four-wheeler is still parked in the shed. The 1968 RT Charger Brant drag-raced at the Zelienople Airport is still in the garage. The business is still there, held on pause.
But the rest of everyday life for the Coopers is vastly different than what it was eight grueling months ago.
Today there’s a white and turquoise conversion van with wheelchair lift in the driveway, and a plank wheelchair ramp leads to the front door.
After his graduation this past summer, Ryan quit talking about joining the military. He didn’t think his family could bear the possibility of another injury.
Jaclyn took a semester off college and she and Ryan took tests to become certified medical aides, to get paid to help their father with physical therapy and everyday tasks.
Janice, ineligible for the certification, does it all for free.
The $1,000-a-month Social Security disability check that comes in Brant’s name is barely enough to keep the family afloat.
But the community, those same people Brant built additions and calf barns for without taking an extra dollar, pitched in.
There have been benefit drag races, spaghetti dinners, 5K runs and record-setting pancake breakfasts. Neighborhood 4-H kids sold a market hog at the Big Knob Fair and donated its $500 proceeds, and nephew Brandon Cooper held a farm toy show last weekend to help out.
“I hope my kids learn from this, to be generous and help because it comes back. I had my share of finishing last, but when it comes right down to it, I’m lucky.
“I’d have died in the woods if He didn’t have a plan for me.”
* * *
Every day gets a bit easier for the Coopers, but they’re still uneasy about life.
How will the bills get paid this month?
Who knows if or when Brant will recover enough to get out of the wheelchair?
What will his children do when faced with decisions about their own futures, knowing their father needs their help?
They go on only with the hope that things will get better for them all, that Brant will keep up the phenomenal progress he’s made since coming home July 17.
A nurse swings by once a week to check on him. A physical therapist and an occupational therapist come twice a week. Janice and Jaclyn and Ryan and Jessica fill in when the pros aren’t there.
In three months, Brant has surprised everyone with his remarkable progress and the power of his positive attitude.
He can make a slight outward motion with both arms now, almost enough with his right arm to get doctors to let him have a wheelchair with joystick controls.
He’s got some feeling in his right leg, and pulsing sensations from knee to ankle in his left. Most every day he gets strapped onto an upright table, where he waits for those electrical sensations that run up and down his legs to make a connection with his spinal cord, to get his lower body to start talking to his brain again.
“Things are looking real good for me to get out of this darned wheelchair, and I’m glad.”
He’s already making plans to get on with his life, to get back on his feet, to walk his daughter down the aisle. He pushes down the little voice that tells him it may not happen.
He’s got 296 days to try.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at azippay@farmanddairy.com.)

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