Thursday , May 10, 2018 - 5:15 AM
LAYTON — Mike Knight, head football coach at Syracuse High School, will remember April 23, 2018 for a long time. He was in a small room at the school, focused on turning on music for a morning weightlifting class.
He turned around and, for a brief moment, thought he was hallucinating.
Cole Cheney stood in the doorway, grinning.
“It really almost brought tears to my eyes because I hadn’t seen him in so long and I was so excited to see him,” Knight said. “I hadn’t seen him since he’d been home, so being able to talk to him and get the old Cole back was pretty special.”
Weeks before, Cheney, a Syracuse High junior and running back on the football team, was in a horrific dirt biking accident at the Little Sahara Sand Dunes in Juab County near Jericho.
It was Easter Sunday, the last ride of the day before Cheney’s group of family friends was supposed to head home. Cheney went off a jump on his dirt bike — just like he’d done pretty much his whole life — and landed head first on the roll bar of an ATV that pulled into the landing zone.
Cheney suffered a fractured skull, a brain bruise, two broken vertebrae and loss of blood. He was saved by two emergency medical technicians who happened to be near the sand dune where he landed.
He was flown to a Provo hospital where he was put in a coma and rushed into emergency brain surgery.
Cheney would have died on impact if his head had landed a couple inches to the right, doctors and nurses told his family. He could’ve been permanently handicapped.
Initially, doctors told the Cheney family they were unsure if Cole would walk, talk or live a somewhat normal life again. They prepared the family for the possibility that Cheney’s memory and cognition would be impacted the most.
They didn’t expect recovery, much less the rapid progress Cheney has made since.
Not only is he moving on his own, he goes on walks with a family friend each day. The 16-year-old talks normally and recalls every injury he’s been through in motocross, save this most recent one.
The only evidence anything is out of the ordinary is a scar that looks like a fish hook on the right side of his face.
If doctors and therapists are scratching their heads, it’s nothing compared to the confusion and wonder Cheney feels, being a passenger in his own body and mind as each bounces back in different, mysterious ways.
* * *
It was 3 a.m. on a Tuesday, two-and-a-half weeks after the accident, and Cheney was asleep in his bed. His mother, Kelly Cheney, was asleep on the floor in his room — she wanted to be nearby in case he needed immediate attention.
Cole woke up, confused, and started pacing. The last thing he remembered was falling asleep in his cousin’s trailer at the sand dunes the night before the accident — how did he get into his room?
His questions would soon be answered. At that moment, though, it was as if his brain was returning to normal.
“Three a.m., craziest experience of my life. I relived my whole life,” Cole said. “I went through every memory I ever had ... I relived my whole life and then I finally came to and started thinking where I am, what’s going on — and I had no idea what happened to me, how it happened ... I remembered going to the sand dunes, but I didn’t remember going home.”
Then he touched the right side of his head and felt the scar. It weaves under his right eye, goes up and around his temple and continues diagonally up his head.
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Soon after, his parents filled in the remaining blanks of what happened and how he got home. They told him about the crash and the coma; They described how he unexpectedly stood up and walked two days after the accident.
In the couple weeks after the crash, Cole was awake and responsive but wasn’t quite himself. He was easily agitated, restless, fidgety and rude. His mom called the nurses and they told her that his agitation was the brain injury talking and not necessarily Cole.
His brain was alert, but Cole didn’t have access to his memories or his normally mellow personality until he woke that Tuesday morning.
“It kind of boggled my mind but it didn’t seem real. That’s just something you read about, you know?” he said.
Kelly Cheney said it was like her son “woke up out of the fog” and his old self returned.
Still, no matter how many times his parents told him what happened, he still couldn’t believe it. Later that day, he read a printed copy of an April 9 article in the Standard-Examiner, detailing the accident and the first steps of his recovery. That was when it all started to set in.
“I was talking to people the same way, I was being the same old Cole and then when I read that, it all became real to me. I started crying and I just couldn’t stop,” he said.
Cole said he can’t remember the two-and-a-half weeks between the accident and when he woke up in the middle of the night on that Tuesday morning. There were plenty of people in his life, however, who could help fill in the blanks.
His older sister, Courtney, posted videos online of Cole taking his first steps in the hospital just days after the accident. His right eye is swollen shut, his long hair is tied back in a ponytail and he’s being supported by physical therapists.
Cole can’t remember those moments and he doesn’t want to. While friends and family describe the soft-spoken, polite 16-year-old as a mellow kid, the person in the videos is not. As he stands for the first time, he appears bored and detached — he even yawns at one point.
Subsequent videos show him crossing his arms and rolling his eyes. If you didn’t know him apart from those recordings, the impression you’d get is of an uncooperative teenager.
“I know that’s not me. In the hospital I was super angry, just some of the videos and pictures I don’t want to see,” he said.
* * *
As soon as Cole got home from the hospital, he began bugging his mom and his sister to take him to school.
The day he went to Syracuse High and surprised everyone, including coach Knight, was an emotional day for many people, particularly those who didn’t know how his recovery was going.
“I walked him around to a few other teachers he had special relationships with and he wanted to see, and it was kind of the same reaction from them: ‘Holy cow, is this Cole Cheney standing right here at Syracuse right now, when two weeks ago he was in a coma?’” Knight said.
Brain injuries can be so severe and so confounding. How is someone who fell 30 feet headfirst onto a roll bar of an ATV not only alive but able to walk normally and recall childhood memories?
It’s a classic example of brain injury recovery being a case-by-case basis due to the complexities and unknowns of the human brain.
Cole’s case appears to have elements that are out of the ordinary.
When he woke up that Tuesday morning, he was imagining the face of a woman. He didn’t know who she was, but he knew — somehow — that she was helping him recover.
That woman was a therapist at McKay-Dee Hospital’s rehab center, one of the first people to work with Cole after he was discharged from intensive care in Provo.
But he wasn’t supposed to remember her face at all. No one has an explanation for why he could remember her face, but nothing else.
Those first steps?
“The (nurses) and the doctors go, ‘We have no idea how he’s doing that,’” Kelly Cheney said of the reaction when her son started walking in the hospital two days after the accident.
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today has been something special. @colecheney5 has been talking so much & even cracking jokes. feels like we finally have “our cole” back! this is one of the many videos we have to show that his cute personality is back!! pic.twitter.com/etXRmKlvDO— cc (@ccdancer8) April 6, 2018
He’s met with a physical therapist and speech therapist, who have both told him there’s nothing they really need to do because he’s in such good condition.
Cole will also start occupational therapy and see a neurologist, the latter of whom will be able to shed more light on his recovery and how much further there is to go.
There are plenty of struggles. Doctors have advised keeping his stimulation low, which means limiting loud noises and visitors — hence the front-door sign asking people to get in touch with his mother before coming over.
Reading is extremely difficult and stressful for Cole. He said he doesn’t get a headache when he tries to read or do word searches, but it feels like his brain is “doing a backflip.”
He won’t be able to play football or race dirt bikes anymore. He’s not going back to school this year, either, per doctor’s orders.
The goal is to get Cole back to school this fall and for his life to be somewhat normal going forward. Knight hopes Cole can be involved in football as somewhat of a student assistant coach, as much as his schedule allows.
After seeing her son on a hospital stretcher caked with blood and sand, heavily sedated and with an intubation tube in his mouth, Kelly is just glad that Cole is alive and well.
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