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A New Chapter: My Son’s Spinal Cord Injury

On the 4th of July, my son, Coulter had a traumatic spinal cord injury while competing in the Jackson Hole Rodeo. As with many spinal cord injuries, the prognosis is unknown and will depend on many factors. For now, he does not have feeling in or use of his lower body. He has undergone surgery and Mike and I are with him in the ICU in Idaho. We will be here for a week and then, along with his docs and recommendations from spinal trauma experts, he will decide where to be transported for months of rehab.

THE REALITY

I am sitting with him as he sleeps- in awe of a human being I realize now, I knew only the beginnings of before 7:30pm on July 4th, 2023. Since arriving here less than 24 hours ago I have witnessed perhaps the most uncompromising courage of my life. From the moment he said, “Jose, I think I broke my back. I can’t feel my legs.”- to this moment, almost three days later, as he sleeps through the beeping and humming of the machines watching over him, he has shown uncompromising grace. Several times, I have witnessed devastation brewing behind his eyes, only to be replaced quickly by grit and graciousness. I sat, my own eyes shut tight, this morning, mustering all the strength for him I could, as he almost passed out from pain the first time the team of physical therapists sat him up in bed. He regained consciousness as they were leaving and said, “Thank you so much.” I am scrunching back tears and gritting my teeth while he smiles and says thank you. THIS is my kid, y’all, and I have never been so proud. And so devastated.

GRATITUDE

Coulter has full use of his upper body and he is fit and Strong. He can breathe on his own, text with his friends and eat solid food. His arms will always give him mobility. He has an amazing team of nurses and docs here. We have known for the last year and a half that Coulter had found the place where he belongs on the ranch where he works in Wyoming. He has never been happier. He has loved the variety of things he’s learned, the riding, the landscape, the independence, the hard work and the team he works with. We knew he had made friends. But what we are learning now is that he has made family. The unconditional love he is receiving from his Wyoming family is a testament to the person he is becoming. Some people make family because their real family is dysfunctional or toxic. Coulter has made family because of a shared passion and because he has earned love and respect from people he admires. He will continue to have a job and a home in Wyoming. I am grateful for so much right now but I think I am the most grateful for his two families- his extended family that have loved him since birth and his chosen family who also love him now.

A NEW CHAPTER

In the last few years, Coulter has actively sought big challenges. Eventing, free diving, rock climbing, scuba, avalanche rescue training, canyoneering, and most recently, bareback bronc riding. As he patiently explains to the nurses what he needs, asks questions about the purpose of everything they ask him to do and diligently does every exercise he’s given, it strikes me that this is just the next big challenge. A challenge that he did not choose but will meet with the same steadfastness and determination with which he has met all the others. I say this knowing that there will also be deep, dark, sad times as he learns to live this new life. Mike and I, along with his grandparents and extended family, will be here with him through it all. There was a moment today, when Coulter said, “I’m going to want to learn new things so I can keep being useful in my work.” This is just TWO days in. I felt both gutted and in awe of him at that moment. That split second on the 4th of July changed all our lives forever. It is not just a new chapter- it feels like a whole new book.

A MOSAIC

Most of you know that I recently lost my horse, Locke, in a particularly difficult and tragic way. That loss, along with a few other uncontrollables, inspired a change of plans for Mike and I. We found ourselves itching for adventure. We pivoted. We sold a car, our boat and my beloved horse trailer. We packed up, cleaned up and listed our house for rent on the fourth of July. We made a plan to move to Portugal. We started building out the “Barndo” in the barn so we would still have a place to crash at home. We made our footprint smaller and our bags lighter. Three days ago, I was nursing my grief over Locke. That was a loss I would never have chosen but it chose me and I was embracing a new dream. Today, I can already feel myself shedding that dream and making room for what we need to do next. And we are ready. In the long term, Coulter wants to be near his people and his life in Wyoming. In the short term, there are excellent options for his care in different parts of the country. He does not want to go back to Seattle. We will move to where he needs us. We are ready to pivot in a way we would not have been four months ago. For the first time in my life, I don’t have a farm full of horses to manage or a bunch of material things holding me down. Many people get irritated when they hear me say that things happen for a reason. I do not mean that punishment is doled out retroactively or that we have no control over our destiny. I simply mean that, when you get up on the balcony of your life and look down, there may be a design that you cannot see from below. A mosaic.

TO MY CLIENTS

I am choosing to continue working at this time. I will be sticking to my regular schedule from hotels and hospital rooms, as much as possible. There may be days where I have to make last-minute adjustments to my schedule and I will be grateful for your patience. It is important that your coaching sessions remain yours. It is customary at the beginning of a conversation or session to exchange pleasantries and “catch up”. I try to be authentic with my answers. There is simply no time in a session to share with you what I wish you to know at this time. So here it is. When you ask me how I am, and I say I am GOOD, please believe me. In that moment with you, on the phone, in the flesh or on Zoom. I am GOOD. I might have recently been crying in the dark or raging at the loss; I might have been gritting my teeth for Coulter or sweating out the pain in the gym; but I have also been thanking the universe for large and small gifts, laughing with a nurse who is trying to give Coulter a smile or receiving one of the tons of small kindnesses that keep coming our way. So please- when I say I am GOOD, know that I am not pretending. I am not in denial. I am not putting on a brave face. I am simply accepting the life I am in and letting emotions do what they are supposed to do- move. For many years, I have signed off Cadence Coaching emails with, “Thank you for allowing me to do what I love every day.” When I am coaching, I am doing what I love. I am in my sweet spot. I am present in a way that I am not often at other times in my life. I am a vessel. I am lucky beyond lucky that my work fills my cup and gives me energy. So, if you find yourself thinking that I should “take some time off” or you consider cancelling your session so I can take care of myself, I will honor your decision but please consider also that my work with you is part of my self-care. I run for my body, write for my mind, hug friends and four-leggeds for my heart and coach for my soul. So I am here for you to continue our work together.

Please send miracles and love our way.

And thank you for allowing me to continue doing what I need to do every day.

Update #1

After 2 weeks in the ICU and then Progressive Care at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center, Coulter was discharged this morning. I flew with him via air ambulance to Craig hospital in Denver where he will continue healing and begin intense rehab next week.

Coulter has been so comforted by your generosity. The love he has received from friends, family, and his larger community has been immense and put a little wind at his back as he starts this long journey.

He has a lot of hardware in his back. His body has been in full-on adjustment mode. The pain has been significant. But it is gradually subsiding and he’s looking forward to getting to work. The other day he said, “I want to walk again.” He did not say, “I hope…” or “I wish…” This kid has life by the balls. He is preparing for a life without use of his legs but already working hard toward one in which he walks again.

This may seem crazy- but as tragic as this situation is, we can only hope that we are all being made better by it. And for sure, Mike and I, we are being made better by our kid.

Thank you for being on Team Coulter. ♥️

 

Update #2

It has been 3 weeks since Coulter’s accident. After two weeks at the hospital in Idaho, and a surreal trip via air ambulance to Colorado, he has been adjusting to rehab at Craig Hospital outside of Denver.

As his injury site heals, Coulter is gradually learning to navigate life in a new body. The front end of the rehab process is carefully designed to balance allowing the injury site and post operation incision time to heal while getting the body moving again. Every day here is a marathon! So much changes in a short period of time. A week ago, Coulter could not sit up on the bed without passing out and yesterday, he spent most of the day in a wheelchair- working out in the gym and hanging out with his friends who drove nine hours from Wyoming to visit.

There were a couple of really rough days when we first arrived at Craig. The inevitable confusion inherent in any transition, combined with the fact that the doc assigned to his case was out of town, meant that things didn’t go smoothly. He had to wait long periods of time to get assistance with pain. He had to do double-time getting scans and MRIs due to blips in communication. And we, along with his nurses, techs, and therapists were all on a steep learning curve as we figured out what the actual repercussions of his injury are going to be.
My mama bear instincts were on full throttle. Several times, after waiting more than 45 minutes for a nurse to respond to his requests for help, I “encouraged” Coulter to speak up. “Push the button again! Let them know you’re in pain!” I said, with maybe some colorful language sprinkled in. He just looked at me. “Mom. They’re not here because they’re busy. They’re helping someone else who needs them more. I’m not pushing the button again.” Hmmmph. Message received. Coulter continues to lead the way through this quagmire of uncertainty with patience and diligence. I am learning.

Every spinal cord injury is different. No two bodies respond in the same way. We are told there is no way to know what the future holds- there is no prognosis. There is only the here and now. Things will continue to evolve and change as his spinal cord and nerves repair and adjust to the damage. We work with what IS and toward what is possible from HERE. We focus on what we have control over in this moment rather than on what might have been or what we hope for. We are learning this from the medical culture here and from Coulter- who seems to already have an incredible capacity for the mindset his situation requires.

All our lives have been irrevocably changed. Mike said, the other day, “I am a better person than I was a couple of weeks ago.” We look through a new lens at everything around us. The sidewalk curbs. The way restaurants are set up. Parking lots, bathrooms, cars and even our own home are ripe for redesign when viewed from the perspective of a person in a wheelchair. Mike disappeared when we were in the grocery store the other night. I found him out front chatting up a bright spark of a woman about the modifications she made to her truck so she could drive it with her arms. As she described how she gets in, stores her chair and uses the controls, I felt humbled and awed by her ease. And relieved. And excited that we get to help Coulter get all this stuff figured out too.

Someone recently told me to not be afraid to share the hard stuff even though the culture of our family is to “be positive.” I hope that my sharing Coulter’s astounding attitude through, what most of us would agree is a tragedy, and the way we are choosing to perceive the situation we find ourselves in does not come across as sugar-coating reality. This is ****ing hard. And there is loss and grief. And there is some rough road ahead- both literally and physically. And I can tell you, I personally would be in a very different place if it weren’t for the strength of my kid. AND there is beauty and joy in every day, made more stark by the hardship. This place, Craig Hospital, is filled with patients and families who are navigating the same road we are, with incredible grace and spirit. And I am sure our paths will continue to be lit by theirs as we get deeper into the rehab process with Coulter and get to know them more. So, it is never my intention to shy away from the hard stuff- only to be able also, to share the good stuff that can live alongside it.

The overwhelming love and generosity shown him via this Go Fund Me has genuinely helped keep us all going and given us some financial peace of mind. It has now covered the initial payment we made to get Coulter here, where he needs to be. This is an incredible gift and we cannot thank you all enough for contributing to it.

Thank you, again, for being on #TeamCoulter!

 

Update # 3

It has been five weeks since Coulter’s spinal cord injury. I’ve been struggling to write this update because I feel it should be about him but I cannot speak for him. I cannot share his experience or explain his point of view. I cannot tell his story. I can only tell my own, as his mom.

SCAFFOLDING

At our initial meeting with his doctor here at Craig, viewing the CT scan images is like riding a glass elevator up through the center of his spinal column. Perfectly formed vertebrae begin to morph into chaotic shapes as we pass through his upper lumbar spine. Shards of bone are visible in his spinal cord. Then the vertebrae become beautifully recognizable again as we get higher into his thoracic spine. He has two large rods holding five vertebrae in place with multiple metal pins, like scaffolding. From the outside, the healing incision looks like a tidy zipper- I imagine his surgeon zipping up his handiwork.

His doc says the number one factor that determines success following a spinal cord injury- success, defined as a life filled with meaning and purpose- is family and community support. I think about all the hundreds of family members and friends I see coming and going here at Craig. I think about all of you reading this who have reached out to Coulter with kind words, sent cards, and continue to lend support. I think about Mike and I shuttling weekly between Denver and Seattle- fighting over who gets to be here with him. We are all like scaffolding too.

A HOT STOVE

Because he hasn’t offered, and because I am still thinking I need to tell his story instead of my own, I ask. “What is the worst thing about all this?”

“The lack of mobility. I feel trapped. Why are you asking me that?!?! Can you please fill my water?” I feel like I just touched a hot stove. This is what it must feel like for him to be training his thoughts. There are pathways to resist. And I just asked him to wander down one of them.

PERSPECTIVE

There are aspects of Coulter’s injury that are unfortunate and disappointing. They make things considerably more challenging and, in fact, make not being able to walk seem minor. And there are things about his injury that are huge gifts- that make his recovery smooth when viewed from the perspective of other patients in the rooms around him who are on ventilators or getting amazingly proficient at using straws to control their chairs.

On the 4th of July, when Jose told me, over the phone, what was happening, I said, “Oh my god. No. This is our worst nightmare.” On the 5th of July, when his surgeon said to me, over the phone, “I do a lot of these and there is very little chance he will walk again.” I said through my tears, “What?!?! I can’t believe that. His whole, big, precious life. No. No. No. This can’t be.”

I didn’t know then that his recovery would not be about whether he would walk again. It would be about what he is able to make of a life in which he might not walk again. Many people seem to be obsessed with “success stories” and with hoping he walks again. I am not obsessed with his walking again. I am obsessed with whether he has a sense of purpose, a rich life, and a community. To be honest, I mostly don’t care whether he returns to an old definition of normal. I care about his soul. I care about his quality of life. And that cannot depend on a wish that is out of his control. How hard he works dictates his quality of life. It does not dictate whether he will walk or run again. I am not ungrateful for the inspirational stories, the resources, and the amazing people you know, who now walk. I am just committed to making sure my kid, who has the most amazing attitude ever, knows that what he is working toward are the things over which he has control. His smile in the face of each new challenge. His grit as he works to organize his legs when he’s getting dressed in the morning or transferring in and out of the car. His appreciation of the experiences of his friends here who are getting feeling back in their legs, while he is not yet. Coulter might care about this thing over which he has no control, more than I do. But that is a hot stove. I care about what he can control right now- his diligence, how much he smiles, how he makes the nurses and techs feel who care for him, and how he feels about himself when he is alone. These are far more important to me than whether his body decides to walk again.

THE GOOD STUFF

Coulter laughs with his cowboy friends around a table in the hospital cafeteria- they could be anywhere.

Nurses cheer as Coulter rides the mechanical horse around the halls of the fourth floor. I remind him, reflexively, to use a little more outside rein as Drifter loses his haunches to the inside on the turns.

My team beats Coulter’s in wheelchair football. And yes, I score a couple of points.

The 21-year-old lifeguard next door tells us the story of her injury: On July 3rd, she was slammed against the bottom by a wave while she was teaching rescue techniques to kids. Her C5 vertebra was crushed. One of her young students saved her life. She can’t wait for her 16-month-old nephew to visit so he can be strapped on her lap for the ride of his life in her motorized chair.

When asked by a nurse what his pain level is- Coulter says, “One.”

Fresh brew in the French press after five weeks of hospital-grade coffee. Thank you, Grandma Sharon!

Coulter and Joe Alejos rope Shorty, the dummy steer, in the halls of the hospital. The light fixtures remain intact.

The nurses hang out in our room because we have puzzles, because Coulter is always pleasant, and because we laugh a lot.

We look forward to Colorado thunderstorms every afternoon.

I sit in an outdoor cafe with my kid. We sip tea and talk about horses- we could be anywhere.

YELLOW DOTS

Visitors here at Craig walk around with big, yellow dots over their hearts- screening stickers that have the room number of a family member written on them. Mike reminded me the other day, as we walked into Safeway, that I still had my sticker on. Instead of removing it, I put my hand over it protectively. I don’t like to take it off. When I see a person behind a yellow dot, I know. I can see the jagged edges of the life they are holding together with love and feel what they have left behind. I know the incomparable meaning and moments of joy they are panning from the pain of their cherished family member. When we pass each other, yellow dot to yellow dot, we smile extra. We know each others’ losses and one another’s indefinable gains.

I know I say it every time but it only becomes more and more true. I have never been more proud of Coulter. And I am grateful that in this tiny lifetime, Mike and I have this huge opportunity to understand just how incredible a human our kid is. I am beginning to consider that his whole, big, precious life may be made, no less so, by this tragedy.

Thank you, again, for being on #TeamCoulter!

PS Your financial support is helping with so many things: Knowing Coulter can stay where he needs to be even if his insurance company is going off the rails, making sure he will have all the equipment he needs to live independently and return to his life on the ranch… and helping our whole family be able to stay present and focus on his recovery. THANK YOU.

 

Update #3

Since my last update, it seems we have traveled a great distance and yet no time has passed. During his in-patient rehab at Craig, Coulter is challenging his body and building strength. He is relearning the daily stuff you and I take for granted- putting on socks, going to the bathroom, getting out of bed, and taking care of his, now-precious shoulders. He’s been in the pool, shot air rifles, tried out a climbing wall, and experimented with mobility equipment. He drives a car with hand controls- imagine driving with no legs! He does wheelies, jumps curbs and navigates stairs. Craig Hospital is a miraculous place. The nurses and therapists wear street clothes and talk to patients about life. The campus exudes inclusion and inspiration. We live among people on wheels in various states of healing. The halls hum with hope. The staff wear shirts printed with the words, “We have your back” along the intricate S shape of a spine.

DISMAY

Coulter was told he would need 45 days of in-patient rehab. On day fifteen, his case manager visits. Her expression is grim. “Your insurance company is saying they won’t pay beyond yesterday. They say you no longer qualify for this level of care. You’re doing so well that the hospital cannot medically justify keeping you. You may be discharged early.” What??? He is paralyzed. He has nerve pain. He relies on nurses for many things. There are still buttons and buzzers on his bed. Tears shine in Coulter’s eyes for the first time since his wreck. Disappointment and fear settle into the room. “Am I being kicked out?” He asks. We have met other young people here who are dying to beat this joint and go home. Not Coulter. He views this experience as his opportunity to ensure the best outcome for his life. He is just getting started. “This is because you’re doing so well. We don’t see people like you very often. You’re meeting all the benchmarks so fast. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but this is a good thing.” Her words fall splat on the floor. I can see her dismay. His initial conference- where we meet with his team, learn about his injury, and hear about his treatment plan has not happened yet. She leaves. We sit in silence for a bit before Coulter tells me how he feels. He thought he’d be in a different place by the time he was discharged. I try to reassure him. My anger grows bigger than the room. My Inner Mama Bear wakes up. I start knocking on doors and making phone calls.

TRIGGER STACKING

During the days of limbo that follow, Coulter’s posse shows up. His room fills with cowboys and candy. The puzzles come out and happy banter ensues. It’s August 8th. My birthday. Instead of going home, I plan a steak dinner with the boys. (And no, I don’t eat meat!) I pick up Coulter’s truck from the shop. Mike drove it ten hours from Idaho Falls so that we’d have transportation in Denver. The catalytic converters were stolen on day two. After Ubering around, and walking for groceries (it is August in Colorado!) I’m excited to have a car. I reserve a hotel room so Coulter’s friends can stay at our patient housing apartment. Yay!

In horse training, we use the term, “trigger stacking” to describe the phenomenon of small things adding up to cause a large reaction. A horse who is normally unconcerned by a change in schedule, a thunderstorm, or a car honking might suddenly lose composure when faced with all three of these at once. We all have a certain capacity to handle stress. Mine is large. I don’t lose my shit often. On August 9th, I check out of my hotel at 6am to get back to Coulter. Faced with the possibility of early discharge, he is more determined than ever to do his morning routine without help from the nurses. I am his spotter and the kid does not sleep in. As I approach the truck, broken glass crunches under my feet. Was this here last night? I’m baffled. I check the undercarriage and walk around to the passenger side. No. Way. The front window is shattered. The truck has been ransacked. Coulter’s things are strewn all over. His beautiful, rusty, western spurs. Leather roping gloves. An old textbook I’d nagged him to return to school years ago. His phone charger, gum wrappers, and LaCroix cans. Nothing has been taken. But seeing the detritus of my son’s beloved life, so recently shattered, tossed among shards of glass- this is a trigger too far. I sit down, cross-legged next to the truck, and for the first time since the fourth of July, I cry.

VULNERABILITY

At Craig, there are outings. Opportunities to get out into the community, revisit pre-injury passions, and try on new ones. Coulter has signed up for paddling, rock climbing, boating, and a trip to an adaptive ski factory. Today, he’s going to The Temple Grandin Equine Rehab Center. I get to tag along.

The staff treats Coulter with respect. He is assigned a large, retired driving horse named Goody. He rolls around Goody in the cross ties. I sense him edging into the apprehension of being near a horse while having limited mobility. I concentrate on breathing. I resist images of Coulter posting like a sewing machine on Cougar, galloping cross country on Jammer, and our years spent bickering on long drives to horse shows. I smell Locke. I feel my own empty barn in my bones like arthritis on a rainy day.

Coulter smiles politely at all the rules and goes about grooming. We laugh when he grabs a brush and tries to reach Goody’s mane. Not happening. In the arena, wheeling through heavy footing is a challenge. Doing it with a horse in tow is a struggle. He figures out how to use his lap to hold the rope. Goody’s volunteer hovers patiently. Once he’s mastered the mechanics, he shifts his attention to the horse. He expertly uses pressure and release to explain to Goody what he wants. Come with me. Stay off my wheels. Remain behind my spokes. Good boy. Goody’s volunteer moves further away. When they pause in the barn aisle, Goody puts his head in Coulter’s lap.

We circle up at the end for take-aways. (Yes, I know!) Someone says HAPPINESS. Someone else says, PRESENCE. I say, NORMALCY. Goody’s volunteer says she has never seen Goody connect with anyone like that before. Coulter says, “vulnerability.”

ADAPTATION

A few days ago, we were in the elevator with a woman who was in an electric wheelchair. She looked at Coulter with appreciation and said she had just received her manual chair. She was finding it so hard! She did a few minutes in it every day to build up her stamina. He nodded and said he understood. And that he was finding it easier and easier all the time. She nodded and said, “We humans are so adaptable. I don’t know how we do it.”

Coulter adjusts to the idea of a collapsed timeline. He doubles down on his independence. His initial conference and his discharge meeting are merged. His nurses get teary and thank him for making their job easy. For being gracious. For being kind. They hope he will consider being a mentor to new patients. His therapists give him the green light to move on with only the wryly delivered caveat that maybe his parents aren’t quite up to snuff. It is an emotional meeting but we are ready to roll! The twice-fixed truck is now locked in a parking garage. The insurance company calls and says they made a mistake. Coulter will move into a studio apartment next to the hospital. He’ll have two weeks of outpatient therapy before heading home to Wyoming. And we will adapt.

I still have never been so proud. Or so grateful. Thank you! XO

Update #4

Recently, Coulter’s employer asked each member of his crew to write about their rodeo season for their company newsletter. Coulter has given me permission to share his words here. Not surprisingly, he was gifted with a brevity that his mother was not.

FROM COULTER

My rodeo season began well as I learned the basics of bareback bronc riding. As the early season progressed, I learned more and more about riding techniques and became comfortable with my equipment. By the 4th of July, I was in first place in the standings and I was happy to be riding successfully. That night I was injured in the bucking chute while getting on my horse. This injury has been life-changing as it resulted in my being paralyzed from the waist down. After l spent two weeks in critical care in the hospital recovering from my surgery, I began my rehab journey. This started with an air ambulance flight from Idaho Falls to Craig Hospital in Denver. At this hospital, I quickly began learning all of the skills and details of living my life in a wheelchair. In addition to all of the basics that I was learning, I got many opportunities to put myself into unique and difficult situations that I would have to problem-solve. These activities included handling horses, swimming, and navigating rough terrain. It was at these times that I got to learn about all of the unique equipment that can help me achieve a variety of tasks like crossing terrain that would be impossible for me to navigate in a normal wheelchair or move around in a wheelchair faster than I could push myself. As I am returning to life after my rehab I am facing a number of unique challenges as I learn what my life is going to be like. I am grateful for all of the excellent and supportive people that I have been surrounded with who have made this difficult time feel so much more hopeful.
– Coulter Verharen

As he settles back into his life and job in Wyoming, Coulter wrestles with new challenges every day. And every morning he wakes up with renewed ambition to tackle more. We continue to be endlessly grateful to his team and family here, in Afton, and all of you who have contributed to the GoFundMe, sent kind words, said prayers, and shown your love in all the ways.
#TeamCoulter

Update #5

It has been five months since Coulter’s life changed and ours along with it. Sun has turned to snow here in Wyoming and our family has gratefully entered a new season, as well. So many of you have kindly inquired about Coulter and asked for the next update. It has been two months since I’ve been able to write. I’ve been waiting for perspective. Since mid-September things have been very hard. Coulter continues to be truly astounding in his ability to handle adversity. Had I written before now, though, I’d have been able only to express despair. I have learned that when you share despair, what gets reflected back is pity. And this is not what any of us need or want along this journey. So I have waited until now.

PERSPECTIVE

Coulter had a couple of good weeks after being released from rehab. He traveled home to Vashon and received amazing support and love from friends. He enjoyed a warm welcome back to his cabin and job in Wyoming and initially had a couple of evenings out with his crew. About this time, some unexplained pain that had started during his rehab began to intensify. I went with him to his follow-up appointment with the surgeon who had performed his surgery. His X-rays looked fantastic. He got a green light to start sit-skiing and maybe riding again in January. This is six months sooner than he expected. The surgeon also told him that since he has had no recovery of sensation, there will likely be none. He outlined some things he can expect the paralysis may do to his spine as he gets older. He told Coulter he had no idea what was causing his stabbing abdominal pain and sent us away. As we got into the car, Coulter said, “That was a great appointment. It’s nice to get some good news!” I smiled and swallowed the lump in my throat. Over ramen, at a little Japanese restaurant in Idaho Falls, we chatted about his goals for the winter. Gradually, though, the pain got much worse. It was meaningless pain around the level of his injury that doctors could not explain. There were days when his personhood disappeared- his resolute spirit, smothered by pain that, as his parents, we could not begin to understand but could feel in our bones. He did not leave his cabin. He had not been able to drive since he returned home because the pain was too intense when it came on. He said the days and nights were blurring together. At the time, it was impossible to tell how much of his pain was physical and how much was existential. The possibility that this would be his life forever seemed very real. There were days I felt like I was disappearing with him. Even though my brain knew things would have to get better, my heart wondered if they would. I have never felt such relentless sorrow. For the first time in my life, my own resolute spirit was struggling to climb high enough out of the sadness to see a larger view.

SPEED BUMPS

During this period, on top of the pain, many crappy things happened that were super challenging. There is a part of me that would love to list them all here. The part of me that is an angry mom, shaking her fist at the universe, raging about a litany of insults added to injury. To Coulter, though, these represented a series of mere speed bumps. Speed bumps are jarring when you confront them but are soon in the rearview mirror- forgotten. At one point, I lamented to him, “I keep thinking things will get easier but they don’t.” He said, “That’s not how I think at all.” “How do you think?” I asked. “I assume everything will be hard.” He said, simply, without a shred of angst; with zero self-pity. I guess speed bumps seem pretty small when you’re expecting mountains.

THE CRAZIEST THING

What a difference two weeks can make! Mike and I celebrated Thanksgiving in Coulter’s little leather shop with him and his friends. We laughed and played cards. Since then, his pain has been slowly subsiding. It’s like he is coming back to life. There’s music playing in his cabin again. He talks about the future, works on his leather crafting projects, and cooks fabulous meals. He even plays his violin. He made me dinner twice this week- his signature dishes of “laab” and fresh spring rolls. One night, we smoked pipes outside his cabin and chatted about life. We built his standing frame and put together a huge leather sewing machine generously purchased for him by a friend. He did the lion’s share of these projects from his chair. It’s the craziest thing- when he is not in pain, there’s quite a lot that his injury has not changed at all. I continue to be surprised by his bounce-back-ability and awed by his resilience.

A RESOLUTE SPIRIT

Yesterday, we went to Jackson Hole and Coulter saw a new PT who specializes in working with people who have spinal cord injuries. He made plans with her to tackle the pain and get back to his sports. There was a surreal moment when we were in the parking lot of the hospital and a helicopter landed on the roof of the Emergency Room. The windy clacking was almost deafening even from where we were, below. “Wow”, he said. “That’s a weird feeling. This is right where I was brought that night. I remember them struggling to get me out of the helicopter. I remember that sound.” After that, he happily showed me around the cool little town he’d not been to since the fourth of July. We did some Christmas shopping. The ladies in the Pendelton store knew who he was and treated him like a celebrity. We went to a Bistro for lunch and he talked me into trying Escargot. If he could eat Rocky Mountain Oysters, I could certainly eat snails. It was a sparkling day. He drove both ways and had very little pain. We were treated to blue skies on the way there that turned a brilliant pink on our way home. There will be more hard times. There will be a million more speed bumps. But right now, I feel the weight of despair has lifted. And I am learning, again, to trust in the rhythm of our human experience. And to have faith in the uncompromising strength of my kid and his resolute spirit.

THANK YOU

As always, thank you to those of you who continue to check in, ask how we are doing, and offer help. We have been in a bit of a bubble these last few months and though we are not always able to reciprocate, your kindness always shines a little light into the fog.

A NOTE ABOUT THE MONEY

So far, your GoFundMe contributions have made it possible for Coulter to attend the rehab program at Craig. He was able to purchase a motorized wheel that attaches to his wheelchair and allows him to get to the arena where he works, the pharmacy, and the grocery store from his cabin. He purchased a safe, used car and had it fitted with hand controls. The funds continue to help with ongoing medical bills and physical therapy appointments. He has some adaptive furniture that greatly improves the quality of his daily life. Honestly, the money really translates into three things: INDEPENDENCE for him, PEACE OF MIND for our family, and HOPE for the future. Your generosity allows Coulter to focus on what is possible instead of what isn’t. This is an incredible gift. And we are endlessly grateful.

Update #6

This happened yesterday.
Six months to the day of his surgery.

THANK YOU #TeamCoulter!
YOU have helped this kid accomplish his first and most important post-injury goal.

Update #7

A CHAPTER CLOSES
 
Mike & I have officially been kicked out of Wyoming!

Coulter relieved us of our duties in early February. Since the eight-month mark from his injury, he has been living independently. He goes to the arena and rides most days. He helps his team as much as he can with barn tasks, works in his leather shop, and drives himself to acupuncture and PT appointments. Last week, he sent me a video of him cantering Little Joe. Everyone who knows him continues to be blown away by his grit. By his riding. And by his stubbornness.

I would love to say he fired us because things were going well. But the truth is, things were still rough. He’s had some good days and a week or two since August when his pain wasn’t front and center but most days, he continues to be plagued by persistent abdominal pain that no doctors seem able to explain. He is completely off all medications. None of them help and most come with foggy, debilitating side effects. For now, I think he has accepted that doctors may not have answers for him. He is exploring acupuncture, herbal medicine, and osteopathy. All of these help a bit and give him fun things to research. Watching him navigate the daily challenges posed by his paralysis, of which there are many, it strikes me that there is one small gift bestowed on him by pain- it makes living in a wheelchair seem like a mere nuisance in comparison.

By early February, I’d attended a final batch of appointments with him. There were feet of snow on the ground. He was spending a lot of time in his cabin, curled up around the pain. I was helping with laundry, doing dishes, shoveling snow, and trying to help him find answers. I realize now that I was probably bustling, as much to alleviate my own helplessness as to help him.

A particular moment shines in my memory: We were in his cabin. His eyes were bleary from a day of battle. I worriedly made some suggestion about trying, one more time, to contact one of his illusive doctors. He looked sideways at me from across his bed. “You have to stop trying to fix my pain, Mom. Time is the only thing that is going to help. I just have to work through this.” Well, dang. He said it kindly as if he were now the one having to take care of me.

I book a flight home that night. Coulter says he’ll drive me to the airport the next day but he’s had a few rough days, during which he’s been unable to drive. I’m not sure if he’ll be ok to make the trip over the pass and back. I’m also not sure if leaving is the right thing to do. So, as any appropriately sneaky Mom would do, I leave a few things in our cabin so I’ll have an excuse to come back.

One of the truly amazing things about Coulter is his ability to meet each moment, full-on, for what it is. Following a few days of dark, gauzy pain, he wakes up that morning and says, “I’m feeling pretty good. I think it’s going to be a good day.” Whew! I cannot describe, adequately, the relief I feel when he is not in pain. I have never been particularly maternal or been a parent who lives vicariously through their child. But I gotta say, having now been witness to my kid’s relentless pain, I feel it in my bones- almost as if it is my own- whether I am right there beside him or hundreds of miles away. This means I also get to feel the relief when it subsides. Relief that shows up weightless, like euphoria. Another small gift.

We have a lively drive to Jackson Hole. He tells me about what it was like making this drive on the night of a rodeo. How nervous and excited he felt. How scary riding broncs was and how fun it was to live on that edge, testing his abilities, trying to do better each week. “Do you regret it?” I ask. He shakes his head. “Not at all.” He points out a herd of elk and we spy an adolescent wolf looking lost on a snow bank alongside the road. We pull up in front of the airport. I get his chair out of the trunk and bring it around so he can break it down and put it in the passenger seat. He wrestles with removing wheels on slick ice from inside the car. I try to ignore the emotion snowballing in my chest.
 
Just as I’m about to hand over my ID, going through security, I get a notification on my phone. It’s Coulter. YOU HAVE MY KEY FOB. Whoops! I race back the way I’d come until I see his green Subaru parked several hundred feet from where I’d left him minutes before. He is stalled out, stuck sitting in the departures lane. Fiery expletives are going off in my head and coming out under my breath. How airheaded could I be???? But he just rolls down his window, grabs the key fob out of my hand, gives me a little grin, rolls his eyes, and drives away.

Three weeks go by. Mike and I distract ourselves with a trip to the ocean. We are dipping our toes into a life, barely recognizable from the one we’d been plucked from in July. We don’t hear much from Coulter.

I decide to go back to Wyoming for a few days. I’ll grab the stuff I left and have a sit on Superman. Maybe I’ll be able to unload some of the unease I’ve been carrying around since leaving.

When Coulter meets me at the airport, I can see he’s tired but he seems centered. I go with him to the arena the next morning. Before I realize what’s happening, he is tacking up on his own. He’s trained Tormenta to respect his space and the wheelchair. His buddies lift him up. The arena is humming with friends cheering him on. He is weaving through cones, sitting the trot, and working diligently to figure out how to ask for bend with no leg. The videos and photos of that day tell the story better than I can.

I stay for a few more days. This time, I bustle in low gear. Coulter’s routine has its’ own heart beat now. It doesn’t include me. We share a sweet moment on Valentine’s Day: He is on Tormenta. I am on Superman. Briefly, we ride together, shoulder to shoulder as we have so many times before. As if no time has passed. As if nothing has changed.
#TeamCoulter

THE MEDICAL JOURNEY

This fund continues to help Coulter pay for ongoing medical expenses that would be far beyond his ability to pay for without it. Currently, his insurance does not cover the things that help him maintain his quality of life- acupuncture and myofascial release treatments. Though he is stubborn about thinking he has to learn to live with and work through his pain, I remain convinced there is a root cause that has not yet been identified. The pain is very localized and not necessarily characteristic of his type of spinal cord injury. Based on what we know, he likely has a critical nerve that is damaged and possibly being compressed by scar tissue, fascia, and/or muscle. I am committed to supporting his choice to pursue alternative methods for minimizing his pain and I will continue to work behind the scenes to find physicians and resources that may accurately diagnose and address it. We continue to be endlessly grateful to every one of you who have contributed to this fund, as well as to his mentor, team, extended family, employers, and practitioners for making it possible for him to keep his job, focus on his goals, and continue a life in which he contributes and has a sense of purpose despite his injury. THANK YOU, TEAM COULTER!!!!!

 

 

Coulter’s GoFundMe Page: https://gofund.me/e3e73fe8