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 Children’s of Alabama and UAB Medical Center. He could never had known 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. After their stop at Vulcan, the group traveled to Glencoe, Ala. where they were studying rock formations off Highway 431 when an impaired driver swerved 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,” said Cole’s mother, Tina Burton. “He was unresponsive. They offered the option to discontinue medical services.”
Tina, her husband and Cole’s father, Charlie, and Cole’s sister, Libba, gathered in the back of Cole’s hospital room and prayed. They felt an overwhelming sense of peace and all 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.
Three weeks later, on June 15, 2018, Cole awoke from his coma and six days after that, he was transferred to the intensive care unit at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. The first thing he remembers is being told he was in a rehab center.
“I demanded a drug test,” Cole said. “I was adamant that I had not used drugs and I wanted to be tested. I was afraid I was going to lose my ROTC scholarship. I could not comprehend that I wasn’t in a rehab center for drug addiction.”
That was the last time Shepherd was referred to as a “rehab center.” From then on it was a therapy center and Cole settled in and began his long, improbable journey.
From the beginning, every day 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. Because of his ROTC training, he was in great physical condition before the accident, but now almost 40 pounds lighter, he was basically starting over. He was a shell of the person he was just a few weeks earlier 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,” Cole said.
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,” Tina said. “But Cole was still Cole.”
Cole set three initial goals for himself: Get his “six-pack” abs back, run in the Peachtree Road Race and pass the physical training (PT) test to get back in Navy ROTC at Auburn.
On July 4, 2019, Cole, ran – or as he says, “jalked” – his way through the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. He worked hard to reestablish his six-pack and as of this writing, all he needs to complete his PT is to decrease his running times. He has his driver’s license back and though, 18 months ago it seemed impossible, 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 chemistry – and made a B. So, in the fall 2019 semester, he enrolled in Auburn again, this time with 11 hours, picking up right where he left off as a geology student.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this; the doctors who treated Cole at UAB were stunned when he went back to visit.
“They couldn’t believe it,” Tina said. “One of them seriously looked like he had seen a ghost. They called the head of neurology to come see. He told Cole, ‘I can’t explain your recovery; you have definitely received a miracle. God has great plans for you.’”
Cole continues to improve every day, knowing his recovery is far from complete.
“You don’t choose your journey; your journey chooses you,” he said. “I’m just trying to make it the very best journey it can be.”
Road to Recovery
Watch as Cole Burton fights to walk again.