Rallying to Give Cole a Chance
by Mary Eisenhart
Photography by: Jan Stürmann
In the wake of a horrific attack that sent shock waves throughout the Island in 2003, Alamedans unite to make the young victim whole.
Of all the stories Cole Cloren’s fans are fond of telling, one of the favorites is about how, in early 2006, he talked his way into a recovery program at the Barrow Neurological Institute’s Center for Transitional NeuroRehabilitation.
A lot was hanging on one particular interview, designed to determine whether he had enough brain function to benefit from the Phoenix-based program, and also, since participants work in teams, to see if he’d be a good fit.
After a few standardized questions, Cole interrupted the interviewer. “Canadian?” he inquired. “Why, yes, how did you know?” said the specialist, considerably taken aback.
“Eh?” said Cole.
Hockey fiend Cole knew a Canadian accent when he heard one, and the planned interview soon morphed into a lively discussion of the sport. To no one’s great surprise, he was accepted into the program.
In August, the day after a gala fundraiser to help pay for the Barrow services, Cole, 21, sits at the kitchen table with his mom, Jackie, and older brother, Nick, 27. The effects of a horrific attack Cole wasn’t expected to survive are apparent: A jagged scar shows through his hair on the left side; his contributions to the conversation are on target, often funny, but sparse. Connecting the right words to the thoughts is still a work in progress. The paralysis on his right side might keep him from his planned career as a mechanic, because he has trouble differentiating right and left.
At one point, his mom gives way to a teary recollection of the dark days when she was the only one who believed her son would live, concluding a bit shakily, “Cole is a gift.”
“A star!” proclaims Cole, not missing a beat, laughing and cracking up everyone in the room before the Kleenex has a chance to emerge.
In Alameda, Cole Cloren really is a star. Says opera legend Frederica von Stade, who first knew the Clorens because her daughter was friends with Nick: “Cole has a huge fan base. I was taking him to one of his appointments last week, and we went to Marty’s on Encinal for breakfast. He was practically stopping and signing autographs. Everybody kind of knows him, knows about him; and he has this vast, wide coterie of friends.”
Over the last three years, he’s become Alameda’s kid.
On July 12, 2003, the night Cole Cloren’s life changed forever, he was a typical Island 18-year-old. Recently graduated from Encinal High School, he loved hockey, snowboarding, in-line skating, skateboards and practical jokes. (“Hi, Cole,” says an e-mail on his Web site. “I miss being your neighbor, and seeing you every day, as I was walking around the block. One of my fondest memories of you was when I would walk by your house, and out of nowhere, a remote control car would mysteriously appear and follow me. After looking to your window, and seeing your smirk, I would laugh all the way home.”)
On this Saturday night, he and pal Ryan Armstrong were off to a party and a night of carefree fun. They decided to walk, recalls Jackie Cloren: “Cole was being responsible. He could have driven, but he chose not to, because they were probably going to have a beer.” As the evening wore on, she says, she called Cole to urge him to come home. She was worried. “Mom,” said Cole. “This is Alameda.”
According to later testimony, Cole had about 40 ounces of beer over the course of the party and was a little fuzzy headed when he and Armstrong started home on foot. They stopped and sat on the steps at Washington Elementary School, where Cole was resting his head against the wrought-iron handrail.
As the two considered their options for the rest of the evening, Nicholas Floyd, Aubrey Thompson and Robert Hoffman, who’d spent the day wreaking havoc around Alameda, arrived on the scene. They’d already knocked a woman into the bushes and stolen her portable CD player; they then relieved a chance-met classmate of his cigarettes and his Razor Scooter. Coming upon Cole and Armstrong on the school steps, they unsuccessfully tried to sell the duo marijuana and the scooter.
Apparently frustrated by this failure, Floyd swung the Razor Scooter and brought it down hard on the left side of Cole’s head, slamming it into the iron railings. “Ah, man,” said Cole. Many expected those to be his last words.
He was rushed to Highland Hospital, where a team led by Dr. Atul Patel raced to remove blood clots and relieve the rapid swelling of Cole’s brain. They removed a portion of the skull on Cole’s left side—the bone so shattered by the scooter it couldn’t be salvaged—and the brain’s left temporal lobe. A day later Cole was back in surgery, this time to remove a large hematoma on the right side. Jackie Cloren, surrounded by family and friends, spent the nights on the floor of Cole’s room.
Patel says bluntly, “People that have had brain surgery on both sides of their head, with their bone flap left off for a significant amount of time because of brain swelling, generally have a dire prognosis.” When Cole did not immediately emerge from the drug-induced coma intended to reduce the load on his brain, Jackie Cloren and Cole’s father, Joe Cloren, from whom she’s divorced, faced increasing pressure from some of the doctors who insisted Cole was brain dead and there was nothing to do but harvest his organs. Patel, while more restrained, also held out little hope.
Then Cole wiggled his fingers.
Over the next two weeks, he became increasingly responsive to simple directions, blinking and wiggling fingers on request.
“That’s a very quick return of function for such a bad amount of swelling and brain injury,” says Patel. “I was very surprised even that he came out of the coma and was awake. I had told his mother many times that I thought Cole would be in a persistent vegetative state.”
Medically, Patel says, Cole’s youth worked in his favor, as did the fact that the team at Highland was able to relieve the pressure on his brain as quickly as it did. But, he later adds, he’s amazed at his former patient’s progress, attributing much of it “to the support of the people around him, for not letting go and staying by him, especially his mom, Jackie. And also, during his recovery, all the people who were there to maximize his brain’s potential, and who continue to do that.”
From Highland, Cole went off to a rehabilitation facility in Vallejo. His brother Nick, finding himself unable to focus on school, quit his classes and became Cole’s primary caregiver. After some months, Cole was sent home, moving and communicating with extreme difficulty; his health-care provider determined that, in essence, he’d recovered as much as he was likely to.
But by this time neither Cole nor his growing army of supporters was willing to accept this version of reality.
The story sent shock waves across the Island because, by general admission, Cole had done nothing to provoke the assault. And, as Cole had said, “This is Alameda.”
Real estate agent Hanna Fry, first a business acquaintance and then a close friend of Jackie Cloren, who’s been a loan officer with Diversified Capital Funding for 14 years, says, “Alameda is such a great place, and people are so shocked that something like this could happen here. It could have been anybody’s kid.” Jackie Cloren agrees: “I think it made people realize, it could have been anybody’s child. And how fortunate that it wasn’t theirs. I think everybody feels grateful, and at the same time they feel our pain.”
With the shock came an apparent compulsion to help, and a spontaneous network arose, first among the family’s friends and then more widely as friend told friend: “As soon as you told people about Cole, immediately they wanted to help,” says Hanna Fry. Laurie Fry, another family friend who was also one of Cole’s teachers at Chipman Middle School, explains, “We all picked up tasks we thought we could do and tried to get other people involved.” And somehow, as each new crisis arose, the perfectly qualified person arrived and stepped up to the plate.
When Cole came home from the rehabilitation facility, Laurie Fry says, the Clorens’ tiny cottage had to be remodeled to accommodate his disability. Out of nowhere, people appeared to convert Cole’s bedroom closet into a compact bathroom-in-a-shower-stall. “People had friends who knew how to do that and got them to come and do the work,” she says. “My son sanded the floor so it would be easy for him to get around. People came together and made it happen.”
While the family’s health insurance paid for some therapy, many necessary expenses weren’t covered, and community contributions often made the difference when it came to Cole receiving needed help. In one instance, the real estate agents passed the hat and paid for his physical therapy.
Around this time, neighbor Miriam Lenhardt happened to be walking down the street and got in a conversation with Jackie Cloren. On learning that Lenhardt, a teacher at Wood Middle School, taught reading to children with learning disabilities, Cole’s mom wondered if she might like to do a little tutoring.
“The doctors said Cole wasn’t going to be able to read,” Lenhardt says, “but he was showing all the signs of someone who can read and will regain his abilities. I started working with him a couple summers ago, and he started to pick things up. It was a learning experience for both of us.”
They worked on re-learning to read, re-learning to talk and on forming his thoughts into words. “Some days we would work just an hour,” she says, “and some days he would get going and want to work three hours. I’d just stay as long as he felt like working, and soon they became my second family.”
A neighbor, Paul Jonsen, took it upon himself to build up Cole’s strength and mobility with an exercise program. While he was at it, he made sure Cole’s brain got a workout too, teaching him an assortment of esoteric vocabulary words (“Pusillanimous!” Cole says gleefully across the kitchen table. “Meretricious!”) When Jonsen passed away in 2005, Greg Matthews, a former fitness trainer, took over, working with Cole several times a week on walking, climbing stairs, balance, counting and other skills.
In the fall of 2005, Nicholas Floyd went on trial for the attack on Cole Cloren. Ryan Armstrong testified as to the facts of the incident, because Cole, as is typical for such injuries, doesn’t remember it.
Instead, says Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Catherine Kobal, who prosecuted the case, Cole testified about what his life had been like before the attack, emphasizing the things he’d done then that he couldn’t do now: skateboarding, hockey, in-line skating. “His family and friends were all there when he testified,” Kobal recalls. “He did a wonderful job; he only presented himself and talked about the things that he used to be able to do that he can’t do now. His testimony was very short, but it was very meaningful for everybody to see precisely what the damage was.”
The jury deadlocked on charges of attempted murder but convicted Floyd of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced him to 12 years, the maximum allowed. His associates are serving time on lesser charges.
At the sentencing hearing, Jackie Cloren addressed Floyd in a speech that sent shock waves of its own through the community. Von Stade recalls, “I was at the trial, many times, with Jackie. It was horrendous, but her final speech to this boy was so compassionate: ‘I hate what you did to my son, but I want you to make the right choices. I don’t hate you.’ ”
“They have nothing negative to say about this person,” says Miriam Lenhardt’s sister Marisa, a soprano who sang at the August fundraiser for Cole. “I’m more enraged when I think about it than they are. Seeing them helps me to see more clearly [that] there’s nothing we can do about that; what can we do to help Cole?”
Shortly after Cole left Highland for the area rehabilitation facility, another family friend, taking a plane flight he hadn’t really planned on, found himself sitting next to a man who turned out to be a cognitive therapist at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.
Cole’s situation and his odds-defying progress came up in their conversation, and the specialist thought that in the long term, Cole might be a likely candidate for the Institute’s Center for Transitional NeuroRehabilition—an intensive, state-of-the-art program that helps patients with severe brain injury, mostly youthful car-accident victims, recover maximum functionality. For the ensuing years, as Cole progressed, the Barrow program became something of a holy grail, its intensive, essentially full-time program and its facilitation of teamwork and bonding among its participants being unique among such programs in the United States, and a perfect fit for Cole’s situation.
By the spring 2006, Cole could walk with difficulty, usually with a cane, and remained partially paralyzed on his right side. He regained limited reading skills and could contribute well-chosen words to a conversation but had trouble constructing sentences. He had, in short, progressed far beyond what anyone would have believed possible after the attack, but he was beginning to exhaust the resources available locally, and he wasn’t yet capable of becoming independent.
At that point, the idea of sending Cole to the program at Barrow resurfaced. In March he traveled to the facility for a week of intensive evaluation, which included the fateful hockey interview. He was accepted, and the program was willing to assert in writing that at the end of nine to 12 months, Cole would be functioning at a minimum of 80 percent of his pre-attack capability and able to live on his own. The problem was, the program—five to seven hours a day, five days a week—would cost $400,000, and while insurance would cover some of the rest, there was a gap. Brother Nick would need to go to Phoenix as well, to continue as Cole’s caregiver, and there would be day-to-day living expenses, both at Barrow and back in Alameda as Cole moved toward self-sufficiency.
When the subject of Barrow first came up, says Jackie Cloren, von Stade matter-of-factly announced that she’d do a benefit concert to raise funds to assist with the program. Now the plan went into high gear, and the Rev. Rich Danyluck quickly agreed to make St. Joseph’s Basilica available as a venue. “It’s a great church,” says von Stade, who attends the parish, “and it’s the appropriate place to have the event, because I really feel that Cole’s being alive is the answer to prayers.”
Singer/songwriter Natasha Miller, who’d been inspired by Cole’s recovery during a personal tragedy of her own, was soon on the roster, as was Marisa Lenhardt. An ad-hoc committee came together, and, once again, everybody pitched in. “I’ve never seen a committee work so independently and collectively hard on a project,” laughs Miller. “I went away with 15 action items, and I accomplished them all. Each one of us did the same thing.” She got show-biz heavy-hitters including George Lucas to donate: “I hit them hard, as if I were raising money to save my own daughter. Unabashedly, no apology.”
The Give Cole a Chance Web site went live in April 2006. Says designer Sandra Siino, another friend and neighbor of the Clorens, “Everybody just brought their talent to the table, and that made the whole thing shine.” Proclamations of support from the city, the police department and more soon graced the Web site.
At the annual Mayor’s Fourth of July parade, hundreds of supporters abandoned their own contingents to march in orange T-shirts proclaiming, “Give Cole a Chance.” They passed out flyers along the parade route directing attention to the upcoming concert and the Web site. Checks, messages of support and offers of help poured in.
And, on the night of Aug. 19 at St. Joseph’s, a standing-room only crowd packed the church to hear performances from pop to opera to techno; the roster kept growing up to the night of the concert. Attendees snapped up dozens of auction items, including the autographed posters that Miller, Marisa Lenhardt and von Stade offered for bids during the set changes. They grew misty as von Stade reprised the operatic lullaby she’d sung to Cole at Highland; they joined the performers and the guest of honor as Miller led a rousing sing-along about how doing the impossible isn’t so impossible; it just takes a little time. The concert raised $50,000, which supplemented $45,000 raised earlier. (A benefit DVD of the concert is in production; see the Give Cole a Chance site, www.givecoleachance.org
, for details.) And, in October, Cole was off to Barrow.
“Somehow it became personal,” says Jackie Cloren the day after the concert. “I’m in awe of that. I sometimes think, if I had lived in San Francisco or in Oakland or in Berkeley, such a big place, probably we wouldn’t have been noticed. But here it’s more like an extended family.”
Asked what he wants to do when he’s completed the program at Barrow, Cole grins and announces dramatically, “Nothing!”—and bursts out laughing at his family’s momentary consternation. Somehow, it doesn’t seem too likely.
Greg Matthews says, “I’ve seen improvement just from working with Cole two to three hours a week. With the program at the Barrow Institute, he’d be getting seven hours a day, five days a week of rehab, both physical and mental, from people that are highly specialized in what they do. We should see major improvement and a return to a much more normal functioning level.”
“If we had listened to everything they were saying originally,” adds Miriam Lenhardt, “Cole might not have advanced so far. But he’s defied every single odd.”
Putting it all in perspective, Jackie Cloren says, “We’re looking for Cole to regain as many of his abilities as possible, and for all of us to grow and become self-sufficient.” She admits she still sometimes gets sad and wonders, “Why us?” But there is, she knows, no answer to that question.
Not long ago, she says, she’d been crying a bit. Cole came up to her and said, “Mom, I am happy. Hockey, snowboarding, gone. New adventure.”