Four motorcycle riders were injured in two crashes in Grant County last weekend.
The first occurred on College Farm Road east of Wisconsin 80/81 Friday around 1:30 p.m. Bryant Blabaum, 19, and Cole Cooper, 20, both of Platteville, were riding east on College Farm Road when they observed a flatbed trailer parked in the road, according to the Grant County Sheriff’s Department.
The trailer, owned by Rick’s Blacktop and Paving of Fairview Heights, Ill., had been parked on the road after construction equipment was unloaded, according to the sheriff’s department. Blabaum and Cooper put their motorcycles onto pavement and slid into the trailer.
Blabaum and Cooper were taken by Platteville EMS and the Cuba City Area Rescue Squad to Southwest Health Center in Platteville. Cooper was then taken by Med Flight helicopter to UW Hospital and Clinics in Madison. ...
— The Platteville Journal, June 13, 2012.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the motorcycle crash The Journal reported more than 2½ years ago changed Cole Cooper’s life permanently.
The injuries Cooper suffered caused him short-term memory loss and difficulty breathing that continues today. He had a rod installed in one arm and plates to his ribs. He has not been on a motorcycle since that day, and he says his riding days are over.
But Cooper gained other things that day. He says he saw his mother, who died at 40 of breast cancer in 2000. He also gained a desire to do more with his life than he had to that point.
Cooper, a Mount Hope native and 2009 River Ridge High School graduate, was a UW–Platteville student who had just completed his sophomore year, majoring in speech communication. His junior year began two years later; it took that long for enough of his short-term memory to recover to resume his education.
Cooper and Blabaum were out riding on an 84-degree June Friday afternoon. Cooper was riding Blabaum’s boss’ motorcycle because his own motorcycle was not running.
“It was a beautiful day — perfect conditions,” said Cooper.
After Cooper and Blabaum turned onto College Farm Road, they came over the apex of the hill and saw the trailer “perfectly hidden from view until you’re on top of the hill,” said Cooper. “There was no warning — no cones, nothing. I instinctively hit my brakes.”
Cooper hit the trailer on its left side, which forced the motorcycle’s front wheel and handlebar sharply left. He was thrown off the motorcycle, and in the process, the handlebar “caught me underneath the left armpit. It tore me open.”
Blabaum’s motorcycle ended up in the grass on the north side of College Farm Road. The motorcycle Cooper was riding ended up 30 feet in front of the trailer on the road. Cooper ended up 30 feet beyond the motorcycle on the road.
“All these ideas were going through my head — just like in the movies — and I thought, what have I done with my life?” said Cooper. “I was thinking this is it, I’m flying at tremendous speed through the air, and I thought I was done. I was waiting for God to take me.
“When I woke up, I was staring up at the beautiful blue sky, and I thought, did I doze off? That was a weird dream.”
Cooper remembers hearing Blabaum running up to him, his face “scraped up a bit, and he was looking at me, his face just pale in shock. And he said, Dude, are you all right? And I said, Dude, what happened?”
Cooper suffered front and rear skull fractures, a traumatic brain injury, and bleeding on his brain in the crash. He was not wearing a helmet.
“I grew up with helmets, but all it takes is one time I didn’t wear a helmet,” he said.
He also had rods placed in his broken left arm, and plates over three of his fractured ribs. His left lung collapsed from punctures from his ribs. The inside of his right knee and right foot were skinned to the bone.
“They say your life flashes in front of you, or you see a white light,” he said. “I saw the white light. I was going toward the light. Then a shadow passed in front of me, and I saw my mother. She died of breast cancer in 2000.
“I was always kind of skeptical about life after death. And then I saw my mother, and she said, ‘It’s not your time, honey.’”
Cooper then remembers Grant County Deputy Sheriff Adam Day and EMTs on the scene. He also remembers some of the ride to UW Hospital on the Med Flight helicopter.
For someone as seriously injured as Cooper was, he got out of UW Hospital in 20 days, a fraction of the three months he was expected to stay. “All the doctors were just astounded at how fast I healed from this,” he said.
But Cooper was far from completely healed upon his release. He had to undergo physical therapy for months as an outpatient, following inpatient physical therapy led by a former Marine who said he would need a tracheotomy if he didn’t improve his lung function. At one point, Cooper was given snake venom to slow down his heart rate and breathing so his lungs could be cleaned out.
The tracheotomy threat “was one thing he used against me, but I owe him a lot,” said Cooper.
Tests at Gundersen Lutheran in La Crosse two months after his crash revealed his short-term memory problems.
“They said there’s no way you’re going back to college this fall” because the stress of dealing with short-term memory loss would worsen his condition, said Cooper. “That was a punch in the gut.”
Cooper was a head supervisor at Culver’s in Platteville. A friend of his brought Cooper to Culver’s upon his release from the hospital. With his neck brace, restrained arm and beard he had grown during his hospitalization, his coworkers didn’t recognize him.
“They had no idea who I was,” he said. “Once I finally spoke, their eyes got huge.”
To reduce his stress, he was moved to a front counter position.
“One of things I liked working at Culver’s is it’s not really a store; it’s an establishment where it feels like a family,” said Cooper. “Bruce knew my disability.”
Two weeks after he returned to Culver’s in September 2012, a bus full of high school volleyball players came to the restaurant. Cooper helped serve the more than 50 passengers. After he went into the back of the store for a drink, a supervisor came back and started talking to him about the bus. Cooper didn’t remember serving the bus passengers.
Cooper’s memory was tested every six months for two years. The trip to La Crosse at normal highway speeds was harrowing.
“It definitely mentally scarred me — just being at the speed limit, doing 55 up to La Crosse for tests, that scared me,” he said.
One day when Cooper was working at Culver’s, the power went out. Bruce Kroll, the owner of the Platteville Culver’s, came to the restaurant on his moped. Cooper asked jokingly to borrow the moped. Kroll let him ride, and after going through the drive-thru, Cooper rode it as far north as a block up South Water Street.
“Even a little moped at 20 mph, that was so terrifying — all the memories came back,” said Cooper. “At that point I thought I’m off bikes for good.”
Cooper experienced a similar traumatic reaction during a car–motorcycle crash in front of Culver’s when he was working the summer of 2013.
Today, Cooper has about half the normal lung function in his left lung, which is half-filled with scar tissue. He feels weather changes in his left arm because of the rods.
“I still have a little bit of memory problem, but there are ways of getting around that — I take more notes, and I have a bigger calendar at home,” he said. “I just try to ignore any pain as much as possible.”
Cooper also gained perspective about his mother’s death. Perhaps ironically, Cooper has been a minister in the online Universal Life Church for several years, after friends asked him to become ordained so he could marry them. But surviving a crash that he may not have been expected to survive changed his feelings about religion and what happens after life on this earth.
“Mom was a good Catholic,” he said. “Once I actually sat down and thought about it, I finally realized why God took her at a young age — she was willing to sacrifice the rest of the life she had so we could live our lives.”
Three years before Cooper’s crash, his older brother was also in a serious crash when his truck hit a deer in 2009. His brother had bruised organs, but no further injuries.
Cooper’s desire to make more of his life started to manifest itself a few months after his return to Culver’s. By January 2013, he had grown a handlebar mustache. He got the idea to raise money by selling $1 paper mustaches, with proceeds going to the Platteville Food Pantry, with him shaving off the mustache upon reaching a $200 goal. The fundraiser raised more than $550.
Nine months after the fundraiser, Culver’s was destroyed in an early morning fire. It took seven months to rebuild the restaurant.
Cooper said Kroll “told us insurance would pay us until the store was open. He didn’t tell us the insurance covered only 60 days, and he covered the rest out of his own pocket. He said the only thing he’d ask was to give back to the community.”
Cooper did that by organizing a fundraiser at Pioneer Lanes for the Platteville Fire Department in honor of its work at the Culver’s fire, with more than $2,000 raised. From that, Cooper became a Platteville firefighter in September, the same month he returned to UW–Platteville, changing his major to business.
Cooper also paid back Kroll, so to speak, by helping arrange his appearance on the syndicated Steve Harvey Show Sept. 16, accompanied, unbeknownst to Kroll, by Kroll’s Platteville employees. Cooper got releases from employees individually without Kroll knowing, and without any Culver’s employee leaking out what was going on.
“It would be hard to leave the area, definitely, just because of being able to have the friendships with my coworkers and Bruce — you don’t have that many other places,” said Cooper. “He’s not a boss, he’s a leader.”
Besides being a college student again, working at Culver’s at his old supervisor job and being a firefighter and ordained minister, Cooper is a bartender and DJ. He formerly worked at WPRE radio in Prairie du Chien and QueenB Radio in Platteville.
Cooper doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life post-graduation, but the crash and aftermath gave him new perspective: “I have been given this second chance at life.”