(Zachary Kaufman/The Columbian)
At first, Kim Hancock just wanted his 10-year-old son, Cole, to be alive. Once Kim saw him breathing, he prayed that Cole wouldn’t be paralyzed. He and his wife, Sandy, pleaded with God that there wouldn’t be any lasting effects of their son’s brain injury — a result of tumbling 150 feet down a slope on Mount Hood last month.
At first, Cole couldn’t talk. And when he started to, it didn’t make sense.
“It’s scary when he can’t tell you what a clock on the wall is for, much less what it is called,” Sandy said.
After spending two weeks healing from three skull fractures and a spinal fracture in Portland hospitals, Cole is back at his Vancouver home and easing into some of his normal activities.
He can easily play the piano pieces that he’s learned and recently went swimming — one of his favorite things — with his sisters. He can’t run yet, but the bruises around his eyes are gone and the scar from a gash on his forehead has faded to light pink.
Although he stumbles over words —sometimes taking two or three tries to remember what things are called or how to pronounce them correctly — speech and occupational therapy are expected to help him get back to 100 percent in six months to a year.
“He’s relearning things, but they’re coming back quickly,” Kim said.
Cole is planning on not skipping a beat of school, and will start fifth grade at Fisher’s Landing Elementary in two weeks. His third- and fourth-grade teacher, Alicia Winters, has visited Cole at home to make sure he’s prepared.
Overall, Kim said, “we’re thrilled with the outcome.”
He knows how badly things could have turned out.
When Cole hears the story of what happened to him, he thinks it sounds like a cartoon.
Kim describes Cole’s body tumbling cartwheel-style 150 feet down a slope of Mount Hood, which makes Cole chuckle. He said he wishes he’d been conscious for the air ambulance helicopter ride to the hospital. Cole grins sheepishly when his dad described him “like Frankenstein” after doctors put a rod into Cole’s head to monitor brain swelling.
But Kim describes the experience as horrifying.
“It was too real,” he said. “He pictures it like a cartoon story … but he doesn’t have nine lives.”
The duo had set out on their trip — their first father-son camping adventure together — on the morning of July 23.
Cole had asked to go camping on the snow, so they drove from their home in the Bella Vista neighborhood to Mount Hood, known to have snow year-round, with all of their gear in their backpacks. After hiking for three hours, they decided to pitch a tent — the snow was still miles away, but the mid-80-degree temperature was making the hike an exhausting one.
Instead, they hiked to a waterfall and back before making their freeze-dried dinner over a fire. At 8 p.m., with about an hour left of sunlight, they decided to do a short hike up a nearby hillside to see the rest of the sun graze the landscape.
But the ground was slick — “It was like sand dunes; some areas were super stable, but some were loose,” Kim said. “It was hard to get up, but he just kept saying ‘Come on Dad, come on Dad.’ ”
They made it to the top, and Cole found a small rock wedged between the cracks of a bigger rock. Kim told him he was probably the only person to touch the rock.
“He was so excited about it,” Kim said. “He said, ‘Gosh Dad, this is just the best.’ ”
On the way back down to camp, Cole sat down and started sliding down the hill on his butt.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you just try walking?’ ” Kim said. But after only a dozen steps, Cole went from a walk to a sprint. He tripped and his body hurled down the hillside “like a rag doll,” Kim said.
Instinct sent Kim sprinting after his son. Without stopping to think, he collected the unconscious boy’s limp body and ran the quarter mile back to their campsite.
He called for help while cleaning a gash on Cole’s forehead. They waited more than four hours for search and rescue crews to get to their site. It was another three hours before they had hiked back to the parking lot and Cole was flown to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland.
“So much of me had thought we weren’t going to get off the mountain,” Kim said. “I was pleading for his life, and (help) seemed too far away.”
Once off the mountain, the family learned the damage: Cole had serious brain damage and suffered three skull fractures and one spinal fracture.
Despite his son’s recovery, Kim said he sometimes still feels guilty.
“Dads are supposed to be superheroes; bad things aren’t supposed to happen,” Kim said.
After the experience of having spent two weeks with their child in the hospital, among others in worse situations, Kim and Sandy say they’re thankful.
“We were lucky. … I’ll call it luck,” Kim said. “So many kids … every hour … are hurt. We were so fortunate.”