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Back on the Horse

  • Author: Josh C
  • Date Submitted: Jul 13, 2021

For the Cooley Family, life is simple, and that’s OK.

Each day, Christine rises before Josh to put out the horses and cook breakfast. She then helps her son get ready and muck the stalls. After that, there is home-based physical therapy, reading, and writing, and cognitive exercises to continue Josh’s functional gains. Later, Josh watches a movie, plays Wii Sports or iPad games, or noodles on his bass guitar.

On the best days, weather permitting, he’ll ride his Percheron Mare, RockC, beneath a covered equestrian arena on their three-acre plot in rural Florida. But today is too hot. “He faints in the heat,” his mother says.

It’s a matter of fact, a symptom of an injury sustained nearly 15 years ago. On July 5, 2005, Sergeant Josh Cooley was traveling with the 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion, 4th Marine Division in Iraq when his transport vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. Shrapnel from the attack inflicted catastrophic head trauma that destroyed the front third of his brain.

Against terrible odds, Josh clung to life after his injury. He was transferred to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where Christine was told that, should he pull through, Josh would likely be vegetative and unable to walk, talk, or care for himself.

For three months, Josh lay in a medically induced coma in the ICU, undergoing multiple surgeries to repair damage to his brain and skull. Christine stayed by his side, holding his hand, refusing to give up hope. Slowly, Josh offered small but promising signs of life. His military neurosurgeon believed more significant gains were possible. He recommended Casa Colina for its nationally recognized work rehabilitating wounded warriors and other patients with traumatic brain injury.

Josh began 23 months of intense therapeutic rehabilitation, while Christine lived nearby in one of Casa Colina’s family residences next to campus. Days passed. Weeks became months. Josh began eating on his own. He began walking with an assistive device. He became more cognitively aware. Christine credits therapists in the hospital’s Acute Rehabilitation Wing and TLC for their aggressive approach to Josh’s therapy. By involving her in his treatment plan, they were also preparing Christine, who is just 5’5”, for her new role as caregiver to Josh, who stands a formidable 6’7”.

“Every bit of therapy I do with him at home is from Casa Colina,” she says. “That experience of being in the house so close to TLC was incredible. I wasn’t afraid when we went home. I felt really secure.”

The extent of Josh’s recovery has been remarkable. He has walked without aid for years. He converses, jokes, and helps with tasks around the house—abilities that baffle doctors, given the severity of his head trauma. He’s even managed to pick up a celebrity fan: country music star Toby Keith. Whenever his tour stops in Tampa, Keith invites Josh on stage to sing with him.

Christine learned slowly to let Josh grow more independent. Needless to say, when Josh goes riding, he wears a helmet. RockC has received months of training as a therapy horse, and her gentle disposition is the perfect match. As an extra precaution, the riding arena features a soft sand surface to break any fall and is covered to protect him from sun.

“You have to go out of your comfort zone with certain things,” she says. “She could move and knock him over. She’s a big girl. But I had to learn to trust her because look at what it brought him—that independence.”

Josh will always depend on a caregiver, and Christine will fill that role as long as she can. For her, helping Josh achieve an improved quality of life is all that matters.

“I have a miracle that no one thought possible, and I am thankful every day,” she says. “I get tired sometimes, but you know what, I’ll vacuum tomorrow! I’d rather be out in the barn with Josh. I just focus on the good parts, of Josh and life.”