Cole's New 'Leash' On Life
SEATTLE - A young teenage boy is petting and kissing a large dog. He signals to the dog and tries to get him to speak. "Napoleon, speak," says the boy. "Speak. C'mon." Though Napoleon doesn't speak right away, this is no ordinary boy and his dog.
The boy is Cole Hardman, a young Children's Hospital patient who first appeared in a story on KOMO 4 in 1994 when he was seven. Since then, other stories have been done on Cole and he has co-hosted numerous Telethons on KOMO 4 to benefit Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center -- the place he credits with saving his life. The dog is Napoleon, a German Shepherd and Leonberger cross who serves as Cole's best friend and a lot more.
"He carries my books for me at school," says Cole. "And he also alerts me to sound. And he kind of protects me."
Napoleon is Cole's first ever service dog. Cole says, "Someone might not know that I have as many challenges as I do. And if they see a dog walking with me in public, they kind of give me my space to have. And if I need help, maybe they're more aware of it."
Cole has faced enormous challenges his entire life. "The day I was born the doctors gave my parents about a 40 percent chance of living," says Cole. "And if I did make it that day, I wouldn't make it to the age of 2."
Cole was born with multiple life-threatening issues created by a condition called Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia. His intestines were up where his left lung should have been. He couldn't breathe. And his digestive system was a mess.
"The hardest battle I ever fought was the day I was born," says Cole. "And if I can beat that, I can beat anything I try."
Throw in limited vision and severe hearing impairment, counter that with endless positive energy, and it's easy to see why Cole serves as a spokesperson for Children's Hospital and United Way campaigning with people like Bill Gates.
Speaking about his passion of helping others, Cole says "It's a really complicated game out there. Not everyone gets a fair chance and I think everyone deserves it."
Three days following his appearance on the "Miracle Makers" broadcast special on June 1 to benefit Children's Hospital, Cole faced one of his toughest battles. On June 4 he endured a grueling experimental surgery to straighten a badly curved spine and to keep breathing problems from getting progressively worse. In the first operation of its kind at Children's, long metal rods called titanium ribs were implanted in Cole's body.
Looking at X-rays before and after his surgery, Children's Chief of Pulmonary Medicine, Dr. Greg Redding, evaluates the results. "If you look at the difference in terms of what's happened is that he's been effectively straightened," says Dr. Redding. "And that may not actually improve this small piece of lung that never worked well. But it may prevent his good lung from being worse over time as this diaphragm stretches."
Prior to surgery, Cole's spine curved like a pretzel at a 60-degree angle. This curvature which had worsened over the years, put constant pressure on Cole's good lung and decreased his ability to breath. His breathing had deteriorated to the point where he was able to breathe at only 30 percent of what's considered "normal." The surgery reduced the curvature of Cole's spine to about 28 percent which is the straightest it's ever been. And Cole's breathing improved a little. In a recent test, he recorded a level that was 39 percent of normal. Though Dr. Redding still refers to that result as "crummy," it's still a good improvement.
"I feel like I can breathe better," says Cole. "I feel like my back is better. I feel straighter. I feel healthier."
Talking to Cole, Dr. Redding says "Remember the reason we even thought about doing this was to prevent you from getting worse. And that's been successful. You are not getting worse."
Though the surgery succeeded in stopping Cole's downward slide, it was not designed to "fix" him. Cole will always be medically fragile and it's doubtful his breathing will improve much more than 40 percent of normal.
Knowing that Cole faced big challenges following surgery and that he would be restricted in what he could carry, his mom Wendy and dad John contacted the Summit Assistance Dogs program in Anacortes.
"I saw that Cole was going to need a very unique dog because he had very unique needs as far as a service dog goes," says Sue Meinzinger who is the director and owner of the program. After evaluating Cole's complex needs, Sue thought a young dog named Napoleon would be the best match for Cole."He's one of the brightest dogs I've ever worked with," says Sue.
Napoleon started off as a shelter dog no one wanted. Following months of training in an innovative program using at-risk youth at Oak Harbor Middle School, Napoleon was ready for two weeks of intensive training with Cole.
"Seeing them work together, I think it's going to be a great match," says Sue.
It's more than a great match. It's a deep friendship and partnership that gives both a boy and his dog a new "leash" on life.
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