Michael Coss is a funny guy. His jokes come quick and, if you’re not paying attention, his charming wit might just go over your head. But what you won’t miss, however, is this Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) survivor’s uplifting spirit, dogged determination and the courage to come back against all odds.
It was May 18, 2006. Coss, who had been a leading sales rep for Molson Coors Canada, had recently been promoted to the beer company’s field marketing department and was on his way – with wife Ann and their seven-month-old twins, Nathan and Danielle – to Kelowna for a work event co-sponsored by Maxim Golf.
Looking forward to the weekend getaway, the young family left their Coquitlam home at approximately 9 a.m. Coss, a former recreational pilot, avid sports competitor and doting new father, recalls the day as being “picture-perfect – not a gust of wind or drop of rain in sight.”
There were no signs the day was about to take an ugly turn.
About two-and-a-half hours into the scenic drive along the Coquihalla Highway – just outside the small town of Merritt in the Nicola Valley – it is believed that Coss, who has no recollection of the event, suddenly swerved to avoid an animal. At highway speed, the quick change in direction put the vehicle into an end to end roll, flipping several times before landing upside down on the side of the highway.
Although witnesses say the vehicle was nearly unrecognizable, miraculously, baby Danielle was uninjured and Ann suffered only a fractured wrist. The Cosses’ son, Nathan, sustained serious head injuries and was induced into a coma for 10 days. Thankfully, today, Nathan is a healthy and strong five-year-old, with no known lasting effects.
Michael Coss was not so lucky. Rated a severity of eight on the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS), he sustained a near-fatal, diffuse axonal brain injury. Carrying up to a 90 per cent chance that the patient will never regain consciousness, it is one of the most severe and devastating types of brain injuries a body can endure.
At the hospital, doctors told Coss’s devastated family that, if he survived, he would never eat on his own, walk or speak and would likely need to spend the remainder of his life in a long-term care home – a crushing dichotomy to the gregarious husband, son, son-in-law, brother and father who had grown up playing competitive AA hockey and captivating people with his special “gift of the the gab.”
Unable to accept the bleak prognosis, his family and friends went into research mode, learning everything they could about TBI. They mobilized a team of support and hope.
Within 24 hours, his parents, Bob and Suzie Coss, had permanently re-located from Quebec City to Vancouver. His in-laws, Mark and Jenifer Bartlett, dropped everything, including a job, to move in with Ann to help with the house and children. His brothers and their families sat, night after night, in the hospital, while extended family and friends in Toronto and Quebec prayed and waited.
After months of no change in his condition, Bob and Suzie Coss began vigorously exploring Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) – a promising, but expensive treatment that currently receives minimal to no funding from Canada’s Medical Services Plan and private health-care insurers.
Undeterred, Coss’s family, friends and co-workers banded together to raise the $22,000 required to cover the cost of two months of treatment.
Accompanied by his mother, Coss was transported from Royal Columbian Hospital to the Richmond Hyperbaric Health Center via ambulance, five days a week. On Christmas Eve 2006, after six-and-a-half months in a coma – and just three HBOT treatments – Coss opened his eyes.
From that moment on, Coss – who was at the time only able to move the thumb on his right hand – began a gruelling recovery process, one he says he would not be able to undertake if it were not for the devoted support of his family and, most importantly, his daily inspiration: Nathan and Danielle, now five and in the first grade.
“They provide the inspiration for me to fight inch by inch, step by step, day by day,” said Coss, who, just three months after waking from his coma – with minimal speaking abilities, confined to a wheelchair and still connected to a feeding tube – spearheaded a cross-Canada fundraising effort for the Rick Hansen Wheels In Motion program.
His efforts, not surprising to those who know him, raised more than $25,000 – the largest amount ever amassed by a single supporter.
“When I look back, I think I was so grateful for getting my life back,” he said. “I wanted to do something to make a difference. I also wanted to have a purpose – something to drive me. It’s easy to let negative thoughts and emotions take over. It’s easy to look at your present circumstances and feel down and out. It’s easy to feel helpless.”
But not for Michael Coss.
Although he continues to undergo intense rehabilitation therapy and requires daily living support, he is highly active in his community. Hoping to become an inspirational speaker, he attends weekly Toastmaster meetings and recently completed the Stand Up for Mental Health comedy course. True to form, he jokes that, on account of his wheelchair, his routine should be called “sit-down” comedy versus “stand-up.”
It’s not just his speech that is coming along. Signifying a major milestone that his doctors said would never happen, last month Coss got out of his wheelchair and walked the one-kilometre route of Langley City’s Terry Fox Run. Amidst tears and cheers, he completed the walk in 57 minutes, all the way warning supporters not to count him out of a future Boston Marathon.
Although Coss – who resides in a Langley group home – is surely still described as the life of the party, he recognizes he is not the same person he was before the accident. But he says he’s “cool with the new Michael Coss.” He’s also grateful to be in a position to help others through The Michael Coss Brain Injury Foundation, a charitable organization he founded in May 2009 to help fund HBOT treatment for children with brain injuries.
“I like the new me,” he said. “I’ve met new people that I feel have made me a much better person. I am very thankful of my support network, including my family, my friends, co-workers, all of the support members… my residential care workers… and for programs such as Semiahmoo House Society’s Acquired Brain Injury program. Now it’s my turn to give back to others because of what others have done for me. They rallied around me when I needed help the most.”
In addition to the foundation, Coss recently launched an inspiring book about his experience. Titled The Courage To Come Back, it is available through Chapters bookstores across Canada. Proceeds from the sale of the book go directly to his foundation.
“In my case, family is the reason why I am here today,” said Coss. “Such love, faith and devotion – that’s the power of family.
“Doctors wrote me off over five years ago. They told my parents that I would never be able to walk or eat again and that I should be placed in a long-term care home for the balance of my days. Because of them, and their belief in HBOT, I was given a second chance at 42 years old. Without it, I may not have gotten the chance to get to know my children. It gave me a fresh start. Now I want to be able to help others make a difference in their lives and give them a fresh start.”
Though he’s already accomplished more in life than most, he says he’s still working on his biggest goal to date.
“My dream is to eventually walk with my children hand in hand through the park and to see them swing on the swing set. That will happen one day.”
For more information about TBI – or to make a donation to The Michael Coss Brain Injury Foundation – visit www.secondchancestepbystep.org