Photo courtesy of Earl Cooper
Christian Cooper 7-29-16
After five months at a burn center in Georgia, recovering from burns to 80 percent of his body, Christian Cooper is preparing to return home to Hoover, Alabama, on Saturday, July 30, 2016.
It has been a long five months for Christian Cooper, but the 25-year-old Hoover man is finally back home from a burn center in Georgia after recovering from burns to 80 percent of his body in a February car crash.
Cooper, who suffered the burns in a Feb. 27 wreck on Interstate 65, flew into the Bessemer Airport in a twin-engine plane Saturday and headed back to his parents’ house in the Green Valley community for further recovery.
“I’m ready to be back home. It’s been a while,” Cooper said from his hospital room at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, before the flight home.
When Cooper was first taken to UAB Hospital from his wreck, doctors gave him a five percent chance of surviving through the night and said if he did make it through the night, he would never walk out of the hospital, his father, Earl Cooper, said.
Now, after more than 20 surgeries, including extensive skin grafts of his own skin grown at a lab in Boston, Cooper is feeding himself and mobile.
“It’s just been an absolute amazing journey,” his father said. “Physically, he looks different, of course. He’s very rigid because he’s been in bed for so long … Mentally, he’s not lost a bit. … On the inside, he’s the same guy he’s always been. He’s kind of a miracle.”
Cooper does remember the accident that started it all. He was headed home, driving south on Interstate 65 between Alford Avenue and U.S. 31, when he looked over to the passenger side of his vehicle and saw a fire had started in the car, he said. He panicked, lost control of his car and careened off the road and down an embankment, striking a tree, he said.
He realized he had to get out of the car, but his door was jammed, he said. He tried kicking out the driver’s window, but “those are pretty indestructible,” he said. He didn’t realize how far off the road he was and wondered why no one was coming to rescue him, but he finally was able to kick out the windshield and create a hole big enough to get out, he said.
By that time, some other motorists had arrived to help pull him out of his car. One of those rescuers said the flames coming from the car were already 20 feet high.
A 66-year-old Jasper man, John DeBlieux, pulled Cooper up the hill. He couldn’t pull Cooper by the hands because his flesh was burning and gelled, and he couldn’t pull him by his clothes because they were falling apart, so he pulled Cooper up the steep embankment by his belt, with Cooper helping push. Several other bystanders helped once they started the climb.
“My adrenaline was going 100 miles an hour. I didn’t feel anything,” Cooper said. “I really didn’t realize I was on fire til I got to the top of the hill. I guess that’s all for the better.”
Some people wrapped blankets around him, and a wave of pain came over him, he said. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in Georgia, he said.
He woke up with a tracheal tube down his throat and couldn’t talk and didn’t really know what was going on around him, he said.
“It took me a few surgeries before I finally learned how bad I had really been burned,” he said.
Photo courtesy of the Cooper family
Christian Cooper 2013
Christian Cooper at a 2013 University of Alabama football game
Recovery has been challenging, Cooper said. The skin grafts probably were the most painful part of the process, and going through therapy in the intensive care unit was very difficult, especially at first, he said.
The burns caused his muscles to constrict, and spending so much time lying down made him very stiff, he said. He had to learn to feed himself again and to walk again, and a lot of his physical therapy is designed to stretch his muscles out again and increase his range of motion, he said.
His right arm is still pretty stiff and hard to bend, and his chest is tight due to all the new skin, he said.
“You’ve got to keep that stretched but try to be careful not to tear the skin since it’s still kind of fresh and not quite mature yet,” he said.
Stretching is painful because with the condition of his skin, a lot of nerve endings are still exposed, he said. He’s also had to battle infections. Sometimes it’s frustrating because it seems like he takes a step forward, then two steps backward, he said.
Cooper has made a lot of progress, but he is “far, far, far from being well,” his father said. He still has a lot of surgeries ahead and has a lot of rehab to get his strength and flexibility back, but he’s shown so much strength to get to this point, his parents said.
Cooper said his faith in God has been a big factor in helping him recover. “You’ve got to keep faith and understand God’s not going to put you in something you can’t handle,” he said.
And there has been an unreal amount of support from family and friends, he said. His parents have been living in a place called the Fisher House at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon — about six miles away from the burn center in Augusta. It’s a temporary home away from home for military veterans and their families dealing with medical crises.
They were able to go to the burn center every day and visit with their son four times a day. Cooper said seeing his family and friends pulling for him made all the difference in the world.
His father already had retired from Alabama Power, but his mother, Kay Cooper, took time off from her job as principal at Vestavia Hills Elementary-Cahaba Heights to be with him as well. In June, she decided to go ahead and retire so she could continue to help with Cooper’s recovery.
The hardest part has been watching her son be in pain and not be able to do anything about it, she said.
“As a mom, you don’t breathe for a long time,” she said. “It’s just been a journey. You just take it one day at a time. … We didn’t try to look too far down the road. We tried to look very hard to God to see what we were supposed to do that day … You kind of go numb and you just do what you have to do during that time period.”
God played a major role in their journey, Kay Cooper said. There has been a lot of prayer and a lot of just waiting, knowing that God is going to answer your prayers, she said.
She’s been very proud of her son for having the fortitude, persistence and mental stamina to stay focused and do what it takes to get to the next level, she said.
Being able to stay at the nearby Army base was wonderful, and the doctors and staff at the burn center have been terrific, she said. “It’s really an awesome place. The care there is really phenomenal.”
Photo courtesy of the Cooper family
Christian Cooper room
Posters, cards and pictures of support plaster the wall in Christian Cooper's room at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia, where he is recovering from severe burn injuries after a car crash on Feb. 27, 2016.
The support from thousands of people — literally all over the world — has been amazing, Kay Cooper said. People they don’t even know from Augusta have brought them food to the hospital because of connections they have to friends of the Coopers, she said.
“We’re just very thankful for every little thing,” she said. “Were just really blessed and just really happy.”
Cooper said he knows he’s got a lot of work ahead of him, but for now, he’s thankful to be able to come home. He was eager to get a Milo's burger and some Milo’s sweet tea, he said.
“I’ve had just about every other fast food imaginable, but there’s no Milo’s in Georgia,” he said. “I’ve been missing out on that.”
The road of recovery has been an ordeal, “but it’s been a real growing experience and a real learning experience at the same time,” Cooper said. “It kind of puts everything in perspective … I don’t know how I could have made this progress without a lot of people thinking about me and praying for me.”
This article was updated on July 31 after Cooper arrived back home in Hoover.