Proof miracles happen
Burn victim Christian Cooper shares details of recovery one year after car fire
By Emily Sparacino
Photos by Keith McCoy and Contributed
Several minutes before speaking to a group of senior adults at South Highland Presbyterian Church on Nov. 15, 2016, Hoover’s Christian Cooper talked about his approach to public speaking, something he has done frequently the last six months.
“I always try to start with a joke,” Cooper, 25, said. “I use humor as self-defense, if you will.”
With his parents, Earl and Kay Cooper, sitting in the front row of the audience, Christian greeted the Highlanders group with a lighthearted introduction before recounting the trials he has overcome since Feb. 27, 2016, the day his car caught fire as he drove home from work.
Nothing could have prepared Christian or his family for the grueling recovery he faced after suffering severe burns to 80 percent of his body.
Christian had no idea he, a 24-year-old man with a bright future, would have to fight for his life in a hospital bed.
A 2009 graduate of Hoover High School, Christian attended the University of Alabama and was working to finish his degree at Montevallo while working at the Bruno Event Team. He was a young man with the world at his feet.
On Feb. 27, he was driving home from work on Interstate 65 South near the U.S. 31 exit in Hoover when he noticed something strange happening in his car.
“I look down in the passenger floorboard, and a fire has started,” he said.
With his attention on the fire instead of the road, Christian missed a curve, veered off the pavement and rolled down the embankment and into a ditch.
He tried to open his door, but it was jammed. He tried to punch out the window, but it wouldn’t break.
“I realized this thing is indestructible,” Christian said of his car.
Then, he thought, someone driving by would see him. It was a Saturday afternoon. Surely, someone would see him.
“I started honking the horn, trying to get someone’s attention,” Christian said. “I had tunnel vision. I thought, ‘Nobody’s coming.’”
As the seconds slipped by, Christian tried to think of other ways to escape the car, which was quickly becoming engulfed in flames.
He said he resorted to kicking out the windshield.
By then, two men, John DeBlieux and Edric Williams, had seen his car and pulled over to try to help.
Williams, 37, of Birmingham was on his way to visit his girlfriend at the time when he saw the smoke.
“I was going to do one of those drive-by prayer deals, but something told me just to go back and pull over and do something,” Williams said. “So, I shot across the interstate. I saw some people standing out there, and saw the car burning.”
He started wondering if the car were about to explode as the flames crept nearer to the gas tank.
“I heard Christian scream ‘help,’” Williams said, “And I just started praying. I just asked God to help him make it out alive. That’s when I ran down the hill.”
Williams said DeBlieux was already trying to get Christian out of the burning car when he arrived.
“They said, ‘Alright buddy, we’re going to pull you out of here, but you’re going to have to help us,’” Christian said of the two men. “I didn’t realize I was on fire now.”
Williams and DeBlieux led Christian away from the car and up the hill to the interstate shoulder.
The men tried pulling Christian up the hill by his wrists, but they let go as they realized the fire had ravaged his skin.
“His skin was kind of jelly,” Williams said. “If you pulled too hard or put too much pressure, his skin could have just peeled off.”
Fortunately, Christian was wearing a leather belt that day. The belt gave Williams and DeBlieux something to grab onto besides Christian’s body.
By the time they reached the shoulder, a Homewood resident named Theresa De Leon had arrived at the scene.
De Leon, 43, works for Birmingham Fire and Rescue and happened to be off-duty and running errands when she spotted the smoke rising from Christian’s car.
“When I was on the highway, I thought it was a grass fire,” De Leon said. “As I get closer, I notice the change of color. (It was) heavy smoke, and it was black.
“As firefighters, we study the color of smoke. It tells you what could be burning.”
She realized it wasn’t just a grass fire, and her instincts told her to pull over.
“As I got closer, I could see trees were on fire,” she said. “I pulled over to just double check. I saw people running. I saw people down in the ditch.”
She carried the fire gear that was in her trunk to the side of the road as Williams and DeBlieux made it up the hill with Christian.
De Leon used a fire blanket to smother the flames eating through Christian’s clothing.
“He was on fire,” she said. “I just went into that instinct mode and what we are trained to do.”
Williams said he couldn’t sleep that night, and kept replaying the scene in his mind.
“I kept thinking about him,” he said. “That was the first time I ever experienced something like that, and it kind of shook me up for a while. I kept having images of it, just hearing him scream and seeing the state his body was in.”
As Christian sat in the grass, surrounded by the good Samaritans who had come to his aid first, the gravity of his circumstances started to sink in.
“It was the first time I understood the magnitude of the accident,” he said. “I pretty much remember everything very vividly. Everyone was panicking. I was sitting there saying, ‘Am I going to be OK?’ It looked like a scene out of a movie.”
Waves of pain radiated from his head through his entire body. Christian said he doesn’t remember answering paramedics’ questions in the ambulance on the way to UAB Hospital, or giving the hospital his dad’s cell phone number to notify the family of the incident.
A scary prognosis
Once at the hospital, Christian was kept under heavy sedation.
Doctors told Christian’s family he had a 5-percent chance of surviving the first night after the incident. If he did make it through the night, they said, he most likely wouldn’t walk out of the hospital.
“It was a very trying time for my family,” Christian said. “Hearing that was very difficult for them.”
Christian did survive that first night, but doctors delivered some discouraging news to his family the next day. They said the process to repair Christian’s burned skin couldn’t start until Wednesday, about four days after the crash.
“You realize your skin is the primary defense against infection and bacteria,” Christian said. With more than three-fourths of his skin damaged, his first line of defense was gone. “I was totally exposed.”
His dad knew waiting was not an option, so he reached out to Dr. Fred Mullins at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, Ga.
Earl was able to arrange for Christian to be transported from the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport to the burn center on Monday, Feb. 29.
By Tuesday, Christian had undergone two surgeries, the first of which lasted six hours, as doctors removed dead skin cells from the front side of his body.
“On the second day, they flipped me over and did the back side,” Christian said.
By Wednesday, Christian had endured five major surgeries.
When he fully woke up weeks later, he couldn’t talk because of a tracheotomy, he couldn’t move, and he didn’t know where he was or what was happening.
“A little panic ensued,” he said. “That was my first day of, ‘This is the new normal.’”
Since traditional skin grafts were not feasible for Christian with 80 percent of his body burned, doctors used cultured epidermal autografts, which are grafts consisting of skin cells grown in a lab from a small portion of a patient’s healthy skin.
“The CEAs were a blessing,” Christian said.
He became aware of how important successful CEA surgeries were to his recovery, and expressed some anxiety before one of the surgeries.
“They were taking me back to the O.R., and I looked at the anesthesiologist and said, ‘Man, I am so nervous right now,’ He said, ‘Why are you nervous? You’ve had 20 surgeries by now.’”
Christian said he was “in shock and awe” hearing how many procedures he had endured since arriving at the burn center.
It takes about 10 days for the body to accept the CEAs, he said. In addition, Christian had to remain completely still after surgery.
After 10 days, he underwent another surgery for doctors to remove the backings of the CEAs.
“I had a 95-percent or better take on all my CEA surgeries, which is unheard of,” Christian said. “That was another blessing.”
Once he got his second set of CEAs, he saw significant improvement and was able to get out of bed and walk with an occupational therapist’s supervision.
“Walking a few steps was huge,” he said. “I went from a 24-year-old working out every day to getting out of bed, taking a few steps and getting to the door, which was amazing.”
He also grappled with unexpected illnesses, including pancreatitis and a blood infection, during his hospital stay.
Each surgery took Christian back to a starting point in his physical therapy. For a two-week period, he was having surgery nearly every other day, he said.
But despite his physical challenges, Christian’s mental health was as good as it was before the crash since he hadn’t suffered any brain trauma.
“Keeping a good attitude through it all helped me and the people working with me,” Christian said. “Attitude is so big in everything you do in life.”
To date, Christian has had more than 60 surgeries, and will have several more to address contracture releases that are currently restricting his flexibility, and to address scarring issues and his nasal breathing passage.
He still copes with physical limitations. He lacks sweat glands on the majority of his body now, so he has to be especially cautious about sun exposure and overheating.
Christian and his family still don’t know what caused the fire in his car.
But they know the extent of his recovery from the beginning – a “night-and-day difference,” he said – and how many hurdles he has cleared since the day they were told he might not survive the night.
“I’m here, and I’m proof that miracles do happen,” Christian said. “That’s all I needed: for a 5-percent chance and for God to meet me halfway, and He did.”
Kay said memories from Christian’s journey bring her tears for different reasons. As painful as it is to look back on certain periods, his journey has become an outlet for blessing his family and other people who hear his story.
Earl, a member of the Hoover City Board of Education, said he and Kay had to make a conscious decision early on to compartmentalize the accident in order to move forward instead of dwelling on the unchangeable past.
“We all struggled early on,” Earl said. “We’ve had to be there for him physically the entire time. From an emotional standpoint, he (Christian) has been a blessing to us. Emotionally, he’s got his mind where it needs to be.”
Lately, Christian has fulfilled various speaking engagements and community appearances. He was the grand marshal in the first Bluff Park Christmas Parade.
He recently presented a donation check to the Hoover Fire Department Foundation in support of Camp Conquest, a weeklong camp held at Children’s Harbor on Lake Martin for children who are burn victims. The funds were raised from a music fundraiser hosted by Christian’s uncle at WorkPlay.
Christian is featured in the Southeastern Firefighter’s Foundation 2017 fundraising calendar, and he was set to present a check from his fundraiser along with a couple of other organizations in January.
This month, Christian will have his first reunion celebration in Augusta with other burn survivors from the JMS Burn Center.
He said he chose to share his story in hopes of giving back to the community he said has given so much to him in support and prayer.
“I don’t feel obligated, but I feel it’s something I need to do,” he said. “Through this whole tragic event, I’ve seen my community come together. Having thousands of people praying for me (is) something I can’t wrap my head around.”
There has been such an outpouring of support. It’s really rewarding to come back and share the story.”
In the midst of his tragedy, Christian has gained unexpected friendships.
He and Williams visited with each other after Christian got home from Georgia.
“He told me that he couldn’t remember a whole lot, but he said my face was the only one he could remember,” Williams said of Christian after the incident. “That kind of meant a lot to me. I wish I could have done more and he didn’t have to go through that, but I tried to do as much as I could.”
Williams said Christian and his family also attended his wedding in October, adding, “That was pretty neat having them there.”
Earl said his son – with his positive mindset, unwavering faith and determination to overcome every obstacle – has been a blessing to many people.
That, and getting stronger every day, is Christian’s new focus.
“God would never put you in circumstances you could not handle,” Christian said. “I stand here today as living proof.”