Interview and story by Linda Warwick
Sometimes life as we know it can change in an instant. For Cordel Lovlin and his family, that day was September 23, 2012. Cordel remembers it with crystal clarity: the day, he says, his life changed forever—for the better.
Cordel, born in 1982 in the northern Alberta community of Manning, spent most of his growing-up years in Grande Prairie, with his parents, Wally and Leslie; his younger sister, Miria; and his younger brother, Braiden. Like many teens, he partied in junior and senior high school. He even had a cat named Smirnoff. “Boozin’ was cool,” he says.
Cordel began working on the cement crew of his dad’s company when he was just 13 years old. He takes great pride in the many sidewalks he helped build in the City of Grande Prairie, and he is filled with gratitude when he sees the concrete holding up to this day. In concrete work and in life, Cordel suggests, “a good foundation is very important.”
On that early fall day in 2012, Cordel, Braiden and a few friends were enjoying a quad ride just a few minutes south of Grande Prairie, near the Canfor road. It was late afternoon. They were about to load up their quads and head back home. Cordel remembers throwing his helmet in the back of his brother’s Razor.
He recalls, “I was angry. Some personal stuff was happening, and I wasn’t dealing with it very well. My buddy was ahead of me on the trail, blowing donuts, and I blew through a cloud of dust and we had a head-on.”
“I remember flying through the air,” he continues. “I was thinking, ‘This is going to hurt.’ I think the reason I didn’t break my neck was because I tucked and rolled. I remember standing up and holding my eye in my dirty, muddy gloves and thinking, ‘What am I going to do with this now?’”
Cordel’s father, not far away when he got the call, arrived at the scene within minutes. Despite the severity of his son’s injuries, Wally remained optimistic as the ambulance sped to Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Grande Prairie. From there, Cordel was immediately transferred to the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton.
Leslie, in California on business, could not get a flight home until early the next morning. During the night, as she lay in a dreamlike state, Cordel came to her. She recounts, “He was sitting on the chair beside the bed and he said, ‘I don’t know what I am going to do yet, Mom.’”
When she woke to prepare for her flight, she says, he was still there. He spoke to her once again, saying, “Okay, Mom, I’ve decided to stay.” And so began the journey of healing.
Cordel’s skull had separated from his spine, a condition called atlanto-occipital dislocation. He had sustained a severe brain injury, and part of his skull had to be removed to allow room for his brain to swell. It was stored in a freezer until it could be reattached five months later. Doctors induced a coma to allow Cordel’s body to heal from the trauma; he remained in the coma for three weeks.
Wally, Leslie and the extended family were a constant presence. Auntie Jackie and Uncle Gabe live not far from the University of Alberta Hospital. Their love and support were fundamental and allowed the family to navigate the daily stresses of the situation. Cousins sent videos so that Cordel could hear familiar voices.
Leslie says, “We didn’t think about the how, the tomorrow. We just surrounded Cordel and supported him on his healing journey.”
Over several weeks, doctors tried a variety of treatments, but Cordel was not responding. Attempts to wake him from the coma failed. Wally remembers one doctor telling him there was no hope. Another told Leslie, “We’re sorry, he’s not coming out of this. You probably should just go home.”
She replied, “I’m not leaving without him, so don’t tell me to go home ever again unless he is coming with me.”
Finally, doctors removed all life support. Unwilling to give up, the family remained optimistic that Cordel had a chance at survival.
Reaction from hospital staff was mixed. One nurse said, “He’s not responding. What window do you want us to park him in?”
But in the same twenty-four-hour period, a different nurse shared the Lovlin family’s optimism. He showed the family how to use pressure on the cuticles of Cordel’s fingers and toes to look for signs of brain activity. His words—“Don’t give up”—proved to be life saving.
And then one day, Cordel’s eyes opened slightly into little slits, and those around him began communicating with him through his eyes.
On October 31, 2012, Cordel was transported back to Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Grande Prairie, to the palliative care unit. But he was not a typical palliative care patient and the environment was not ideal for his healing, so he was moved to the intensive care unit.
Leslie, a trained Ayurvedic specialist (featured in the Spring/Summer 2011 issue of Guided Synergy), knew the benefits of natural healing methods like massage, aromatherapy and juicing. To help provide the nutrition his body needed to heal, Cordel was given the juice through his feeding tube. The hospital staff was very supportive, and Cordel showed signs of improvement every day.
The entire family was involved in Cordel’s care. Even Smirnoff came to visit. The community and extended family also pitched in. In March 2013, cousin Sherri Young and family friend Jodie Drysdale organized a fundraiser to help the family with the expenses they had incurred on Cordel’s road to recovery.
Television personality Jillian Harris, who was born and raised in the northern Alberta community of Peace River and is the daughter of Wally’s cousin, became involved in raising awareness about quad safety and brain injuries. In a June 2013 interview with Jocelyn Turner of the Daily Herald Tribune, Harris talked about the importance of wearing a helmet when quadding. “I think sometimes we think we’re invincible and we’re really not,” she said.
Leslie says, “We were so blessed to have such amazing support from family, friends and the community. They were our soft place to fall when we needed it.”
It has been a long journey. Cordel spent five weeks in the ICU at the University of Alberta and three months at Queen Elizabeth II. This was followed by six months at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton and six months at Halvor Jonson Centre for Brain Injury Inpatient Rehabilitation in Ponoka. And the healing continues today. He has had to relearn how to swallow, eat, talk and walk. It hasn’t been easy but, as Cordel says, “struggle breeds greatness.”
When I ask Leslie how the family coped through the many months of her son’s recovery, she tells me, “We took everything day by day instead of thinking of all the what-ifs. It was a great lesson in not worrying so much about the future. Many around us thought we were in denial, but about ninety percent of the what-ifs did not happen.”
As we sip detox tea from Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar, a mentor and family friend, I ask Cordel to elaborate on his state of being today. “Things can always be better—but they can always be worse, too,” he says.
He still has issues with balance. He has a blood clot in his arm caused by a PIC line and a tube in the back of his head that drains into his stomach. His speech is improving, he got his driver’s licence back after three years and he is now working towards integrating himself back into the workforce.
Now he is most grateful for his memories—the good and the bad. He feels his experience has truly been a blessing in disguise. He says that the accident “knocked out the bad stuff” and gave him a new outlook. Above all, he has learned how to give and receive love.
“If you look into someone’s eyes, you can see what they’re saying,” he says. “Open your heart to others and they will open their hearts to you. Just wave and smile—you might make someone’s day.”
Life is quite different for the 33-year-old today. With a grin and a chuckle, Cordel describes his new routine: “No cigarettes, no booze, no coffee, no red meat and no sugar! And,” he says as he grabs his cell phone to show me a picture of his new ride, “I’m going green.” It’s a classy green low-rider bicycle with three wheels. Riding it releases endorphins, which assist with his healing and happiness.
Cordel remembers the words that came to him as he lay in a hospital bed: “Look for the peaceful spot in the eye of the hurricane. If you can’t find it, be it.” He has learned that the body has an incredible ability to heal and that spirit, the will to live and love are powerful healing tools.by