Her Family Was Ready to Pull the Plug—then Jackie Cole Suddenly Awakened from Her Coma

updated 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Until last spring, Jacqueline Cole of Baltimore had always seemed to be one of those enviable people attended by a special grace. Beautiful, fit, creative and happy at 44, she was married to a handsome, popular Presbyterian minister, Harry Cole, and their four adopted children were moving smoothly into adulthood. She enjoyed a successful career in education, yet still found time to do aerobics daily and to bake pastry so good it was sold at one of the city's finest restaurants.

In the last seven months, however, Jackie Cole has become a modern-day Lazarus. One day, in a matter of moments, a burst blood vessel in her brain plunged Cole into a condition so grave it was all but indistinguishable from death. Though thousands of people all over the world prayed for her recovery, her family eventually gave up hope and went to court for permission to take her off life support. Only six days after the judge announced he was withholding his consent, Jackie Cole suddenly returned to life.

Her ordeal began, of all times, on the day before Easter. "We were laughing, talking in the family room, home for the holiday," recalls her son Tom, "and a headache came on her real suddenly." As the pain increased, she lost all feeling in her left arm. "Oh, no," she murmured, turning white, "I'm having a stroke." An ambulance came quickly but by the time she arrived at Maryland General Hospital four minutes later, she had fallen into a deep coma. Only a respirator and a tangle of tubes kept her body alive.

Day after day, week after week, Cole's family and friends determinedly sat with her, talked to her, stroked her and read to her without eliciting the slightest trace of reaction. They were not alone: As word of her condition spread through the Presbyterian community, prayer groups were alerted, then telephone-linked "prayer chains." Within weeks, her name was on the lips of the faithful all over the world.

The prayers appeared to go unanswered. Cole's condition, bad as it was, grew even worse. She developed double pneumonia, a collapsed lung, then a blood system infection. Still in a deep coma, she suffered a heart attack. The doctors said her chance of recovery was perhaps one in a million. They had a term for her condition: "a persistent vegetative state."

Harry Cole, 43, faced a terrible decision. As a clergyman, he was all too familiar with the controversy over whether it wasn't more humane to "pull the plug" on people in irreversible comas rather than prolong their nominal lives. He felt he knew his wife's feelings on the subject. Jackie's own mother had died a lingering, bitter death of brain cancer, and Jackie had resolved never to suffer a similar end. "We had no written agreements or deep mutual understanding about it," says Harry, but "she made it clear that she would want only a full life."

Harry consulted his children, friends and fellow theologians, and all agreed. The tubes and machines that were sustaining her body should be disconnected. "I tried hard to understand God's will," he remembers today. "It was time to let her go."

To disconnect Jackie's life support, the Coles had to petition the courts. Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge John Carroll Byrnes withheld his permission. Jackie's brain-wave recordings, he pointed out, showed the merest ember of electrical activity. He decided the family should wait awhile longer. "It was not a difficult decision for me," Byrnes says today. "She was not legally brain dead. I was dealing with a live person."

The Coles, exhausted and devastated, had Jackie moved out of intensive care to a private room, where they continued to await the inevitable. Friends came to pay their last respects. It was John Evans' turn last May 15, on the sixth day after the court hearing. Evans, a Realtor, took the unconscious woman's inert hand and said, "Hello." To his astonishment, Jackie opened her eyes and smiled at him. Harry rushed weeping to her side and asked her if she was awake. When she nodded yes, he kissed her. Jackie kissed him back.

Since coming out of her six-week coma, Jackie has resumed speaking and reading, but she has had to learn to write with her left hand and to get around with a walker. She still has terrible problems with both long-and short-term memory. Each day, she records her activities in her "memory log," in order to remember where she is in time and space. But she has the wit to joke about her plight. ("You want to know where my memory log is? I forgot!") In about a month, she is expected to be able to go home permanently.

Jackie's incredible journey has left Harry Cole by turns jubilant, puzzled and reverent. "I guess you could say we've muddied the waters surrounding the question of a person's right to die," he said. "If one of my parishioners came to me under similar circumstances and asked 'Should I let the doctor pull the plug?' I could not make the decision." As for Jackie's case, he thinks he understands what he has witnessed. "This is a miracle."

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