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From almost certain death to the Olympics

BARTELSVILLE, Okla. - Dr. Brad Cobb of Bartlesville is getting ready to leave for Australia Oct. 9. At 35 he will fulfill a dream of competing in the Olympics. However, he won't be going in as a runner, but as a miracle. He almost died in an automobile accident three years ago.

Cobb was driving down the highway Aug. 21, 1997, as he had hundreds of times, without any idea his life would be forever changed. A pickup crossed into his lane and struck his car head on. The other driver, a 16-year-old boy, was killed in the crash. Ironically the boy had gotten his driver's license only that morning.

Kelly Cobb received a phone call from the hospital. She was told to get there immediately, that her husband had been involved in a serious accident.

She rushed to the hospital to hear that his injuries were so severe attending emergency room doctors didn't know where to start.

They weren't sure which injury was the most life threatening but began trying to patch him back together. The aorta in his heart was torn and he was in danger of bleeding to death, his left lung collapsed, his diaphragm was ripped, he had serious kidney damage and the least threatening injury appeared to be a broken leg.

The torn aorta was similar to the injury which killed Princess Diana two weeks later.

Cobb's doctors replaced the aorta with Gortex and began the slow process toward mending his battered body. Each time he went to the operating room, Kelly was told he had less than a 10 percent chance of surviving the surgery. Each time he managed to beat the odds.

In the beginning, the broken leg that had been considered the least serious injury became infected. A flesh-eating bacteria settled in the leg and doctors waited for Cobb to stabilize before attempting to operate on the leg to remove the infection.

"The leg was the least that they were worried about at first," Kelly said, "That last time he went into surgery, they told us, 'We're doing this, but he only has a 5 percent chance of making it off the table. At that point the infection was all over his body."

During the leg surgery, Kelly received a phone call in the hospital waiting room. It was Brad's surgeon. "He said, 'Kelly, I've got to either amputate his leg or let him go. He is dying on me.' That was when they amputated the leg. As soon as they did, his heart rate and everything came back.

"It didn't seem like a choice at the time, I wanted him to live."

The leg was amputated at the hip - a high amputation. With his life out of danger, his long recovery could begin.

With a strong will to continue the high quality of life he formerly enjoyed, Brad rushed headlong into his recovery.

Kelly proudly watched and she attributes much of Brad's desire to live to their son, Dallas. "He wanted to see Dallas. He was determined to see him grow up."

She added that her husband is very in touch with himself and his Cherokee heritage and a lot of his strength came from within.

The only child of parents born in the Great Depression, Brad credits his parents with the philosophy that pulled him through some pretty tough times.

He was in the hospital for three months and for over a year he had weekly doctors' appointments.

Once an avid runner, he found the amputation changed an important part of his life forever. After a year of fittings and therapy, he found that a prosthesis wasn't going to work for him. It was too confining, so he used crutches instead.

Kelly, grateful to have her husband alive, remembered the adjustments he had to make and marvels at how he took it all in stride.

In the second year after the accident Brad discovered Para-cycling and a new way to compete. His desire to compete had found an outlet.

"I was looking for something to do," Brad said. "I knew I wasn't going to run. I am amputated up to the hip. It really boiled down to something that was going to replace running. It was going to be cycling or swimming. I enjoyed swimming, but it was a matter of getting dressed and going to the pool ... cycling was the closest I could come to running."

Kelly was willing to embrace anything that helped her husband as he adjusted to a different lifestyle. "I think, for me, seeing him come back in such a short period has amazed me. If you look at three years ago, I showed up at the ER and the nurses ran out there and said, 'I'm so glad you got here before he passed away.'

"The short period he has done this in, I don't think most people could do it. Three years ago he was on death's door, now he is in the Olympics and cycling. He has changed so much. He stops and smells the roses. I think life is a little more precious to him.

Seeing all that has been a miracle to me," Kelly said.

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She isn't alone. As others watched Brad's recovery, they have marveled at his progress. After he qualified for the Para-Olympics, a grass-roots effort started to help him with financing expensive equipment and training.

Equipment and traveling expenses for families have to be covered by the athletes themselves and, for a while, it looked like Brad would be going to Sidney without his wife.

But the 35-year-old optometrist soon found that the recovery and never-say-die attitude he takes for granted has become an inspiration for all who meet him. Brad Cobb sees nothing extraordinary about himself. He believes everyone has a handicap of some type. The lucky ones are like him, they can see it.

"In no way do I want this to sound like I don't appreciate anything," Brad said. "I don't want to even remotely sound like that ... but I have people all the time, saying I am an inspiration and awe inspiring.

"The way I look at it is that we are all handicapped. Mine is just more visible. The problem with more able-bodied people is that they just don't see their handicaps."

Everyone has things to get over, he said. "The ultimate goal in life is not to win, but to keep getting up. What something like this does is, we live in this gray area, we want to rationalize everything. When something like this happens, and there is no gray, it's black and white.

"You can sit on the couch and eat potato chips and watch reruns of "Hogan's Heroes" or you can get up and do something. There is no in between. It really puts things like that into sharp focus."

Brad Cobb is finding fans all over. He speaks to high school students and youth groups. After one such engagement, he recalled, "I had a lady one time. She said, 'Well sometimes you just have to go through that, a traumatic event for that to happen to you.'

"I looked at her and said, 'Why? Who told you that?'

"But if it helps people to look at me and it helps them meet their goals, more power to them. I look at Christopher Reeves and I feel lucky. I'm happy to be here."

A grateful Brad says Kelly had the hardest battle to fight. "She is the one that has to take care of our two boys when I am away. She's working harder than I am, that's for sure."

The couple's second son, Taylor who is a year old, will stay behind when his parents and brother, Dallas, go to Sidney.

Cobb trains each weekend in either Colorado or Texas and in between times maintains his practice.

There is no bitterness when Brad recalls the accident. "It was a sad, sad deal - 16-year-old, got his driver's license that morning. (He) did the same thing we have all done, got his right tire off the side of the road on a two-lane road. There was a little drop off and he just panicked. He whipped the wheel and lost control of his truck and didn't have his seat belt on and he died.

"Good kid, church-going kid, no drugs, no drinking, no nothing, just a good kid and he just made a mistake."

As for Brad Cobb, getting 'back up' is just a part of life. "I don't see anything special about me. I sometimes get embarrassed by it. If you look at successful people down through history, you see that the only difference between them and the ones who aren't successful is that they get back up. That is all I did. Nobody is an overnight sensation."

Proud of Brad, the Cherokee Nation wants to do what it can to assist him in his quest for an Olympic medal.

"The council and I have agreed to help Dr. Cobb's trip," Cherokee Chief Chad Smith said. "His incredible story is a perfect example of the Cherokee spirit. Like the Cherokee Nation, Dr. Cobb has faced adversity, survived, adapted, prospered and excelled."

Looking ahead, Cobb says he isn't really nervous about the upcoming competition.

"It's kind of funny. I'm not going to tell you I'm not anxious. I was a runner at the University of Kansas. One of the reasons I went there is their big track tradition and Billy Mills had something to do with that," Brad said.

"I was a scholarship track athlete ... I can remember really worrying about who was in the lane next to me and if I was ready, almost to the point of detriment of what I was trying to accomplish ... I don't seem to be overwhelmed by it now."

Cobb will be joining 5,000 other para-athletes in the Para-Olympic games. He will compete in four bicycling events. He wants supporters to know that, "there is no way I would be here without your prayers. Thank you.

"I have been so overwhelmed by it all, if there is anything I can do for any of them, they just have to ask."

Dr. Jim Webb and others are seeking donations to help defray the expenses for Brad and his family. Anyone interested helping can send donations to: Brad Cobb's Olympic Team, 1200 Frank Phillips Blvd., Bartlesville, OK 74003