From hell to heaven to thankful: Family of teen battling cancer reflects on emotional year

The Cole family has spent most of this year driving up and down Interstate 75 to Children’s Hospital Medical Center locations in Cincinnati and Liberty Twp.

Their daughter, Mattie, has been in and out of the hospital 31 times in the past 10 months battling a rare form of bone cancer, and through it all — the sleepless nights, the chemotherapy treatments, the surgeries, the evenings when there was nothing prepared for dinner — the community has walked the cancer crusade with the Madison Twp. family.

“We’ve been to hell and we’ve been to heaven,” said Jody Cole, Mattie’s mother.

When the family gives thanks today around the dining room table, they will reflect on 2019 and how a cancer diagnosis redirected their lives and their outlook.

Late last year, Mattie Olivia Ann Cole, then a 16-year-old sophomore at Madison High School, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that affects about 200 children and young adults every year in the U.S.

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From Jan. 8 to Oct. 31, Mattie had 31 hospital stays that sometimes lasted weeks.

“Like prison” is how her mother described being confined to hospitals. “We’d get on Facebook and see pictures of people on vacation, and after a while, we didn’t get on Facebook.”

But throughout the ordeal, the family has been embraced by the community, and thanks to social media, by those around the world.

Butler County schools held fundraisers, neighbors fixed food and strangers mailed gift cards. Cole’s customers at American Hair Co., a beauty parlor next to her house on Michael Road, increased their tips, and Estes Oil Co. in Franklin recently filled the Cole oil tank for free with a simple message: “This is on the house. Keep your girl warm.”

Cole said now — months after Mattie’s diagnosis — she’s still “amazed” by the financial assistance and spiritual support.

“We are not special,” she said. “It’s just unbelievable how much people care about us.”

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Mattie, 17, a junior in the dental technician program at Butler Tech, recently completed her last round of chemotherapy and was told she’s cancer-free. More scans will follow, and eventually the tests will be less frequent from every few months to yearly.

When she was released from Liberty Children’s Medical Center last month, dozens of supporters, including motorcyclists and a Jeep Club, serenaded her as she was wheeled out the hospital and then formed a caravan as her family drove her home.

This year has been a learning experience for Mattie and her parents, Jimmy and Jody; her brothers, Dallas, 24, and Dyllan, 20; and sister, Ellie, 14.

What once was important to Mattie — the latest phones, the newest fashions, material possessions — no longer matter, she said.

“Without your health, you have nothing,” she said. “All that other stuff can be taken away. I now know how precious life and time are. You don’t know how blessed you are until it’s taken away.”

Her mother said cancer robbed the family of one year. The calendar went directly from 2018 to 2020. Right before Mattie was diagnosed, they were opening Christmas presents. Now it’s time to buy more presents.

“Incredible how fast it went,” Jody Cole said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster.”

Cole said spending those countless days and nights in the hospital brought her closer to other parents, including total strangers. She remembers one night looking out the hospital window as a massive storm was approaching. A man who spoke broken English introduced himself. He was from the United Arab Emirates. He was in the U.S. because his 3-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer.

Cole and the man were from different worlds but were there to fight the same battle.

“Doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, green or yellow,” she said. “You’re all in this together. We are the same. We just want to save our child’s life. That’s what it’s about.”

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Mattie is receiving physical therapy to learn to walk. She hopes to get out of her wheelchair, then move to a walker until she can regain her balance.

They both said the family has leaned on its faith.

“Praying really does work,” Cole said.

Mattie and her mother said they will also cherish the friendships they formed with the medical staffs.

“We got attached to them,” Cole said.

On the day Mattie was released, the family and the doctors and nurses shared tears.

“It was a good cry,” Cole said.

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