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Thanksgiving more meaningful than ever for Coole

October 5, 2018

By: Beverley Smith for

TORONTO, October 5, 2018 – When Standardbred trainer Phil Coole wakes up – every morning – it’s a cause celebre.

Yes, the 56-year-old native of Cape Breton, N.S. will be celebrating Thanksgiving Day with extra relish this weekend, but it will be more than that. It will be Christmas Day, Canada Day, Family Day, Chinese New Year, Easter Sunday, the Queen’s birthday, anybody’s birthday (his, too), Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and the spring (and fall) equinox all rolled into one. But mostly, he feels thankful. Bring on the pumpkin pie.

He’s alive. And it feels good.

Last May 10, he underwent a kidney transplant in London, Ont., and it gave him a second chance at life.

For the past three years, Coole has been on an emotional roller coaster that had him face a dim view of his future. “I was scared,” he said. “I have a young family. I couldn’t get insurance. And I thought: ‘How am I going to leave my family?’”

When he got to the point that he needed dialysis to get rid of the rising creatinine levels in his blood, doctors told him the bleak news: “You know, you can die from this if you don’t get dialysis.” Or things could just go south.

His emotions are still close to the surface when he recalls the dark days, but life seems brighter, clearer now. “Every morning I get up and I thank someone for the chance I’ve been given,” he said. “There are people that can’t work from this again. I’m going to go back to work, if I get a clean bill of health to work again. Before, it was very cloudy if I was going to do anything. But now I have a new lease on life.”

He says he’s 95 per cent healed, but it’s that last five per cent where things could go wrong, if he gets too enthusiastic about his new-found health. He can’t be throwing bales yet, or hauling bags of feed. He’s occasionally been jogging or training a horse or two for his employer Pat Hunt, who has been endlessly patient with Coole’s health issues. “He’s a class act,” Coole said. In another couple of weeks, Coole expects he’ll be back to work full time.

Eighteen years ago, Coole had no idea that he had any sort of kidney disease, until he decided to take out term life insurance after the birth of his first child, McKenzie. He had had it before, but cancelled. Now he only wanted to renew. But after he underwent the required medical tests, the insurance company turned him down.

“Why?” Coole asked, stunned.

Well, he had some protein in his urine, which meant his kidneys weren’t functioning properly.

“How do I fix it?” Coole asked.

Doctors told him he could continue the way he was, but in 15 years, the situation would become a worry. And that’s exactly what happened. He has no idea how long his kidney problems have been an issue. He felt no signs, other than a feeling of fatigue by lunch. He thought it was because he, like most horsemen, just “went all the time.”

Coole regularly visited his doctor for monitoring, but when problems began to arise three years ago, doctors put him on high doses of Prednisone. It comes with complications. He could no longer work. He went on a strict diet that restricted his intake of protein to six ounces daily. He was diligent about it. No potatoes. No milk.

He’d eat two eggs in the morning (two ounces right there) just to keep from vomiting, a side effect of the medication. His wife, Robin, was warned about the mood swings that come with Prednisone. He’d wake up in the morning, take all of his drugs, and sit for an hour, shaking.

The Prednisone also caused sleep disruptions. Coole figured he slept an hour and a half most nights. “It was brutal,” he said. “I would not wish it on my worst enemy.”

When he finally had to resort to dialysis, it was tough, physically and mentally. “Some days you want to crack because you see life is going on, and you are sitting in your bedroom on a tube.” He started dialysis at home in October, 2016 and he had 19 months of it. Still, he’s grateful. He’s known others who have done it for eight years.

The home dialysis occurred three times a day: 4:30 a.m., 1 p.m., and 9 p.m. In the morning, he would do a maintenance dose which didn’t affect him. He’d sometimes trot off to Hunt’s barn and work for five or six hours, but he’d have to be back by 1 p.m. His other two sessions had higher doses, and he’d be immobile for two hours afterward.

“I had no life whatsoever,” Coole said. He couldn’t run a business. (He gave up training his own stable after 25 years in the business when Ontario tracks lost the slots-at-racetracks program and his health problems started to surface.) He couldn’t go to the races at night. He couldn’t watch his daughter McKenzie play soccer, or son Alexander play rugby. McKenzie was athlete of the year at John F. Ross High School in Guelph.

“It was just very disheartening for me,” Coole said. Mentally, the dialysis screwed him up, he said, but he did it for his family.

Finally, last April 25, the London Health Sciences Centre, University Hospital, told him the transplant would take place on May 10. He was part of a chain of donators, often family members who are incompatible with each other. So hospitals create a chain, made most effective by a random donor walking in off the street.

Phil Coole (Beverley Smith Photo)

Coole, his wife and two kids were in tears. That moment still catches in his throat. But on May 2, the transplant coordinator called Coole and told him the chain had been broken: one donator became ill. “I was devastated,” he said.

But almost immediately, he was told that there was another chain up and running for May 10 and Coole was in. “I won the lottery twice,” he said. “Some people are called two or three times and nothing happens.”

Coole will never know who the donor was. He wrote the person a thank-you card, saying: “You don’t realize what you did for me.” His sister, Roberta, a nurse, signed up to donate, but after seven months of tests, proved unsuitable. Son Alexander told his mother he would sign a donation card. The 3 ½-hour surgery has been life-changing.

Three weeks after the surgery, McKenzie, now 18, had a game in Ottawa. When Coole told Robin he was going, she asked: “Are you ready for that long drive?”

“I’m going,” Coole said. “I don’t care.” On the day, Coole went to the field, as he always does, with his lawn chair and his tea. “And I was in tears watching her play, because it was the first time [since his illness],” he said. He watched her graduate from high school. Priceless.

He got to see his son, Alexander, now 17, play rugby all summer. He made the under-17 Ontario Rugby team and they played in the Ontario finals at Arcadia University. The waves parted, a plane ticket became available and Coole went. He saw his family while he was there.

He goes to London for checkups every two months. He can eat just about everything he wants to, except pomegranate and grapefruit and he had to take care that he doesn’t get a sunburn. He’ll have to take anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life. No biggie, in Coole’s books.

He feels blessed by the support of his family, his friends, the medical system and the work of Dr. Cal Stiller, who engineered transplant protocol. Coole had bought a couple of horses from him over the years.

“You learn to appreciate those things in life,” Coole said. “And don’t sweat the small stuff.”
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