Photo: Tamara Reynolds
Behind the wheel of his Jeep Grand Cherokee, Vernon-John Gibbins was driving on New Hampshire’s lush, isolated Route 302 when a police car whipped by and pulled over to the side of the road. A critical-care nurse, Gibbins was on his way to Maine’s Camp Cedar, where he spends his summers running the health center.
When Gibbins saw the police officer rush across the road toward the falls with a first aid kit, he stopped his Jeep and ran to join the group standing around Cole, who was weak but conscious.
“You’re going to be fine,” Gibbins told Cole after checking his head and arm wounds. But he wasn’t so sure. Another hiker, one from the wading pool, had called 911, but how long would it take an ambulance to arrive in rural New Hampshire? As they waited, Johnson, who had retrieved a dress from the car, talked softly to Cole and held compressions on his wounds. But within minutes, Cole went from being calm and coherent – he knew his name and that he’d been in a climbing accident – to fighting three men who then had to pin him to the ground. Gibbins recognized the telltale signs of an internal head bleed, which puts pressure on the brain and sometimes makes victims disoriented and aggressive.
After 15 minutes, an EMT arrived in an ambulance, but he didn’t have the training to administer a sedative to Cole, which was necessary before inserting a breathing tube. Without intubation, Cole couldn’t be transported, because he might stop breathing on the way. The EMT called a paramedic for help.
By now, Cole was slurring his words and still throwing punches. But even then, says Gibbins, he always seemed to calm down at the sound of Johnson’s voice. She knelt by him, holding his hand and stroking his hair, telling him, “I love you,” and, “Lie still.”
It took another 15 minutes for the second ambulance to arrive. The paramedic quickly gave Cole a shot of a sedative and inserted a breathing tube. But after a few minutes, Cole woke up and began to grab at the tube.
They were losing precious time. So they decided to carry Cole – despite his thrashing – across the rocks and through the weeds to the ambulance.
Thirty minutes later, they neared Littleton Hospital. “We’re almost there,” the driver called out.
Thank God, thought Gibbins, who had accompanied the couple. But he worried the small facility might not be equipped to handle this kind of trauma.
At the hospital, the medics rolled Cole into the emergency room. There doctors quickly called for a helicopter to take him to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, where he could be evaluated by a brain surgeon. When Gibbins glanced at himself in the mirror in the ER bathroom, he saw that he was covered head to toe in Cole’s blood.
Photo: Tamara Reynolds
At Dartmouth, Johnson spent the night on a couch in Cole’s room. When she woke up, she immediately felt her exertions of the day before. “I’m a track runner, and I’ve been sore from lots of different things,” she says. “But I literally could not move.” And she was so hoarse that she could only whisper. The physical pain was compounded by worry.
Doctors kept Cole in an induced coma for two days, hoping that the swelling in his brain would recede. The medical team couldn’t predict what his condition would be when he woke.
Johnson was still at his bedside when he did. The doctor told him to wiggle his toes, and he did. Then Johnson used one of their private signals: They hold up their fingers in a one-four-three pattern – first the pointer finger, then four fingers, then three – their way of saying “I love you.”
When Johnson signaled, Cole lifted his hand and did the same, and Johnson melted with relief.
She wasn’t the only one. As soon as Cole could talk, Johnson called Gibbins’s cell phone. “I have someone who wants to say hello,” she said.
Then Gibbins heard a young man’s voice. “Hey, buddy,” Cole said, and Gibbins broke down crying.
“I know that something led me to be on that road at that exact moment to be able to help him,” Gibbins says.
Not only did Cole escape brain damage but he also came through the experience with only scars on his arm, leg, and forehead. “He calls them his warrior scars,” Johnson says.
Cole doesn’t remember much of what happened after he slipped. But he does recall Johnson telling him not to walk in the water. “I think after this, we’ve settled down a little bit,” Cole says. “It knocked a little bit of the daredevil out of me.”
Johnson holds out hope that in the future, “there will be times when I’ll say to him again, ‘Aaron, don’t do that,’ and maybe he’ll think twice.” She can’t account for how she carried him down the mountain. “I look back and think, How in the world did I do that? It definitely makes me feel like there are powers out there stronger than mine.”