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Life returns to normal for Ellwood City boy who beat vicious illness

| Thursday, May 23, 2013, 10:51 a.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Cole Patrick Grinnen (center), 6, plays soccer at Steifel Park in Ellwood City on Monday, May 20, 2013. Grinnen underwent reconstructive surgery on his skull last year but is doing much better now and enjoying an active lifestyle.

On a warm spring day on an Ellwood City soccer field, 6-year-old Cole Patrick Grinnen dribbled the ball, took aim and swung back his right leg.

The ball shot past the goalie's outstretched arms and settled in the back of the net.

Onlookers cheered. Cole's mom, Rebekah Grinnen, smiled. Pushing dark sunglasses up the bridge of her nose, she fought back tears.

“Sometimes I catch myself — like right now,” she said. “I didn't really cry when it was all happening. But now ...

“He's here. He's alive. He's a normal little boy.”

Until recently, her son was far from normal.

Cole Grinnen battled a rare and vicious sinus infection that nearly killed him last year.

The infection, diagnosed in early 2012, spread to his skull, abscessed his brain and forced doctors to remove a silver-dollar-sized piece of his skull, in his forehead, that had become infected.

The emergency operation at Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville saved his life. But Cole had to wear a helmet to protect the exposed section of his brain, which pulsated visibly below the skin, for nearly a year.

Today, however, several months removed from reconstructive surgery, Cole Grinnen is again what his mother always wanted: A normal little boy. He plays sports with friends. He sits alone in his family's basement and bangs away on his new drum set. Sometimes, he performs headstands, “because I can,” he explains to his mom.

And he only wears that old helmet now when he's riding his bike. “Because if I fall and hit my head, I'll have to go back to the hospital again,” he explains.

Cole's infection was rare in its severity.

Family pediatrician Dr. Gheorghe Antonescu of New Castle, who became a doctor in 1976, said he had never seen such an insidious sinus infection.

But Cole's prognosis is good, he said. He credited Rebekah Grinnen and her mom, Jan Zayas, for their “persistence and endurance” in helping Cole through his life-threatening ordeal. “They did everything for him,” Antonescu said. “If we all had parents like that, my mission would be much easier.”

Grinnen, who teaches government and economics at Seneca Valley High School, is a single mother of four.

She had to take a leave from work for several months to care for Cole when the infection refused to go away, and later to monitor his every move and assure that he didn't do anything to damage his brain.

Cole wore a helmet 24 hours a day. He slept in a day bed lined with pillows in his mom's room. She recalled watching him through many sleepless nights, afraid to close her eyes lest he should toss in his sleep and bump his head.

Yet, she knew her boy had returned to her on Dec. 12, when he awoke in the hospital after the two-and- a-half-hour surgery to rebuild his skull. Cole opened his eyes, Rebekah Grinnen recalled, and promptly asked for a grilled cheese sandwich and a Slim Jim.

“Three days later, we were home,” she said.

He had one setback, in January, when his head swelled. Cole was hospitalized for four days.

But the swelling subsided and the scars healed. The only sign of what Cole endured hangs on the family's dining room wall in the form of dozens of letters — from classmates and people across the country who heard about his plight — wishing him a full recovery.

“He won't let me take them down,” Rebekah Grinnen said. Cole smiled and buried his head in his mom's arms.

The letters are a reminder of all the help the Grinnens received from friends and strangers. Rebekah Grinnen counts them off:

Vic Rangle, a local musician, arranged a benefit concert last summer. Sister Joanne Kokosinski of Holy Redeemer Church, where the Grinnen children attend school, organized a spaghetti dinner in the fall. Grinnen's students at Seneca Valley held a pancake breakfast as part of their senior project and raised $1,200.

Others chipped in, too, including several Tribune-Review readers who read a story about Cole last summer, Grinnen said.

“Without a doubt, it helped,” Grinnen said.

Even with such generosity, Grinnen said the family went deep into debt. She cut costs by eliminating luxuries such as cable, internet and phone service.

Through it all, her three healthy kids — Liam, 11, Eliott, 8 and Sadie, 3 — never complained. Liam even went behind his mom's back and got a job delivering newspapers to pay the bills.

“I'm so proud of my kids,” Grinnen said, watching Cole dribble the soccer ball as his siblings looked on from the sidelines. “A lot of kids wouldn't have been able to handle all this.”

On cue, Sadie rose from a lawn chair and ran onto the field. As Cole lined up his next shot, she shouted: “You can do it! You can do it, Cole Patrick!”

Cole shooed her away and looked embarrassed.

Like a normal little boy.

Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or

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