Kelsey Watts was never so happy to hear her husband telling her how to drive.
It meant that he was alive and coherent enough to talk and know what was going on. He was giving Kelsey directions – make that “bossing” her. All Kelsey could do was give thanks, not complain about her bossy husband.
“Thank the Lord, he’s talking,” was Kelsey’s only thought.
That was the night of Nov. 30, 2014. Cole and Kelsey Watts and Kelsey’s 15-year-old cousin were hunting on a deer lease eight miles north of Colorado City. It was getting dark and the three of them were packing up, getting ready to head home. Cole walked toward the deer blind one last time, while Kelsey and her cousin headed to the pickup.
“As I was walking back to the blind,” Cole said, “he thought I was a deer and shot at me.”
The bullet from the hunting rifle tore through Cole’s abdomen, a wound so serious that Cole was hospitalized for two months. Even then, the ordeal wasn’t over. He eventually underwent nine surgeries, including a complete abdominal reconstruction at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Skin grafts cover a six-inch exit wound in his back.
“I still can’t do a proper sit-up,” he joked.
But he is alive and well and the father of a baby boy, Hunter, born in September 2017. He goes to work every day and has regained his strength.
“Overall,” he said, “for being 30 years old, I’m doing pretty good.”
Much more has happened to Cole since Nov. 30, 2014, than regaining his health and having a new baby. That would be enough by itself, but the story goes deeper. Before the accident, Cole was working with his father, Steve, in their business, More Clean of Texas, which provides parking lot sweeping and pressure washing services, landscaping and exterior maintenance for commercial properties.
The two of them still do that work but have added another business, a Mosquito Joe franchise, which offers outdoor mosquito control treatments to residential and commercial properties. Father and son own both businesses, with Steve being the majority owner of More Clean of Texas and Cole being the majority owner of Mosquito Joe.
But business expansion isn’t the story, either, except in what it can do to help others. When Cole was lying on the ground with a gaping hole in his abdomen, he had one thought.
“This is it,” he thought. “I guess this is how it ends.”
But it didn’t.
Cole grew up in Southern Hills Church of Christ, graduated from Cooper High School in 2005 and earned an accounting degree in 2009 from Abilene Christian University. Despite his church and ACU background, Cole never was much for promoting his religion or getting involved with missions activities.
“I was never in the forefront,” he said.
Nevertheless, the religious teachings had had an effect. Before the accident, Cole was a good, hardworking young man and loving husband and son, helping run the family business. That was fine, but he found out he could do more. While hospitalized, and for months afterward, church friends, family friends, and college friends – Cole and Kelsey met at ACU – surrounded the family with assistance and love. Cole learned he needed their help.
“There’s nothing more humbling than having others helping you,” he said.
That experience had an effect. Cole made a commitment to use his talents to help others, like he had been helped.
“That kind of got the wheels turning,” Cole said.
He added the Mosquito Joe franchise, but not just so he could make more money or add another business to his name. He now had a different vision, one of helping others because of the help he had received.
The businesses now have 22 employees, up from just Cole, Steve, and one other in the beginning. All are paid above-average wages, with benefits. The More Clean of Texas primarily is a night-time service. Cole wanted to make sure the employees looked professional so that people encountering them in a parking lot late at night would feel safe. They wear professional uniforms, and their equipment is well-maintained.
“That really sets us apart in the industry,” Cole said.
More Clean already has offices in much of West Texas and is expanding into Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. Cole’s Mosquito Joe franchise covers the southwestern part of Fort Worth and all of Abilene.
Cole’s story has a happy ending, but that was far from certain the night of Nov. 30, 2014. After Kelsey and her cousin got Cole into the pickup, they drove the eight miles to the Mitchell County Hospital in Colorado City. Cole was conscious and coherent enough to give driving directions.
“Adrenalin is a really good drug,” he said.
The staff at the hospital in Colorado City stabilized him, and then he was flown in a medical helicopter to Hendrick Medical Center. He underwent six surgeries during the month he was in ICU. That followed another month’s stay in a regular hospital room. He couldn’t eat for six weeks and lost about 30 pounds.
March and April 2015 brought two more surgeries, including a colostomy and two skin grafts. A ninth surgery to reconstruct his abdomen followed in October 2015.
Through all of it, Cole thought about Kelsey’s 15-year-old cousin and the guilt he must be feeling. Cole knew it was a fluke accident and let him know by writing a note, “Tell him I forgive him.”
And through it all, there were more people helping than Cole and Kelsey could imagine. At the time, Kelsey was a fifth-grade teacher in the Clyde Independent School District, where she now is a counselor.
The district provided a substitute teacher so that Kelsey could be at Cole’s bedside as much as she needed to be and held a fundraiser to help with expenses. Fellow teachers and her principal visited.
“They were amazing,” Kelsey said. “They were very, very supportive.”
And then there were prayers – lots of prayers – from people at Southern Hills Church of Christ, where Cole grew up and where his mother is the secretary, from members of Highland Church of Christ, where Cole and Kelsey now attend, and from others they may never know about.
“I 100 percent believe it’s easier because of the prayers,” Kelsey said.
A person with a special bond to Cole also made life easier. Tim Yandell, vice president for development at Disability Resources Inc. (DRI), was a member of Frater Sodalis men’s organization while a student at ACU in the 1980s and today is an adviser for the group. Cole, too, was a member while at ACU.
Yandell has known Cole since Cole was in elementary school and the family attended Southern Hills. He even performed Cole and Kelsey’s wedding ceremony. Yandell was one of the first people to arrive at Hendrick after Cole was transported there.
“He had asked to see me,” Yandell said, “which was kind of shocking to me.”
It shouldn’t have been. Those Frater Sodalis ties run deep. Yandell was a frequent visitor to the hospital and even invited Kelsey and her sister to his home as a place to get away and relax. Yandell said that when students pledge Frater Sodalis, they make a lifetime commitment to one another.
“It’s definitely a brotherhood for life,” Yandell said.
From the outside, the life that Cole and Kelsey are living now, with their new baby, is not much different from the life they led before Nov. 30, 2014. But something transformational happened that night. Kelsey sees life from a different perspective. Like most young people in their 20s and early 30s, they were always looking to the future. Now, that has changed for both of them.
“What I do today is what I do today,” Kelsey said, “and I’m going to make it worthwhile.”
Cole still looks to the future, but in a different way. He wants to expand the two businesses, but not to create an empire. He wants to expand so that he can help more people by giving them dignity at their job, living wages, and benefits. He knows he dodged a bullet, figuratively at least, and easily could died or become an invalid. But that didn’t happen.
“It just wasn’t my time,” Cole said. “I have to make sure the time I have left is spent well.”