Living Just 186 Days, His Mom Made Memories Last a Lifetime

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When Ellen Tomczyk and her husband’s son Cole was born on June 14, 1999, they thought Cole would be around for the rest of their lives.

Instead, Cole survived for 186 days. Of those, 74 were spent in hospitals and two months were at home under hospice care. After his birth, Cole had episodes of apnea and turned blue in the arms. Later, he had ongoing seizures. He developed paralyzed vocal cords. Unable to suckle, Cole needed a nasogastric tube to eat. Rare was a day without a struggle to survive. In his last days, Cole was on concentrated oxygen. Doctors never reached a diagnosis.

It was 11:15 a.m. on December 13, 1999, that Cole died in his mother’s arms.

As the first anniversary of their baby's death approached, Tomczyk wasn't sure how she would manage. Along with her husband, she decided to gather friends together that day and ask each to bring a toy to donate to the hospital. The parents thought they would receive 40 toys at most. By the end of the day, there were 400 donations. Many were stuffed animals. 

Cole’s Closet was born.

In the 22 years since, the Tomczyks, who live in Springfield, Virginia, have collected more than 12,000 toys to donate to hospitals around Washington, D.C. They began with Inova Fairfax Hospital in Annandale, Virginia. Today, they operate toy rooms and donations at 11 medical facilities in the region, catering to kids ranging in age from infanthood to the teenage years and run popular annual fundraisers for hospital donations. At Inova Loudoun Hospital, the Tomczyk family has given more than $50,000 to establish a teen entertainment room in the pediatric wing complete with books, Sony PlayStations, computers, and foosball tables.

“I always wondered why my son died. When it happened, I had three other friends who were pregnant. I thought, ‘Why was it us? Why Cole?'" Tomczyk says. “The answer I kept coming back to is that God was using us to create a message to the world to help people. We’re vessels for him to show that there is kindness and love. There are a lot of negatives in the world — and we’ve experienced the bad ourselves — but there is so much good behind the scenes.”

Cole’s Closet, which is run entirely by volunteers and receives donations through its word-of-mouth advertisements, formally became a nonprofit 20 years ago. The toys are stored in the Tomczyk home and in rented storage units. Each December, the family also hosts a silent auction to raise money for toy purchases. The last one, held at a local Hilton, netted more than $25,000. Corporate donors, including a local power company, a golf course and others, have also joined the cause over the years. 

The toys, which are bagged and labeled with the phrase “With love and hugs from Cole's closet,” don’t only go to ill kids, but they often go to the siblings of hospitalized kids who have to spend days or weeks waiting in hospitals while awaiting their loved ones to be treated. That was the case with Cole’s older sister, Taylor, who stayed many nights in the hospital while her parents tried to keep Cole alive.

“When a child is sick, it doesn’t just affect the parents; it really hits their brothers or sisters,” Tomcyzk says. “Those kids need a little happiness or distraction just as much as anyone else. It’s hard for the whole family when you have to take one of the kids to the hospital.”

Tomcyzk, who is a Christian, says the lesson she drew from Cole’s death — and the outpouring of love that came to be via Cole’s Closet — is that “it’s not the hand that's dealt to you, it's what you do with the cards."

"How do you measure the importance of a person's life? Is it the number of days the person lives or in the number of lives he or she has touched?" Tomczyk says. "Although our Cole was a mere six months when Jesus called him home, he reached out and touched many lives in the community. We are only wishing to carry out that which Cole began.”

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Written By

JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

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