By Janet Blackmon Morgan / The Sun News
On the surface, there is right and wrong, black and white, and all questions are easily answered with "yes" and "no."
There is a mother, a father and their children.
Untie the ribbons binding this neat family package and complicated questions are released for superior court judges, psychologists, doctors, lawyers and specialists.
There's Abbie Cohen Dorn looking wide-eyed at her mother Susan Cohen one Thursday morning in Myrtle Beach. Cohen leans in telling her 34-year-old daughter a judge across the country gave them what they wanted.
"He said we can fight for visitation, little bug," Cohen says softly before kissing Abbie Dorn gently on the forehead. "I've missed you. Mommy missed you more than you know."
On behalf of Abbie, the Cohens are tangled in a legal battle with Abbie's former husband for visitation of the couple's 3-year-old triplets, a girl Esti, and boys Reuvi and Yossi. The children live in Los Angeles, Calif., with Dan Dorn. Dan Dorn's case centers on a 2007 neurological report that Abbie is in a permanent vegetative state so she can't decide whether or not she wants to see her children. Dan Dorn's legal team has said the visitation issue raised by the Cohens is an attempt to establish visitation rights for grandparents in a state that does not allow it. In court papers, Dan Dorn said he has not told the children about their mother nor what happened to her.
What happened to Abbie began on June 20, 2006, during the delivery of her triplets at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Two children were born without incident, but her uterus was cut during a Caesarian section as the third child was being born. She lost blood, had to be revived, went into a coma, her brain swelled and she suffered brain damage.
While Abbie was in a rehabilitation facility, Dan Dorn told his in-laws he was giving up on the marriage a year after the children were born. The Cohens acted on behalf of their daughter in the divorce proceedings and a malpractice suit.
"She wasn't improving out there," Susan Cohen explained while walking around her neighborhood. "I knew we could get her the care she needed here. He wasn't bringing the children by any more and she wasn't getting better. There was no reason for us to stay there. The last time he saw her, with the kids, she was different. She was in pain, contracted. That was 2007. She's better now. She's getting better. She's getting the care she needs here."
Now, Susan Cohen says, they are looking forward to a May 13 hearing in California. She said the judge ordered it didn't matter what condition Abbie is in - vegetative or not - since her rights as a parent are not limited by her limitations. But since there are limitations, it is appropriate for the Cohens to act on her behalf. Susan Cohen expects that hearing to center on the findings of child psychologists and minor's counsel. She said Dan Dorn is tying his home into the visitation issue as child support.
"I've told him, his lawyer, we don't care about the house. He can have it. He has it. He can keep it. They think we want the house. We don't care," she says with a weary smile of a woman who hasn't slept more than a few hours after leaving the two-bedroom home in question. "That's where they lived, he and Abbie. He still lives there with the children. It is their home. It's frustrating. We don't care about the house. We want Abbie to be able to see her children. That's all we care about. He can have the house, it's not relavant. We're hoping to get beyond the house and on to the visitation."
The trip in late April marked the first time Susan Cohen had seen the children since the move to South Carolina in 2007. She said she approached Dan Dorn in the courtroom, but the conversation was blocked by his attorney. But, through persistence, Susan Cohen stopped by the home on her way out of town. She arrived about 8 a.m. knowing Dan Dorn would be taking the children to school. He invited her in, let the children meet her and they all spent some time together inside a fenced-in backyard.
Privately, she also gave Dan Dorn current photographs of Abbie so he can begin the process of introducing his children to their mother.
Susan Cohen said Dan Dorn allows Dr. Paul Cohen to visit every few months. Dr. Cohen explains he is their grandfather, but does not mention Abbie nor relate that he is the father of their mother. "It's Dan's rules," Susan Cohen explains. "He's trying, I believe, to be a good father. I've always said he's a good father. He loves his children. I would never say anything bad about him as a father, but I think he is wrong on some things."
Susan Cohen said one of the boys, Yossi, had asked Dan Dorn once about his mother while Dr. Cohen was visiting. She said Yossi was distracted by something and "ran off to play before anyone could say anything. That's the only time I know of that the children have ever asked about Abbie."
Meanwhile, Abbie's room is decorated with photographs of the triplets, her family and signs of her Orthodox Jewish faith.
There's a painting across from Abbie's bed. Susan Cohen had an artist portray a healthy, happy Abbie with the children walking through dunes toward the outstretched arms of a kneeling Dan Dorn. But, Susan Cohen said softly as Abbie's eyes closed nearby, she had to get the painting altered when she noticed it was upsetting Abbie. The kneeling wide-open arms of the man remained, but his face was changed to look more like Abbie's brother Yaakov Cohen.
"She likes it better now," Susan Cohen said. "It looks like Yaak and she doesn't get upset when she looks at it."
"I think for anyone to say that anybody that still alive is hopeless is, is denying God's existence. I think that those are self evident now that we are finding ways. It's said that before God made any disease, he invented the cure. It's just up to man to find it and those cures are out there, no matter what the disease is or the affliction," Susan Cohen says. "I think we need to be persistent.
So, I don't think I'm in fantasyland. I think those things are quite real and I see my daughter acknowledge things. She does clearly understand."
She sees the healing through Abbie's treatment, with both traditional and alternative medicine. A typical week of Abbie's schedule involves Torah readings by her brother Yaakov Cohen, visits by traditional doctors, sessions in occupational and physical therapy, sessions of acupuncture and acutonics, music therapy and electronic leads attached to her head to record brain activity while Abbie sits in front of a computer screen willing a picture to enlarge.
"It's not a matter of so much a timetable, but typically, typically, with neurofeedback it will take two to three years of continuous neurofeedback before one would expect someone like Abbie to be able to get up and perhaps walk with a walker," Susan Cohen says. "It's not 10 years down the road, but it's not tomorrow either. Soon, God willing."
Soon, Susan Cohen repeats, she hopes to be adding another thing to Abbie's schedule. She hopes to begin with web cam visits with the triplets and then face to face meetings. She's offering to fly the children in from California with Dan Dorn and a friend of his choosing. "I don't care if he brings a girlfriend," she says.
She knows Dan Dorn has had one broken engagement since Abbie delivered the triplets, but she's not privy to any other information. But, she said, she remembers the courtship between Abbie and Dan Dorn.
"He thought she was 'hot,' he used to say," Susan Cohen said. "I think he really liked having the prettiest girlfriend of all his friends. I think he really liked having the prettiest wife. He loved her, I think, at first sight. It took her a little longer, but she did love him."
They were married in Atlanta in August of 2002. They moved to California as Dan Dorn worked for his father and Abbie continued practicing as a chiropractor.
Late in 2005, the couple opted for in vitro fertilization. All three eggs were fertilized, Abbie was pregnant with triplets and making plans for a growing family. She delivered the triplets on June 20, 2006. A few days later, Abbie was in a coma and her family gathered at her bedside.
On this Thursday, Abbie's bed is surrounded by therapists.
Lydia Skelley is an occupational therapist who provides three sessions a week in Abbie's home. She uses balancing balls, small foam grips to help muscle tone in Abbie's clinched hands and stretches for her body. She cites Abbie's ability to sit without support as a "major milestone." Skelley has been working with Abbie since December 2007.
"Oh, she has come a long way. She's so much better," Skelley said. "It's nothing real big, except for the sitting up, but it is small little things that she's getting better at. It's little steps, baby steps. She's definitely aware and definitely not in a vegetative state."
A few minutes after the hour-plus session with Skelley, Abbie is back in her bed as her older brother Yaakov Cohen flips open a laptop computer. He zeros in on a web page written in Hebrew. He begins the daily reading of Maimonides, or code of jewish laws. In between paragraphs of reading about vows, he looks up and calls Abbie's name. "We're getting to the good part soon, Abs," he says. "You're still awake? Good. Abbie, it is pretty interesting stuff. We don't really use this, vow section, so much in our daily lives. But, Abs, if we ever need to know what to do, well, here it is."
Yaakov Cohen splits his time between Myrtle Beach and Brooklyn, N.Y. When he's not visiting his sister every other month, he reads to her via a web cam.
He said his little sister was always more of a caretaker for him as a child in Canton, Ohio. She worried over him the way an older sister would have, he imagined. Even as a toddler, he smiles, she acted like a mother to their younger sister Channa. He remembers Abbie taking charge of changing diapers when Abbie was barely out of diapers. "She was always so nurturing," he said.
Just as Yaakov Cohen finishes the reading and packs up his laptop, Jennifer Klich begins unpacking the tools of her trade. She lines up tuning forks on a few folded chairs by Abbie's bed. She opens her viola case and inspects a broken bow. Standing, Klich looks into Abbie's face and smiles. "Hi, Abbie," she says casually. Abbie stares in her direction. Klich begins to apply acupuncture needles explaining to Abbie that she's targeting a decrease in the delta waves so Abbie will be more alert. She's also using acutonics to help with digestion. Klich plays a few songs on the viola watching Abbie's face morph from calm to contorted and back to calm. While Klich begins a session for instant feedback on a xylophone, Abbie turns to face her. There is a long blink in the stare and Klich smiles as she helps Susan Cohen position the xylophone. "Abbie, this is going to be fun," she says gliding Abbie's hand along the keys.
After the session with Klich, Crystal Toskov takes over at Abbie's bedside. Toskov has only been a caretaker with Abbie for about eight months, but says they've talked with Abbie blinking "yes" responses. "You just have to wait a few seconds for her to decide what the answer is," Toskov said. "You have to let her understand what you're saying and then wait for her to answer. She'll answer. If it's 'no,' she'll give you a long look. Then you have to ask a different, opposite question so she can answer 'yes.' She knows what's going on."
While Toskov moves from one room to the other organizing medical and personal care supplies for Abbie, 4-year-old Gracie Phillips bounces in the bedroom. She stops and stares into Abbie's face. "Hey, Abbie," the child says. "Hey, momma let me come today." The child belongs to housekeeper Jennifer Phillips and she visits Abbie several times a week. She sits by Abbie as caretaker Amber Morrell attaches electrical leads to Abbie's earlobes and head.
"Abbie. We gonna watch a movie today? Momma said we get to see Mary Poppins," Gracie Phillips says as she walks her fingers along the bedrail.
A contraption of computers, wires and modems are positioned back to back in Abbie's room. On one side, a monitor flickers blue with bar graphs bouncing and wave forms etching across the top of the screen. On the opposite side is another monitor facing Abbie, Gracie Phillips and Susan Cohen. The mother's arm is draped over her daughter's shoulder. Abbie's head is dipped with her chin facing her right shoulder. Susan Cohen's eyes dart from the computer screen with Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews to Abbie.
"Make it big, Abbie," she says. "You can do it. Make it big." With each encouragement, the movie frame enlarges. The test continues for about an hour. Susan Cohen said the neurofeedback is equivalent to a four-hour workout at a gym. Abbie is tucked into her bed after the feedback session and quickly closes her eyes.
In the afternoon hush, Susan Cohen counts the blessings.
There's a blessing the house is handicapped accessible. In a fluke accident of a work crew flicking a lit cigarette in the wrong place while refinishing wooden floors, their home was burned in 2005. At the time, Susan Cohen says, she was suffering crippling osteoporosis and outfitted the home with an apartment on the first floor thinking she'd soon be unable to climb the stairs. Since 2005, Susan Cohen began taking a new drug for osteoporosis so she can live an active life. That apartment off the foyer is now Abbie's room and the nearby library is a storage room for Abbie's medical and personal supplies.
There's the blessing the triplets are healthy and thriving.
There's the blessing the Cohens were able to afford the 17-month stay in California and able to return to Myrtle Beach with a home and Dr. Cohen's practice intact.
There's the blessing Yaakov Cohen can visit regularly. There's the blessing the Cohens youngest daughter, Channa Mayer, can visit with her five children and husband from Charlottesville, Va.
"We don't do those normal kind of family things any more, but on the other hand, I think we're even closer," she says stopping at a crossroads in her neighborhood. As she looks past the azaleas, caretaker Morrell appears pushing Abbie in a chair. "We all have the same goal of seeing Abbie heal. I think that all of us have the faith in God that it will happen. That there's so many things happening. It's been said that in the times before, what we call Mashiach, Messiah, the English word, that the flood gates of knowledge will open up and I certainly see that happening, especially in brain research with neuroplasticity and all the excitement in that field.
"We all have the same goal, the same faith in God, that Abbie will have complete healing. We pray that prayer of complete healing."