Their love story is so classic that it could be a script for one of the romantic comedies they enjoy watching together. She first noticed him as he worked out; he noticed her back, since she worked there. She followed him on Instagram; he followed her back. By the end of their first date in December 2017, she knew he was her guy. They hung out back at his place, had their first kiss, and the rest, as they say, is history.
They enjoy cuddling and watching movies. They both enjoy reading, love dogs, and can’t agree on basketball teams (Dallas Mavericks for him; Boston Celtics for her). They enjoy traveling and have a visit to New Zealand on their bucket list. They talk and dream about marriage one day, and about having children – triplets, if they get what they joke about hoping for!
Twenty-four year-old Cole Alexander Sydnor is a self-proclaimed cinephile who enjoys video editing, EDM (electronic dance music), playing rugby and the shrimp alfredo at Pasta House. He has a Bachelor’s of Science – Psychology with a Neuroscience concentration from the University of Richmond. Twenty-five year-old Charisma Imani Jamison enjoys singing, working out, watching movies and listening to old-school R&B. She is a VCU grad, and is a graduate student in Occupational Therapy at Shenandoah University, Class of 2020.
Sitting down to interview Cole and Charisma was like watching a TV series that you want to see the next episode of. Obviously deeply in love, they anticipate each other’s answers, and frequently say the same things – only occasionally surprising each other (like when they revealed their dream careers – his as a prolific actor, and hers as a dancer)! Truly, their story sounds like a rom-com waiting to be written. The story couldn’t sound more scripted, right?
They’re just like most young couples in love, except for one major exception. Cole is a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic. Those first glances took place over exercises at Sheltering Arms Physical Rehabilitation Center, not some fancy designer gym. Traveling together is more “inconvenient” than most people would tolerate. Rugby is played from a wheelchair. Something as easy as dinner out can be complicated. Amazingly, Cole does not complain. He is humble and understanding in a way that is both extremely mature and nearly incomprehensible. “It’s all about perspective,” Cole explains. “There’s just not much worse that can happen to a person than breaking their neck.”
If you were living in Richmond, Virginia on August 11, 2011, it’s likely that you heard news reports about a 16-year old Atlee High School student who dove into the James River and hit rock just below the surface of the water, breaking his neck.
“I was at the James River, at the pipeline, with a few friends. Just like any other summer day, we were just out having fun on the water,” Cole tells me. “It was something we had done often.” While crossing the river to get back to their campsite, Cole dove head-first into the water to gain momentum to take him through the rapids they were crossing. He hit a rock just below the surface of the water, immediately breaking his neck and spinal cord. This rendered him unable to swim, and as the rapids began to carry him down river, one of his friends who had not yet crossed was able to jump in and rescue him from the water. It took 45 minutes for paramedics to reach them and tow Cole to safety via raft. He was taken by ambulance to VCU Medical Center, where he was in the intensive care unit for ten days. He was then flown to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, Georgia, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation. Cole remained there for 122 days before returning home to continue rehab there. Amazingly, although Cole missed the first half of his junior year of high school, he was able to catch up on his school work and graduate with the rest of his class.
Cole expresses gratefully the presence of an amazing support system after his injury. “From the beginning, our friends and community were hugely supportive. Not only did many travel to Atlanta to offer emotional support, but they also helped modify our house to be accessible,” an enormously expensive fix. “My parents and brother were unbelievable. They could not have been better.” Cole’s mom, Kelly, whom he describes as an “unstoppable force” has been Cole’s primary caregiver, and has been hugely instrumental in teaching Charisma how to take over those duties. “The hardest thing about dating someone in a wheelchair,” Charisma tells me, “wasn’t about me learning about his care, or being comfortable with him. It was about me being patient while he became comfortable.”
By definition, quadriplegia (or tetraplegia) is paralysis caused by illness or injury that results in partial or total loss of use of all four limbs and torso. Paraplegia is similar, but does not affect the arms. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, 2019 figures estimate that the annual incidence of spinal cord injury is approximately 54 cases per one million people in the United States. Those numbers include all cases, including complete and incomplete paraplegia and quadriplegia. Because I have never had the opportunity to speak with someone living with paralysis, I had questions about what subjects are acceptable (and unacceptable) to approach.
Although Cole clarified for me that his answers are his personal feelings and don’t necessarily reflect the views of every quadriplegic, I was thrilled to know that there aren’t many questions about his injury that bother him. Conversely, Cole is more bothered when a child asks questions and is quickly hushed by a parent. He prefers that naturally curious children be able to ask questions, and not inadvertently taught that it’s preferable to ignore or not talk to someone in a wheelchair. Charisma weighed on this subject as well. “It bothers me when people tell me I’m an angel, or a hero, or that I’m a special person because I date someone in a wheelchair. I love him for who he is – not because he is in a wheelchair.” Cole adds – “It’s a little bit insulting to me, too, as if it’s a pity thing.”
In fact, Cole and Charisma have used their situation to educate the general public on the intricacies and challenges of being in an inter-abled – and interracial – relationship. They do this primarily through regularly posted videos on YouTube, addressing questions raised by their viewers, and educating the public on issues facing people with disabilities. Since starting the channel in May of 2018, they have had the opportunity to meet thousands of people, including many who are living with spinal cord injuries and their caregivers. As of publishing, their channel has over 170,000 subscribers, over 100 videos posted, and millions of individual views. This is no small feat – they spend 5-10 hours a week filming, and Cole spends over 30 hours a week editing videos. They also manage active social media accounts, and the constant flow of comments, emails, and communication that result from such a large audience. Having an online presence does open the door to “haters” that sometimes post comments making judgments of many aspects of their relationship. They remain doggedly focused on positivity, and have learned how to block negativity to filter out certain words from being posted.
With the tag line of “Stay Positive” on their YouTube channel, I wondered how difficult it might be to remain positive as a quadriplegic. I spoke with Cole regarding the emotional struggle that would seemingly be inevitable. “I wouldn’t say that they [emotions] are behind me. But those emotions have been embraced, and they live with me. I have accepted them, and they are not something that I succumb to. I think it’s an important part of me, so I don’t want to shirk them aside. It’s part of who I am.” During his time at Shepherd immediately after his injury, counseling was part of his program, and he notes that it was an incredibly important part of therapy. Surprisingly, he tells me that returning to the scene of the accident was not particularly sad or overwhelming. What was incredibly difficult for him was the first time he was back in the water, which occurred in an indoor pool during his rehabilitation. He tells me that feeling the water lapping against his face for the first time was scary because it took him back to the accident, but that it was a huge emotional release of the negativity that he had felt up to that point.
There are obviously a number of challenges that arise for someone living in a wheelchair. For Cole, he tells me that one of the hardest things for him as a boyfriend is not being able to do more physically to help out. Fortunately for Cole, Charisma notes that his emotional support and their connection fulfills her, and it is truly beautiful to witness that connection. The financial burdens can be overwhelming, and they frequently have to put a huge amount of energy into fighting for bills to be paid, and for approval for seemingly necessary things that are deemed unnecessary by insurance. Incredibly, Cole is still able to paint things in a positive light. “What I did not expect after my injury was to be able to do as much as I have done, for example creating and growing a YouTube channel. I never would have had this ability when I was able-bodied, so in some ways, I have been enabled. I have had opportunities come that never would have if I weren’t quadriplegic. It’s a blessing and a curse in a way.” Although Cole doesn’t expect to gain any progress in his nerve function, he continues to maintain his health and strength, because if there is a scientific breakthrough in the future, he wants his body to be prepared.
Despite the challenges, the future is bright for Cole and Charisma – in fact, they recently announced that they will be moving in together. Cole continues to participate in physical therapy twice weekly, maintains his non-profit (Roll with Cole NFP), and continues to focus on positivity, which he notes is an energy that Charisma feeds into. “Being positive starts internally,” he tells me. “I choose to be positive.”
Photography by Philip Stewart