Whether he was serving his country as a lieutenant colonel in the Army or serving as a medical missionary in the jungles of Ecuador, Cole’s life was marked by service to others. Since moving to Wilson County 20 years ago, he made it his priority to raise the quality of health care for the people in this community.
Just a few short years later, Cole had a patient named Sherry Whitaker. She was a young wife and mother diagnosed with an aggressive form of colon cancer. Though she fought hard, she lost her battle in 2004. That same year, Whitaker’s family and friends came together to organize an event called Sherry’s Run with the desire to raise money for cancer research. One of the first and most supportive sponsors of this event was Cole through his gastroenterology practice.
Fast forward a few years, and the board of Sherry’s Run faced some big decisions. For the first few years, the funds raised at the event were given entirely to research, but the board saw a great need for assistance in the community. Several board members sat down with Cole and asked, “What is the best way for us to prevent other families from facing what Sherry’s family went through?”
Cole saw patients whom he believed to have cancer, but could not afford a colonoscopy. So, he partnered with Sherry’s Run to provide a colonoscopy assistance program. Cole’s practice offered colonoscopies to qualifying patients at a discounted rate, and Sherry’s Run used the funds raised at the event to pay the rest.
But, he did not stop there. Cole also suggested Sherry’s Run partner to distribute colon cancer screening kits to the community for free. The American College of Gastroenterology recommends everyone have a routine colonoscopy beginning at age 50 or before if there’s a family history. For everyone under 50, they recommend a colon cancer screening each year. It has been the mission of Sherry’s Run to make this possible for every resident in Wilson County ever since. Cole’s practice helped to fund the cost of processing the kits and following up with patients.
As the needs in the community grew, the colonoscopy assistance program evolved into what is now the patient assistance program through which Sherry’s Run helps patients with all types of cancer. The colonoscopy assistance program Cole helped start is still in place, as well, and the funds raised through Sherry’s Run are used to assist cancer patients and their families in Wilson County and the surrounding communities.
“Many lives have been saved because of Dr. Cole’s willingness to help us with the colon cancer screening program,” said Tonyia Stockton, director of patient assistance for Sherry’s Run. “It was so important to him that the people in this community receive the best care possible, and a big part of that is prevention. Dr. Cole knew that and he was such a great partner in raising awareness.”
In fact, he was known for having coined the phrase, “Don’t die of embarrassment,” in response to those who were hesitant to have a routine colonoscopy.
Cole and his practice supported Sherry’s Run in other ways, as well. They were faithful sponsors of the event since the first year. They have also become famous for the giant, inflatable colon seen each year at the Sherry’s Run 5K event.
“Sherry’s Run was the one day of the year that Don’s entire staff and family came together to support the cause,” said Susan Cole, Don Cole’s wife of 35 years.
In 2014, when Don Cole was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer, it came as quite a surprise to everyone. He practiced what he preached and had routine colonoscopies. However, the type of cancer he had was a rare and aggressive form. In addition, he had a heart stint put in following a heart attack in 2009. He believed the anti-rejection medicine in the stint might have played a part in accelerating the spread of his cancer.
“Don would want everyone to know that his situation does not change the importance of preventative care. He saw patients every year who were able to be treated and beat this disease because they had their routine colonoscopy,” said Susan Cole.
Don Cole was able to have some success with experimental chemotherapy treatments. In fact, he had about four months of feeling better and was even able to see the birth of his first granddaughter.
Don Cole’s legacy of service lives on through his family, co-workers and patients. He and his wife raised four sons who, along with their wives, rallied around their father throughout his illness to provide care and support. His daughter-in-law, Casey, is in nursing school at Cumberland University partly because of the encouragement she received from him.
Dr. Neil Price, Dr. Jocelyne Miller and Dr. Brett Inglis, who bought Cole’s practice, have continued to provide the same great care to the community for which he and his practice were known. They also continue to honor his legacy through financial support of Sherry’s Run.
“Dr. Cole will always be remembered as a major force in raising awareness about the importance of colon cancer screening in the Lebanon community. He created a leading GI practice and endoscopy center that our GI group feel very privileged to be a part of,” said Price.
Don Cole’s legacy will be honored Sept. 10 at 8 a.m. at the 13th annual Sherry’s Run at 623 W. Main St. in Lebanon. Registration is available at sherrysrun.org.