New medical device gives retired teacher a new chance at life

Students will honor Robert Cooley at his namesake school later this spring
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Robert Cooley used only two sick days during his whole 37-year teaching career. He took off one day of school when he had walking pneumonia, and one day was plenty. “I called my doctor and told him I’m going back to work,” Cooley said. “He said, ‘No, you’re not.’” But, sure enough, Cooley did. Now retired, Cooley, 75, taught science at Warren T. Eich Intermediate School and George Buljan Middle School in Roseville until 1995. In 2000, Robert C. Cooley Middle School was built to honor this long-time educator. Later this spring, students will hold a rally to pay tribute to their school’s namesake. Cooley’s retirement years, although full of fishing and cross-country road trips, have included a fair share of struggle. Two years ago, Cooley experienced cardiac arrest during a Roseville City Council meeting. Since then, his heart has stopped 10 times and he’s had 12 heart attacks. Last week, Cooley sat on a couch in the house he and his wife Penny have shared since 1967. Dressed comfortably in jeans and a green sweatshirt with the Cooley Cobras logo, he talked about his health and the medical device that saved his life. Earlier this year, Cooley suffered from congestive heart failure that sent him to the emergency room about every two weeks. The organ functioned at less than 10 percent, but his age made him ineligible for a heart transplant. Then good news arrived. In January, the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the HeartMate II, which is a left-ventricular assist device that can extend the lives of patients for up to seven years. In February, Cooley became the first person in northern California to be implanted with this new heart pump through Sutter Medical Center, which is one of only a handful of hospitals in California to be certified for this therapy. “It was really no choice,” Cooley said. “It’s a life change. But life changes all the time anyways.” The HeartMate II moves a continuous flow of blood through the body. During the day, Cooley wears two battery packs. At night, an electric cord running into his body hooks into an energy source that plugs into an outlet. “He’s a little bolt of electricity sitting over there,” said his wife. The device has given him more energy and a new chance at life, he said. Cooley and his younger brother grew up the children of migrant farmworkers. The family moved to Roseville in the 1940s. Only two movie theaters existed in town back then, and if his family wanted to eat at a nice restaurant, they drove to Sacramento. The summer before college, Cooley lived with friends in south San Francisco, in the same neighborhood where Penny lived. She saw a black-and-white photograph of Cooley and decided she had to meet that man. Soon after, the two married. Eleven months later, the couple had a daughter (they also raised a foster daughter). One day, while shopping in the bread section of a local grocery store, Cooley ran into the superintendent of Roseville schools, who offered him a teaching job. Cooley said yes. He taught sixth grade before eventually becoming a middle school science teacher. He started an environmental-science camp in Fort Bragg that continues today, some 20 years later. “I loved teaching,” Cooley said. “I had great kids.” One of those kids grew up to be one of the doctors involved with his HeartMate II procedure. “It’s kind of amazing to have an ex-student working on you,” Cooley said. “I hope I didn’t give him any Fs in school.” Cooley and his wife of 51 years used to regularly travel by recreational vehicle around the United States. But Cooley can no longer drive. Once an avid fisherman, he can’t fish from a boat anymore, only from the water’s bank. For Penny, though, she’s not focused on these sorts of sacrifices. “He’s still here,” Penny said. “That’s all that matters.” Sena Christian can be reached at