Mystery illness fells young man

But to get her son's mysterious malady diagnosed, a mother must battle some of the area's top hospitals

School had just started for the year and Cole Haakana

could hardly sit still in his fifth-grade classroom. Today, he was going to a friend's house and they were going to walk into town and get ice cream.

But when school let out later that day and the two boys walked the winding neighborhood roads that follow Lake Minnetonka's shoreline, Cole needed to stop and rest. The 10-year-old boy—who spent nearly all his free time riding his BMX bike, fishing, and playing baseball—suddenly felt weak.

Raoul Benavides
In a matter of months, Carrie Halvorson watched her son Cole regress to a big kid with the mentality of a four-year-old
Raoul Benavides
In a matter of months, Carrie Halvorson watched her son Cole regress to a big kid with the mentality of a four-year-old


Also see our expanded web content, including the PHOTO SLIDESHOW and an extensive REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK about disciplinary actions against doctors. You can also visit Carrie Halvorson's personal Web site.

He was wracked by a cough so scary that his friend's mother called Cole's mom.

Carrie Halvorson wasn't worried at first. It was September 2005, the kids were back in school, and Cole had probably just picked up some type of bug. They'd wait it out over the weekend.

Fall was the time of year that Halvorson, then a vice president at Sunrise International Leasing, could relax and watch the neighborhood prepare itself for winter. It had been a hectic summer. The family had just finished remodeling their Shorewood home overlooking the lake and celebrated with a trip to Yellowstone National Park. It was time to go back to work.

But when Monday came around and the cough had turned into a bark, Cole's father brought him to the doctor. The M.D. diagnosed him with "croup-like" symptoms and prescribed Prednisone, a steroid-based asthma medication.

The next day, Cole awoke screaming, thinking his throat was closing. Soon after, his parents took him back to the ER. Cole was admitted on the spot. For the next five days, he was treated at the hospital for breathing difficulties and pneumonia. He left the hospital with instructions to continue antibiotics and two steroid-based asthma treatments, more Prednisone and a prescription for Advair.

Cole returned to school, but didn't seem like himself. The lifelong B-student was doing things that just didn't match the responsible, hard-working kid his parents say they raised. Cole and some friends left an obscene message on their gym teacher's answering machine, and he got detention after stuffing a lunchroom baked potato down the toilet.

Cole had gained some 20 pounds since starting the steroids and was getting teased; his parents chalked his behavior change up to the stress of starting middle school. It wasn't until Cole starting getting violent that they knew it was time to take him back to the doctor.

Just days after his 11th birthday, Cole was prescribed antidepressants. It was December, Christmas was right around the corner, and Halvorson was sick with anguish. Cole told his doctor he wanted to die. He said he thought about hanging himself and stabbing himself with scissors. The M.D. referred Cole to a psychiatrist.

"He was 11," Halvorson says, swallowing back tears. "We didn't even know he knew what suicide was."

The depression had taken a physical toll on Cole. Besides the weight gain, the life had drained from his normally joyful, energetic face. Cole's smile was gone and his lips seemed stuck in a strange, twisted frown.

One day, Cole stood in front of his mother in their home's spacious kitchen and stared at her with an intense gaze unlike anything she had ever seen before. "His face didn't look like himself at all," Halvorson recalls. "In his eyes, he just looked like he was gone. It was scary."

Without saying anything, Cole abruptly turned around and left to go outside. It was January, you could see your breath in the cold winter air, and Cole didn't even stop to put on his coat.

"I knew I had to follow him to see what was going on," Halvorson remembers.

No time to grab a jacket of her own, the mother slipped on her shoes and ran after her son. She found him in the garage standing on a white bucket propped on the cold cement floor. The boy had strung a rope over the rafters and was adjusting a noose around his neck.

"I screamed, 'Oh my God! Cole! What are you doing?' And I ran over there and grabbed him. And hugged him. Something was really wrong."

Collapsing into his mother's arms, Cole sobbed as she gently removed the rope from his neck. "He said he didn't know what he was doing, that he didn't know what was going on," Halvorson recalls.

Later that night Cole told his parents that he was hearing voices. Inside his head, God and the devil were fighting for his attention, telling him to do things. The devil had told him to hang himself.

In a matter of months, his parents and doctors watched as Cole regressed from a healthy 11-year-old into a big kid with the mentality of a four-year-old. Cole forgot how to ride his bike. He mumbled nonsense, and broke into psychotic rages, screaming with terror. His parents bought Play-Doh and blocks that kept him captivated for the better part of a day. Sometimes Cole spun around in circles for hours.

When a neurology report came back in February 2006 with no significant medical findings, doctors began to suspect that Cole suffered from a rare form of steroid-induced psychosis. It was a stretch, but what else could explain Cole's befuddling behavior? By April, when it became evident Cole wasn't responding to anti-psychotic medication and was becoming physically sick with frequent nosebleeds, headaches, and night sweats, his psychiatrist gave up. The next month, Cole was referred to the Mayo Clinic with urgent need of admission.

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