SEATTLE – If it hadn’t been for Cindy Locke and her family, Mykal Cochran might be dead.
Instead, the 17-year-old foster child who “doesn’t have a mean bone in his body” is bouncing around Seattle Children’s hospital. He jokes with doctors and races to the lab to look with curiosity and wonder at his old heart.
“I used to wake up wondering if I was going to die,” said Mykal, who underwent transplant surgery last month. “My heart was really messed up.”
So was the course of his life. Mykal’s problems began before he was 2, when he was diagnosed with a heart tumor and given his first transplant.
From there, things got worse. His father died when he was 5. By age 10, he and his siblings had been removed from their mother’s care. After that he was shuffled from foster home to foster home, with 15 placements in all.
Then, late last year, the exuberant and extroverted Eastern Washington teen suffered a catastrophic heart attack and was told that he needed another transplant.
But because he was one of the approximately 10,000 children in Washington’s foster-care system with no permanent home, Providence Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane refused to accept him for its transplant program.
Hospital officials said Mykal’s family life and social network were so unstable they made him a transplant risk.
“They turned him down because he was a poor risk and hearts are rare,” said his social worker, Shauna Campbell, an adoption specialist with the state Department of Social and Health Services’ Children’s Administration.
Campbell began searching for a foster family near Seattle Children’s hospital who would be able to provide the specialized, intensive care needed by a transplant recipient both before and after the operation.
When Cindy Locke, a former nurse who’s cared for medically fragile foster children for 23 years, contacted her, Campbell said she knew it was the right match. “I just knew from talking to her on the phone she had a really big heart.”
Locke is one of the rare licensed foster-care providers in the state with the knowledge and equipment to care for children with intensive medical needs.
“I wish we had 100 more foster families like the Lockes, but they are even among an elite group of foster parents one in a million,” said DSHS spokeswoman Deborah Schow.
She found her calling
Cindy Locke, 46, can’t explain exactly why she became a foster mother other than to say she felt called to the job. She can remember watching a movie when she was a little girl about a skier who became a quadriplegic in an accident.
She thought to herself, “I hope one day I can take care of a quadriplegic.”
Her chance came after she became a registered nurse at Children’s more than 25 years ago. Locke had a patient, a young woman named Bertha, who had been burned over 60 percent of her body. Her family was unable to care for her, and she was institutionalized. Her health went downhill fast.
Bertha was 18, not a ward of the state and able to say for herself where she wanted to live. Locke asked Bertha if she would rather live with her. Bertha said yes.
So Locke took money she had saved to go on a nursing mission to Uganda and instead bought a house near Martha Lake in Snohomish County. She transformed it, widening the doorways, buying wheelchairs, ventilators and hospital beds and brought Bertha home. Where, Locke said, “She did great.”
Locke, who is deeply religious, said she began to realize that “everything society said is important is not important – your profession, your education, your looks.”
“But loving people, having a deep connection to people, taking care of people, that’s what’s important.”
She felt she had found her calling and became a licensed foster-care provider.
In 1989, she married Lenny Locke, 53, the man who had been delivering oxygen to her home.
A distant relative of former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, he knew all of her foster kids and understood the work she was doing. On their second date, he asked her if she liked dating. She said no, and they agreed to marry.
They both sold their houses and bought a seven-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot house in Lynnwood that they renovated to be completely disabled-accessible.
The Lockes have fostered dozens of children. They also had three biological children, and they adopted three others.
‘A forever family’
When Mykal first moved in with the Lockes he was planning to stay just until he had the transplant and was stabilized.
The teen has a younger brother. They were together through their placements in most of their foster homes and Mykal felt responsible for his brother’s well-being. But now his brother is set to be adopted by a family that Mykal trusts in the Tri-Cities area and Mykal is no longer worried about him.
So Mykal is thinking about staying in Lynnwood with the Lockes and going back to high school.
Recovery from a transplant can take a long time, and no one can predict right now how long Mykal will remain hospitalized. But the Lockes are determined to be with him no matter how long it takes. “We want to give him a forever family if that’s what he wants,” Cindy Locke said.
She said that taking care of foster children can be painful and hard. “It’s not for everybody, but it is for some. If one person reads this and says, ‘I can do this,’ then that makes it worthwhile. Children, especially, are resilient. They can heal. There is hope. I know there is suffering in life, but I don’t think we have to go through it alone.”
Mykal is thrilled to find himself so wanted. He’s never known a family quite like the Lockes, and he feels happy and loved.
Nevertheless, he’s pretty sure they’re getting a good deal as well.
“They’re a great family, but I really am one of the best teenagers around, too.”