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Natalie Cole's New Life

As her sister lay dying, Natalie Cole faced her own health crisis. She shares her unforgettable tale of grief, faith, and renewal

spinner image Natalie Cole's New Life
Photo by Kwaku Alston

By the time Natalie Cole got to the hospital late one afternoon in mid-May, her sister Cookie, who two weeks earlier had been diagnosed with lung cancer, had slipped into a coma. Natalie sat on the edge of Cookie's bed, rubbed her feet, and quietly urged her to fight. "I love you," she said. "Everything is going to be all right."

She fought back tears as she whispered in Cookie's ear, and the hospital monitors beeped steadily in reply.

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Just hours earlier, Natalie herself had been hooked up to IVs, with a machine pulling the toxins from her blood that her failed kidneys could not. She was on a long waiting list for a donor kidney, but until a match was found, regular dialysis treatments were keeping her alive. When she received a call that spring day at her Beverly Hills treatment center about her sister's deteriorating condition, Natalie—a multiple-Grammy-winning singer and daughter of Nat King Cole—began yanking out the dialysis tubes. She rushed to her car and sped to Providence Tarzana Medical Center, in southern California's San Fernando Valley. But by the time she got to her sister—who was also her lifelong best friend—Cookie was unresponsive. "I was just devastated," Natalie says.

Natalie and other family members, including her only child, Robert Yancy, waited in Cookie's hospital room well into the evening. Natalie's cell phone, tucked away in her purse, rang again and again, but she ignored it. Finally, Yancy, a 32-year-old drummer, took a call on his cell. It was the transplant center at Los Angeles's Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He handed the phone to his mother.

"Ms. Cole," the woman said, "we think we've found a kidney for you."

"I can't talk to you right now," Natalie responded. "I've got a situation here. My sister's dying. I can't talk." She hung up, turned back to Cookie, and continued her vigil until midnight, when a nurse urged her to go home and rest.

Natalie Cole, 59, didn't think about that call during her drive home to Westwood. She didn't think about her own incurable hepatitis C, diagnosed the year before. She didn't think about the nausea and mind-bending fatigue the initial dialysis treatments had caused, nor the inconvenience of sandwiching singing gigs in between sessions hooked up to a machine. She didn't think about how many of her loved ones—Cookie among them—had offered to donate a kidney but proved not to be a match, nor did she think about the long odds of a healthy cadaver kidney becoming available.

On that lonely drive through the dark and starless San Fernando Valley, Natalie Cole didn't think about saving herself. Instead, she prayed for her sister. "God, you can make a miracle. You can bring her back. I know you can."

Cookie, whose real name is Carole, was actually Natalie's cousin, the daughter of her mother's sister. But when Cookie was orphaned at the age of four, Nat King Cole, the iconic jazz pianist and baritone, and his wife, Maria, adopted her. Natalie, or Sweetie, as her loved ones call her, was born about nine months later, in 1950, followed by brother Kelly, adopted in 1959, and twin sisters Casey and Timolin, who arrived in 1961.

Of all Nat King Cole's children, Natalie was, arguably, the one blessed most generously with his gift of music. Her voice was like honey, silky and smooth, and like her father, she made everyone in the audience feel she was singing just to them. As a kid, she performed a few times with her dad, and to this day she wonders whether he foresaw her success: hit singles (such as 1977's "I've Got Love on My Mind"), gold and platinum albums (her first was Inseparable, in 1975), accolades, and awards. Natalie credits her dad, who she says inspired by example rather than words, for much of it.

In 1991, when she performed a series of outdoor concerts that included her "Unforgettable" duet with her long-deceased father (thanks to innovative film and audio splicing ), she swears that a butterfly would routinely fly across the stage. Natalie believes the butterflies, which she loves, were sent by her dad, one of the many angels in her life whom she references in her 2000 autobiography, "Angel on My Shoulder."

Natalie—and the world—lost her father when she was only 15; a heavy smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1965 at the age of 45. For years she struggled with the loss, as well as a difficult relationship with a mother she viewed as emotionally distant. After finishing college, while playing local clubs, she accepted a boyfriend's invitation to try heroin—and by the age of 23 was mainlining. In 1976, just before winning her first Grammy for Best Female R&B Performance for "This Will Be," she quit her heroin habit cold turkey, and she went on to marry gospel musician Marvin Yancy and give birth to Robbie. But in 1984, after divorcing Yancy (a Baptist minister who died suddenly of a stroke the following year), she spent several months in Hazelden rehab center to treat an all-consuming addiction to crack cocaine. Natalie attributes her hard-won sobriety to her religious faith (though raised Episcopalian, she became a Baptist in her mid-20s). But it took more than that to restore all she had lost. The music industry showed little enthusiasm for her comeback efforts, and she went from being a headliner to playing lounge acts in places such as Las Vegas. In 1989 Natalie got married a second time, to record producer André Fischer, but they split in 1997; their divorce papers indicated he was abusive. Her brother, Kelly, who came out of the closet at age 19, died of HIV-related causes in 1995. And in 2000 Natalie wed once again, this time to Kenneth Dupree, a Baptist bishop from Nashville. Natalie ended the marriage less than three years later because, she says, "I had problems with the way this man was conducting his life."

For the next few years Natalie concentrated on her music, making plans for a follow-up to her multiplatinum album of her father's standards. Early in 2008 she recorded "Still Unforgettable." She was happily single, spending time with friends and family. Her life was finally back on track—or so it seemed.

In the early-morning hours of May 19, 2009, Natalie arrived at her high-rise condominium, slipped into her pajamas, and crawled into bed. At 3:00 A.M. the phone rang. It was the nurse from the Tarzana hospital, who said things weren't looking good for Cookie. Natalie pulled a jogging suit over her PJs and raced back to the hospital. "When I got there, Cookie's holding on," she says. "I'm thinking God's going to take care of everything."

Just then, Natalie's cell phone buzzed. It was the woman from the transplant unit again, giving Natalie one more chance: "We know you're dealing with a situation in your family, but we have a kidney that's a match, and we really need you to get here by 6:00 A.M."

Natalie said, "I'll call you back."

She looked around the waiting room, where Robbie as well as Cookie's husband, John, and their three children had gathered. "I was in dire straits," she says. "It was a really bad situation, as far as I was concerned. Because everybody was so in shock about Cookie, they didn't have real good sense." Numbly, they each told Natalie she should go. But she needed more nudging. She called her longtime business manager, Howard Grossman. Waking him out of a sound sleep, Natalie updated him on Cookie's situation and said, "They've got a match for my kidney; what shall I do?"

"Go for it," Grossman responded.

She turned to her family. "They don't wait to do this operation," she said.
"It was crazy, so crazy, to think that my mother was going to get a kidney while her sister is down and out, on life support," says Robbie. "But it was something she had to do."

"It was like God's hand was orchestrating the whole thing," Natalie says, "and all we could do was watch."

Which isn't to say she wasn't filled with guilt—even feelings of unworthiness. "Natalie's attitude throughout her illness was always 'I'm going to battle this thing with everything I have,' " says her manager, Barbara Rose. "The only time she said 'Why me?' was when the kidney became available, and she asked why she got chosen to have this miracle happen to her."

Natalie's Hepatitis C diagnosis was made in February 2008 by Joel Mittleman, M.D., a Los Angeles nephrologist she saw after a routine physical showed abnormal kidney function. "My response was, 'How come I don't feel bad?'" says Natalie, who likely contracted the virus during her days as an IV drug user. "It was just extraordinary to me that this had been dormant in my body for something like 25 years."

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Natalie's closest friend, Tammy Engelstein, was equally shocked. "She was a gym rat," says Engelstein, who had met Natalie in Lamaze classes during Natalie's pregnancy with Robbie and Engelstein's with her daughter Meredith. "She was always very healthy."

Natalie accepted the diagnosis as "God's will." She told Robbie the news in a matter-of-fact manner, he recalls: "I think she was ready to take it on. My mother is not afraid of a challenge."

In May of 2008 Natalie's hematologist started her on weekly injections of interferon to help reduce the likelihood of liver failure, which hepatitis C frequently causes. He told her that typical side effects from the drug include fatigue and flulike symptoms.

Engelstein, who routinely spent nights at her girlfriend's house, where the two of them would eat sushi and watch "Law & Order," says that about 12 hours after the initial shot "it hit both of us that, hey, she was sick."

"It just felt like I was dying," says Natalie, who was practically knocked flat by the treatments. She lost more than 20 pounds in a matter of weeks.

"She was just skin and bones," Robbie says. "It was tough to watch."

She was, however, determined to continue working, and in June 2008, despite pleas from Engelstein and Cookie to cancel the trip, she flew to Tokyo, where she was scheduled to perform 14 shows in eight days. "I love it there," Natalie says, "and I didn't want to let my Japanese fans down." A tour doctor who'd met Natalie on previous visits to Japan took one look at her and said, "You need to go home." She refused.

Natalie received IV fluids in her dressing room to keep her hydrated, and she traveled to the stage in a wheelchair. "As miserable as I was, once I started singing, I felt better," she says.

Many of her Japanese fans, watching her perform, applauded and wept. But crew members kept asking, "Why are you doing this? We shouldn't be here."

"Natalie loves her audience and doesn't want to disappoint them," Engelstein explains. "If you've never seen her perform, go. You'll walk away with everything she is about."

"It was tough," Natalie admits, "but I felt if I didn't push myself, I would probably either die or just crumble." She performed ten shows before finally heading back to the United States.

"Still Unforgettable" was released in early September 2008, and once again Natalie rallied, flying to New York City for a series of interviews. When the cameras were rolling, she struggled to appear healthy and animated. But in between, she was experiencing shortness of breath, a result of fluid buildup caused by poor kidney function. On the morning of September 12 she spoke by phone to a New York friend, the songwriter and socialite Denise Rich. Alarmed by Natalie's gasps, Rich sent her own physician to check on her. He did a quick examination and said, "You have to go into the hospital right now."

"Had Denise not called her doctor," Natalie says, "I might have died that day, alone in my hotel room. I owe so much to her."

At Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan, tests showed that Natalie's kidneys were barely functioning, and she soon began dialysis. While her liver function remained healthy—thanks, most likely, to the interferon—it is possible, according to Mittleman, that the same drug hastened the failure of her kidneys, already compromised by years of high blood pressure. Her doctors stopped the interferon treatments.

Ten days later Natalie returned to Los Angeles. After a few more trips to the hospital, she was placed on a list for a donor kidney and began a three-hours-per-session, three-times-weekly outpatient dialysis regimen.

"They told me the average wait for a kidney was three years," Natalie says. "At first I thought, 'There goes my life.' " But after determining that she could tour as long as she received dialysis at each stop, she got back on the road.

Says Engelstein: "She'd go into the dialysis center with her books, her cell phone, and her leopard blanket, and she was the belle of the ball." Those centers were in places such as Turkey, Italy, the Philippines—wherever she was performing.

"I'd sometimes fly for 14 hours, then go straight to dialysis," Natalie says. "I spent a little time being tired, but we managed. I'm not a pity-party person."

Before the sun came up on May 19, with Cookie still unconscious, Natalie kissed her sister goodbye and headed home to pack a bag for her stay at Cedars-Sinai. Engelstein met Natalie at her condominium. "Two sisters couldn't have been closer than Natalie and Cookie," Engelstein says, so it came as no surprise that Natalie, while getting ready, kept muttering, "How can I do this? Cookie is in a coma."

Engelstein looked her in the eye and said, "Cookie would want you to do this. This is a chance of a lifetime."

Cookie Cole, who ran Nat King Cole's estate for the family, died at 8:30 A.M. that morning, just as Natalie, unaware, was being prepped for surgery. Many of the Cole family members, including Natalie's mother—who had reconnected with her daughter after her hepatitis C diagnosis—and her twin sisters, convoyed from the Tarzana hospital to Cedars-Sinai, rushing from one bedside to the other.

When Mittleman and Natalie's transplant surgeon learned that Cookie had died, they advised the family to withhold the information from Natalie until after the transplant.

As the surgical team wheeled her into the OR, Natalie kept saying, "I wonder how Cookie's doing."

Engelstein's only response: "We haven't heard anything yet."

A fierce believer in the power of prayer, Natalie went under the knife confident that Cookie would survive until she could see her again.

The transplant, which began at 3:00 P.M., was casebook perfect.

That night, when she woke in recovery, Natalie asked for Engelstein. When she got to her friend's side, Engelstein was astonished. "Her face had changed," she says. "She had this glow about her. All the pain was gone. She was, like, reborn."

The following morning, Natalie's family gathered around her hospital bed, some offering encouraging words about how well the surgery had gone, others telling her, bit by bit, of Cookie's death. Natalie processed the news, then looked over at Engelstein, who was standing in the corner. "I couldn't tell you, Sweetie," Engelstein said. "Dr. Mittleman said we couldn't tell you."

"I was getting good news and very bad news at the same time," remembers Natalie, wiping away tears. "This was a very joyous moment where I've got new life. It was also a very sorrowful moment, where my sister had gone on, and the family that donated the kidney had lost their daughter as well. My first reaction was that I wished I were back on dialysis to have my sister. These two people had left this earth—and I was here. Why? I feel like I don't deserve it."

The grieving process has been excruciating. "I've lost some very special people," Natalie says, "but Cookie is the toughest. There's a part of me that's missing now. I don't expect that I will ever totally get over it."

But thinking through the immensity of it all—how she received the gift of life, in the wake of such loss—has helped. Natalie now sees her donor as one of her "angels," sent to pull her out of a dire situation. Although privacy laws restrict the release of details about donors, Natalie knows this: she was a thirtysomething, healthy female who died suddenly, and her family, aware of Natalie's need, directed the kidney to her. "I just find it extraordinary that they would have said my name," Natalie says, her voice breaking. "To have your life saved by someone you don't even know—oh, God. God bless them.

"When I look back, I can see the hand that has plucked me out of or put me into special situations. I don't totally understand it. I know that God has had my back, even when I was screwing up. And I now know he has a plan for me."

Just over two months after her surgery, Natalie Cole, looking fit and youthful in a strapless sundress, sits in a suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel and tells the story of her transplant for the first time. She wears her dark hair short; it fell out when she was on interferon, and when it began to grow back, she decided she liked it in a pixie style. Yes, absolutely, she says, she is ready to start a new chapter in her life, and her easy smile shows it. "I didn't know that I could feel this good again."

Though she has shown no signs of kidney rejection, she will have to take immunosuppressants for the rest of her life. She'll also be routinely monitored for symptoms of hepatitis C. "But hers has been as uncomplicated a course as we've ever seen," says Mittleman, who spoke at Natalie's request. "I'm optimistic that she's going to have an improved state of health from here on."

So what about all those plans that she believes someone has for her? First off, Natalie says, she would like to thank the family of her donor in person. "I have written them a letter and would love to meet them," she says, "whenever they're ready."

In the meantime Natalie wants to advocate for kidney research and organ donation. "We are born with two kidneys and only need one to survive," she says. "Maybe God gave us the other one so that we could give it away." While the hardships she's endured have toughened her in some ways, they've softened her in others, she says: "You get sick, and then you get well, and if you don't have more compassion for human beings after, then something's definitely wrong."

She's also cherishing time with her circle of loved ones. In August she spent a weekend in Santa Barbara with her twin sisters, and she and Engelstein are planning an end-of-the-year getaway to Hawaii. She's even considering romance again. "I believe there's someone out there who will treat me like a princess, but it has to be the right person—because they've got egos, and I'm not a little wallflower," she says.

And she's ready to show her fans that she's back. Record producer David Foster was the first person in the studio with Natalie post-transplant. "She walked up to the mike and just sang her ass off," he says. "She nailed it. I told her, ' You should have a kidney transplant more often.' "

When we last spoke to her, Natalie was about to kick off a comeback tour with a September 9 concert at the Hollywood Bowl. "I'm still singing great," she says. "I think that's a miracle." And she expects more miracles to come. As she climbs behind the wheel of her black Mercedes, after a few hours of reliving her amazing encounter with life and death, Natalie Cole says quietly, "Those angels on my shoulder who've been there all along—now I know that my sister Cookie is one of them."

Entertainment editor at large Meg Grant wrote about Ron Howard in the July & August issue.

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