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Through the eyes of a survivor

Post-illness, Troy woman sees nature anew through photography

By: Cortney Casey | C&G Newspapers | Published February 9, 2011

 Patti Cooper-Koerner shows some photographs she’s taken at Dodge Park. She said she often focuses on squirrels.

Patti Cooper-Koerner shows some photographs she’s taken at Dodge Park. She said she often focuses on squirrels.

Photo by David Schreiber


STERLING HEIGHTS — Where one might see a scraggly weed, Patti Cooper-Koerner sees a plant beautiful in its own right, even if it hasn’t been given the vaunted status of a flower.

But Cooper-Koerner, Sterling Heights’ Artist of the Month for February, acknowledges that she doesn’t see the world like most people do. She revels in the beauty of common things, a gift she credits to a life-altering near-death experience nine years ago.

In 2002, she contracted West Nile virus, a mosquito-transmitted disease. Though she wasn’t in a high-risk group — she was in her 40s and healthy — Cooper-Koerner didn’t recover like most patients.

She was among the small percentage suffering severe complications, including encephalitis, inflammation of the brain, and meningitis, inflammation of the lining that protects the brain and spinal cord.

“I had encephalitis so bad that they called my parents and said, ‘You better get in here, and you’d better call the minister from your church,’” she said.

The condition ravaged Cooper-Koerner’s memory; she doesn’t know how long she was hospitalized, and recollections of her youngest brother were wiped out. She had to learn basic skills again, like walking and dressing herself. She completes “brain exercises” in children’s workbooks. Her legs still hurt every night.

“I don’t take things for granted anymore, because anything can change in one second because of a stupid mosquito,” she said. “I’m never, ever going to recover from the West Nile. I just have had to adapt and move on.”

Cooper-Koerner said she doesn’t remember whether she was a nature lover before. But post-illness, she found herself marveling at her surroundings and wanted others to experience the same rush vicariously.

Two years ago, she began experimenting with her point-and-shoot digital camera, documenting shorelines, lighthouses and sunsets on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, as well as natural wonders close to home, like the chattering squirrels in her backyard.

“When I look at things now, I look at everything totally different. … I take pictures of things that my husband looks at me and says, ‘Why are you taking a picture of that? It’s a weed.’ I say, ‘Don’t you see how pretty it is? Don’t you see how beautiful it is, with the sun hitting it?’” she said. “I guess I just appreciate things totally differently now. I want people to see things the way I see things when I look through my camera, with my photographs. I want them to see through my eyes.”

Though she lives across Dequindre in Troy, Cooper-Koerner said she spends so much time in Sterling Heights that she feels like she’s a resident. Dodge Park is one of her favorite places to snap nature shots, and her photographic endeavors at a recent Sterlingfest earned her a place in one of the city calendars, after a municipal staffer marveled at her ability to capture revelers on rides in motion.

And it was a photographer at Sterlingfest who actually spurred her to upgrade her camera to something more professional.

“He said, ‘Oh, that’s a baby camera.’ That made me so mad,” she laughed.

Cooper-Koerner considers squirrels a preferred subject because they’re always on the move, representing a constant challenge. And she finds them aplenty in Sterling Heights.

“When you go into Dodge Park, people must feed them, because I have a shot of a black squirrel that’s eating a piece of shrimp,” she said. “They actually come right up to you. They’re almost tame.”

The squirrel images are surprisingly popular among buyers, she said. She sells her smaller pictures framed for a mere $25.

“People look at me like I’m crazy,” she said. “I’m not in it for the money. It’s always been a hobby for me.”

One of her proudest moments, she said, was when a Michigan environmental group selected one of her nature photos to appear on its brochure.

Next stop, national? “My dream wish would be to have a photograph published in National Geographic,” she said.

Cooper-Koerner, who is entirely self-taught, believes it’s crucial to “go with your heart” and not be dissuaded by what anyone else considers art.

“Just shoot what your heart tells you to shoot, even if somebody tells you it’s ugly,” she said. “If you think it’s beautiful, go for it.”

The Sterling Heights Cultural Commission continues to seek applicants for the Artist of the Month program. Applicants can hail from anywhere in the state. For more information, visit or call (586) 446-2489.

Cooper-Koerner’s pieces will be on display throughout February in the lower level of Sterling Heights City Hall, 40555 Utica Road; and at the Used But Sterling Bookstore, inside the Sterling Heights Public Library, 40255 Dodge Park Road.

For more information on her work, visit