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January 26, 2014

Family promise gave life to man in 31-year coma

MURRIETA, Calif. — As his 7-year-old son Mikey lay in a hospital bed on life support, the victim of a drunk driver who had smashed into his family’s car, Paul Cortez took the boy’s hand and made a solemn promise to God: If his son survived, no matter in what condition, he and his family would always be there for him.

It was a promise the family would keep for 31 years, during a time in which Mikey would grow from little boy to teenager and, finally, into strapping, 150-pound adult.

Although he would never emerge from the persistent vegetative state his father had found him in that night, Mikey’s family was not only there for him but also gave him a full life. A life, as it turned out, not all that different from anybody else’s, with cross-country family vacations and visits to Disneyland.

Mikey Cortez’s odyssey began on March 22, 1982, as his father was waiting for his wife, four children and other family members to join him for an outing in the San Diego area. Instead, Paul Cortez got a call telling him to go immediately to three different hospitals.

Minutes after his family had left home that afternoon, a drunk driver plowed head-on into their car on a rural two-lane road. Cortez’s oldest son, Duke, was killed, as was his wife’s sister-in-law and her two children. The driver of the other vehicle also died, as did one of his daughters. Authorities said his blood-alcohol level was .22, nearly three times the legal limit.

Among the survivors was Cortez’s wife, his brother-in-law, his daughter and his other two sons. But everyone was badly hurt and there were so many they couldn’t all be taken to the same hospital.

It was at the third stop that he found Mikey, the most badly hurt. Doctors doubted he would make it through the night.

Cortez wasn’t sure just what to do at that point.  He was a deeply religious man, but he’d never asked God for a favor before.

“But he was our son and I didn’t know what else to say,” the stocky, balding man of 64 recalled recently as he sat in the living room of his two-story home with his wife and 86-year-old mother.

“So I prayed. I prayed to God to walk our families through this,” he said in a voice thick with emotion. “To help us. And he did.”

For the next three decades Mikey would live at home with his family, through good times and bad. And there were plenty of both.

Two years after the car crash, Cortez’s father was killed in a tractor accident on their 15-acre property. A decade later the dream house he had built for his family on that property burned to the ground.

During those years, Mikey was rapidly growing into adulthood, while still unable to get out of bed on his own or feed himself.

So his mother got him up and dressed each day and his grandmother, Nellie Cortez, made sure he had plenty to eat.

“When he weighed as much as I did, the doctor insisted that we get a lift,” his mother, Roonie, a petite, sandy-haired woman, recalled with a chuckle.

“Did it get harder?” she said of taking care of him during those years. “No. It just got different. With a brand new baby you can do anything. With a toddler, as he gets older, you have to be more careful, putting up gates and like that. And with Mikey it was similar.”

So was day-to-day family life.

When the family visited Disneyland, they took Mikey with them, putting a pair of Mickey Mouse ears on his head. When his older brother, Tony, made his high school football and basketball teams, Mikey traveled to every game to watch him play.

Austin Miguel Cortez — “but he was always Mikey,” his father quickly adds — was the youngest of the couple’s four children, a status that allowed him the leeway to be the resident mischievous prankster. With a goofy grin that could instantly disarm adults, he stayed out of the trouble other little kids might get into. His kindergarten teacher even told his mother he was the only student she had who could entertain her entire class all by himself.

But at age 7 he could suddenly no longer walk or talk. So his family set out to find another way to get him involved. They took him to schools where his father gave talks aimed at impressing upon teenage drivers the pain that drunk driving exacts on innocent victims.

“Mikey helped other people survive,” said Tim Basinger, who met him when both were teenagers. “That was Mikey’s purpose and the impact he had on people, working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and schools, was amazing.”

When the talks took him to Florida one year for a MADD conference, the family turned the visit into a cross-country travel adventure, with stops in Texas and along the East Coast.

How much he was aware of the good he was doing isn’t known, but pictures taken over the years show he could still flash that captivating smile from time to time.

“And he was aware of things going on around him,” Cortez said. “He felt pain and he could feel a tickle when we tickled him.”

When a favored uncle would come into his room, he’d perk up and sometimes turn to look at him. Years later, as his older siblings had children of their own, he’d do the same.

How much of that is simple reflex as opposed to cognitive behavior has long been debated.

Dr. Paul Vespa, who heads UCLA’s Neurointensive Care Unit, says there are some cases in which people who are largely in a vegetative state seem to have some recognition of things.

“There are people who are in what’s called a minimally conscious state,” said Vespa. “They have a lot of impairment, but they are able to interact a little bit.”

Giving them as close to normal a life experience as possible, as Mikey’s family did, probably does help them, he added.

Mikey did learn how to swallow again and his family was able to remove his feeding tube and give him solid food. That prompted his doctors to take out his breathing tube in 1984, and for the next 16 years he was able to breathe on his own until a bad bout with pneumonia set him back in his mid-30s.

With those little victories came crushing defeats.

In the fall of 1993 California was gripped by one of the worst wildfire seasons in its history. Twenty-eight blazes incinerated more than 1,200 structures across the state during a two-week period beginning in late October.

It was about 3 a.m. one October morning when sparks from wind-whipped power lines set off a blaze that came racing down a hill toward the Cortez home. With only minutes to get out, Cortez grabbed Mikey and tossed him into the family RV while his other son grabbed a handful of possessions. Then the family drove straight through a wall of flames to safety.

“When the fire came and they lost everything, some of us here said, ‘OK, Lord, what are you doing?”’ recalled Hollie Woods, who teaches at Linfield Christian School in Murrieta, where Mikey’s brother and sister, Angelica, were once students. “But they just kept going and never lost their faith.”

They eventually moved to a small, quiet neighborhood of picturesque homes where, on a recent morning, the only sound to be heard is that of a neighbor cutting his grass. The tile-roofed, two-story house had a downstairs bedroom with a private bath that was perfect for Mikey’s room.

As time continued to pass, doctors gave up trying to predict how long Mikey might live.

“The first time we were told it was one night,” Roonie Cortez remembers. “Then it was three days. Then it was maybe a couple of months. Then three to five years.”

“And then,” she recalls, managing a smile, “they just threw up their hands and said, ‘Who knows?”’

After he marked his 38th birthday a year ago, Mikey’s health began to deteriorate. Eight months ago he was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure, and doctors told the family it was time for him to enter a facility where he could undergo kidney dialysis.

The family struck a deal: They would learn how to do dialysis themselves and keep him at home.

When Christmas Eve arrived last month he gathered with his family for a holiday portrait. Only this time there was no smile. He looked weary.

Two days later, Mikey Cortez died in his bedroom at home, surrounded by his family. He died a day shy of his 39th birthday. Earlier this month, 200 people turned out for his funeral.

When they got into this journey 31 years ago, his father acknowledges, the family “didn’t have a clue” how they would fulfill their promise. But they were confident they would figure it out as they went along. And, yes, they would do it again. It brought them closer together, they say, and it gave Mikey a meaningful life.

“I’ll tell you a story,” Cortez says, pausing to brush his face as he begins to choke up.

A year ago, he was giving a talk about drunk driving and a young woman approached him. She told him she had been one of Mikey’s first-grade classmates. She let him know that over the years she and others had gotten the message.

“And I just held on to her and we cried,” he said.


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