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Family promise gave life to man in 31-year coma

Monday - 1/27/2014, 11:27am  ET

AP596892913741.jpg
This undated handout photo provided by Paul Cortez shows 15-year-old Mikey Cortez, center, and his parents, Paul and Roonie Cortez. 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 the car he was riding in, 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. 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.(AP Photo/Courtesy Cortez Family)
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JOHN ROGERS
Associated Press

MURRIETA, Calif. (AP) -- Paul Cortez can remember the night 31 years ago as clearly as if it was last week. He had walked into the pediatric intensive care unit of Riverside County Regional Medical Center to find his 7-year-old son, Mikey, barely clinging to life.

Bandages were covering his little body, seemingly from head to toe. Wires and tubes attached to machines were keeping him alive.

Doctors told Cortez that Mikey might not make it. A drunken driver had smashed into the car carrying the boy and relatives, sending four of them, including his mother, brother and sister, to other hospitals. Four other relatives, including Mikey's oldest brother, were dead.

Not knowing what to do, Paul Cortez got down on his knees and, with Mikey's hand in his, made a promise to God: If his son somehow survived, whatever the condition, he and his family would always be there for him.

It felt strange at first because, although he is a deeply religious man, Cortez had never before asked for any favors from heaven.

"But he was our son," he recalled.

Mikey would never walk or talk again, but that didn't matter to his family. For the next 31 years, they would raise him at home, including him in every activity they could. From holidays to family vacations to high school football games, they were by his side until his death last month.

"I prayed to God to walk our families through this," Cortez said, his voice thick with emotion. "To help us. And he did."

The youngest of Paul and Roonie Cortez's four children, Austin Miguel Cortez -- "but Mikey just stuck," his mother says -- had always been the most gregarious and mischievous member of the family. He was a veritable whirlwind of energy and practical jokes.

"If you look at the pictures, they pretty much tell you the story of Mikey, because in every one he's goofing off," Cortez said.

In one, he's striking some sort of warrior-cowboy pose.

In another, he's mugging for the camera.

In a group shot, he's making a face.

And in practically every one he's sporting a big grin.

The family lived in Temecula, midway between San Diego and Los Angeles. In March 1982, it was little more than a picturesque backwater of rolling hills and vineyards. The beauty of the place was why Cortez had moved his family there three years earlier.

One day, Mikey and his relatives piled into the family car and left home to meet his father for a night out. They were traveling on a rural, two-lane road when a drunken driver suddenly barreled down on them and hit their car head-on. "No seatbelts in those days," Mikey's mother said, meaning everybody was tossed about the car.

Mikey, the worst injured, suffered serious brain damage. He was left in a persistent vegetative state, a condition that's like a coma but lasts much longer. People are able to perform some basic functions, but show only limited, if any, awareness of their surroundings.

Although Mikey would never fully emerge from that state, his father was determined to give him as full a life as possible.

When Paul Cortez coached his daughter Angelica and son Tony in soccer, Mikey sat in his wheelchair on the sidelines, cheering them on.

When Tony made his high school football and basketball teams, Mikey was at every game. One year he traveled with his family to the mountain town of Lone Pine, where he sat in his wheelchair, bundled up head to toe against the frigid winter weather while his brother played.

At basketball games he'd be at courtside, and at some point in every game his brother would come over and give him a hug.

"He was aware of things going on around him by his eye contact or gestures that he made," his father said. "He felt pain and he could feel a tickle when we tickled him and he would smile at times."

Like the time they put a pair of Mickey Mouse ears on his head during a visit to Disneyland. Or when a favored uncle would come into his room and he'd perk up at the sound of his voice and turn to look at him.

Years later, he'd do the same upon hearing his nieces or nephews say, "Hi, Uncle Mikey."

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, said there are some cases in which people largely in a vegetative state seem to recognize some things.

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