Share story

MURRIETA, Calif. — Paul Cortez clearly remembers the night 31 years ago. He had walked into the pediatric intensive-care unit of Riverside County Regional Medical Center to find son Mikey, 7, clinging to life.

Bandages were covering his little body. 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.

Paul Cortez got down on his knees and, with Mikey’s hand in his, made a promise to God: If his son survived, whatever his condition, he and his family would always be there for him.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Mikey would never walk or talk again, but that didn’t matter to his relatives. For the next 31 years, they would raise him at home and include 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.

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.

“If you look at the pictures, they pretty much tell you the story of Mikey, because in every one he’s goofing off,” Paul 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. In practically every one he’s sporting a big grin.

The family lived in Temecula, midway between San Diego and Los Angeles.

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 barreled down and hit their car head-on.

“No seat belts in those days,” Mikey’s mother said, meaning everybody was tossed about the car.

Mikey suffered serious brain damage. He was left in a persistent vegetative state, a condition that’s like a coma. People show 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.

When Tony made his high-school football and basketball teams, Mikey was at every game. At basketball games Mikey would 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 favorite 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 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.

“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.

How much Mikey was aware of is not known, but pictures taken over the years show he could still flash that captivating smile from time to time.

Mikey did learn how to swallow again, and his family was able to remove his feeding tube and give him solid food. That prompted 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 bout with pneumonia set him back in his mid-30s.

There were many things Mikey could never do. He couldn’t shower or dress or feed himself during the years he was rapidly growing from little boy to teenager and, finally, into a 150-pound man.

So his mother and grandmother did those things for him.

“Did it get harder?” his mother said. “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.”

Because he could no longer attend school with his friends, his family found other ways to get him involved. Several times a year they took him to schools, where his father gave talks aimed at impressing upon teenage drivers the pain that drunken driving exacts on innocent victims.

He told them how a man with a blood-alcohol level of .22, nearly three times the legal limit, had gotten behind the wheel of a car with his two young daughters, how he drove straight into the vehicle carrying an innocent family. The driver and a daughter died too. Then he introduced them to Mikey.

When the talks took Cortez and his family to Florida one year for a Mothers Against Drunk Driving conference, they turned the visit into a cross-country travel adventure, showing Mikey sites in Texas, Florida, Virginia, Massachusetts and other states.

Over the years, the doctors who once doubted Mikey would survive a week gave up trying to predict when he might die.

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. Promise or not, doctors told the family, it was time for him to enter a facility where he could undergo kidney dialysis.

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

When Christmas Eve arrived, Mikey gathered with his family for a holiday portrait. This time there was no smile. He looked pale and weary and his eyes were closed. Three days later, he died at home, with his family at his side.

When the journey began 31 years ago, his father said, the family “didn’t have a clue” how it would fulfill his promise, but he and his family would do it all again.

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.