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Fulfilling a promise to a man in a vegetative state for 31 years gave him a life and a purpose

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MURRIETA, Calif. - 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 favours 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 travelling on a rural, two-lane road when a drunken driver suddenly barrelled 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 travelled 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 favoured 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 behaviour 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.

"They have a lot of impairment, but they are able to interact a little bit," he said. Giving them as close to normal a life experience as possible, as Mikey's family did, probably does help them, he added.

Still, 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 strapping, 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 and 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 the sites in Texas, Florida, Virginia, Massachusetts and other states.

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

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

"And then," she said, 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. 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: They would learn how to do dialysis themselves and keep him at home.

When Christmas Eve arrived last month, Mikey gathered with his family for a holiday portrait. Only 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. He died a day shy of his 39th birthday.

When they got into this journey 31 years ago, his father said, the family "didn't have a clue" how they would fulfil their promise, but, yes, they would do it all again. It brought them closer together and it gave Mikey a life full of meaning with them and — with strangers.

"I'll tell you a story," Cortez said, pausing to brush his face as he began to choke up.

A year ago, he was giving a talk about drunken driving and a young woman approached him. She told him she had been one of Mikey's first-grade classmates, back when he was that vibrant little boy. She let Cortez know that over the years she and others had gotten the message of Mikey's life.

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

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