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, as Mikey grew 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,” he recalled recently. “So I prayed. I prayed to God to walk our families through this. To help us. And he did.”

For the next three decades, Mikey would live at home with his family. During those years, he 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 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.

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,” Vespa said. “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 said.


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.

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. 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.

A year ago, Cortez 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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