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Family stood by son in coma for 31 years

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.

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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 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 nearly 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 seat belts in those days,’’ Mikey’s mother said, meaning everybody was tossed about the car.

Mikey suffered 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 he 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 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 give him a hug.

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 0.22, 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.

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 and keep him at home.

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

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