David Zamorano didn’t wish to, but he didn’t have a choice.
Zamorano, last August, at the age of 63, suffered a severe heart arrhythmia, and his heart stopped. He survived but went into a coma.
Being a life-long UCLA fan, having graduated from the school in 1975, he had really been looking forward to the 2013 football season. The program was on the upswing in the second year of Jim Mora, and Zamorano was greatly anticipating a break-through season.
But he was in a coma for approximately three months and missed the entire season.
This, though, is a story of a great second chance. It’s the chance for Zamorano to not only get back a season of UCLA football, but his life.
On Wednesday, under the shade from a big tree on the campus of Cal State San Bernardino, Zamorano sat up straight in his wheel chair with bright, attentive eyes. In front of him on the green grass of the practice field was the UCLA football team and Zamorano was entranced.
Zamorano, a year later, is still in the process of recovering from what was essentially the equivalent of brain trauma. He’s in rehabilitation to regain his mental and physical capabilities, and he can’t speak much. His son, also named David, said, “He can talk a little, but he understands everything that is said. He definitely understands all the jokes. And he knows everything he’s seeing.”
With the running backs going through drills directly in front of him, fullback Nate Iese ran by. Zamorano pointed and said, “Hmm. He’s big.” Dave looked at his father proudly and hopefully, and said, “You’re right, Dad. That’s Iese and he is very big.”
|Zamorano (right) at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro with his daughter, Michelle.|
“My dad was a diehard UCLA fan,” said the younger Dave, who also graduated from UCLA, in 1995. “It was something we had together. We’d always talk UCLA sports. He loved it and couldn’t get enough of it. His license plate is ‘4UCLA75.’ His ringtone is the UCLA fight song. When he climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro he was wearing a UCLA hat.”
And Zamorano always had a big smile, particularly when talking about his Bruins. “That big smile, it’s kind of his trademark,” Dave said.
Then one morning a year ago, when he had just returned from a morning run, Zamorano bent down to pick up the newspaper on his driveway and collapsed. His heart stopped. By the time medical workers had gotten his heart pumping again it had been 10 minutes. His heart was functioning normally, but no oxygen had reached his brain for those 10 minutes, which is a long time for a man in his 60s. He wasn’t conscious but there was brain activity. A few days later, he did wake up but then went through a series of seizures, so the attending doctors at UCLA Medical Center suggested a medically-induced coma.
“It was planned to be for a month,” said Dave, who is a doctor himself, Director of Orthopaedic Trauma at UC Irvine Medical Center. “But it took a couple of months for him to completely come out of it.”
It isn’t like in the movies, when characters wake up from comas, instantaneously regain full brain function and just pick up right where they left off pre-coma. Dave said, “It was a recovery process, and still is. When he came out of the coma, he couldn’t talk at all. I’m not sure he realized he had lost three months.”
The rehab and recovery, for the last nine months, has been a long road. The family has pitched in, willingly. Diane, his wife, cares for him herself, driving him to his physical therapy appointments and wherever he needs to go, while it isn’t easy for her to get him in and out of the car. Dave comes to see his father after work quite a bit, and tries to put him through some mental exercises, anything that will get the parts of his brain that are dark to reboot.
One of the things that definitely gets the synapses firing is UCLA football.
“Whenever I bring up UCLA football it definitely perks him up,” Dave said. “He immediately gets more lucid. I start talking about the team and the upcoming season and it gets him hyped up. You could say UCLA has been key in his recovery.”
So, Dave thought it could potentially be rehabilitative to take his father to a UCLA practice in San Bernardino. “We wanted to go a year ago and couldn’t make it,” Dave said. “So I thought that maybe the idea of it would help the recovery. When I asked him if he wanted to go he really got alert. He was pretty sharp for the few days leading up to us going because he was so excited about it.”
On Wednesday, Dave Sr., Dave, his wife, Erica, and their two kids, Jackson (11) and Emily (7) got dressed in their Bruin best and made the trek from Orange County to San Bernardino. They didn’t know what to expect from Dave Sr., what he’d understand or how much he’d remember about the team.
“I don’t know if he realizes that he missed last season,” Dave said. “But he does know that the upcoming season has a chance to be special. When the rankings came out I told him UCLA was ranked 7th and he smiled that really big smile of his. I tell him everything I read on BRO about the team and it seems like he understand it all.”
Dave thought, as they were sitting next to the practice field Wednesday, the big test would be if he remembered Jim Mora. For the 2013 season, when Zamorano had gone into the coma, Mora was still pretty new as UCLA’s coach.
“He watched every game Mora’s first season in 2012,” Dave said. “But last year, of course, he missed them all and I wasn’t sure he’d know Mora was the coach.”
After Wednesday's practice, Mora drove up right in front of the Zamoranos in a golf cart, and got out to say hello. The elder Zamorano lit up like a Christmas tree, extended his hand to the coach and said clearly, “It’s Jim Mora.”
“That even surprised me,” Dave said. And it might have been Zamorano’s most impressive moment of clarity.
Mora thanked Zamorano for coming to practice, and Zamorano was transfixed as Mora talked about how he admired Zamorano for climbing Kilimanjaro, and how he intended to do it a couple of years ago himself except for a bum knee.
|The Zamoranos with Brett Hundley and Eldridge Massington|
“He recognized Brett,” Dave said. “He didn’t recognize Mazzone, though,” Dave said with a laugh.
Driving home after practice, Dave Sr. was still very excited about the day in San Bernardino. “He was on Cloud Nine the entire drive home,” Dave said. “It was great for him.”
The prognosis, Dave says, is generally positive for his father. “His heart is in good condition, it’s just a question of how much neurologically he can recover,” Dave said.
The doctors feel that since he was in such good shape before the heart attack he’ll have a strong chance to regain a good portion of his functionality, but it could take a number of years.
UCLA football could continue to be instrumental in the recovery.
This fall, the Zamoranos are going to try to go to a UCLA football game. “We’ll see if we can manage it. It should be great for him,” Dave said. “Not just the excitement of it, but the experience could really continue to help him, especially if they win,” Dave said.
For Zamorano, the 2014 season is kind of a do-over for the season he missed, and the chance to continue a life that’s been very good.
“We feel lucky to just have more time with him,” Dave said, looking at his father as he watched UCLA’s practice, with that characteristic big smile. “And UCLA is the thing that binds us.”