by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
(March 26, 2008) The family of 21 year old Zach Dunlap, who came back to life only minutes before a transplant team was to remove his organs, attributes his sudden and miraculous recovery to divine intervention.
“I’ve heard of miracles all my life, but I’ve never seen a miracle,” said Naomi Blackford, Zach’s grandmother to MSNBC. “But I have seen a miracle. I’ve got proof of it!”
Zack Dunlap was declared dead after suffering catastrophic head injuries in an ATV (all-terrain vehicle) accident which occurred the week before Thanksgiving near his home in Frederick, Oklahoma. He had just participated in a parade with his friends and they were driving home when Zach swerved to avoid hitting someone. His ATV flipped over and Zach landed headfirst on the asphalt. He lay motionless and unresponsive as his friends frantically called 911.
He was taken first to a local hospital, then airlifted 50 miles away to United Regional Healthcare System in Wichita Falls, Texas where the trauma unit was better equipped to treat the severe damage done to his brain.
Thirty-six hours after the accident, when doctors performed a brain scan and found no blood flow in his brain, they declared him brain dead.
Zack’s parents, Pam and Doug Dunlap, remember looking at the computer image of the brain scan and hearing the doctor explain how the dark areas mean there was no longer any blood flow.
“That was the whole brain,” said Doug Dunlap. “It was just black.”
The Dunlaps were faced with the agonizing decision of how long to keep their son on life-support.
“He lived life to the fullest,” Doug said. “And laying in bed the rest of his life? That wasn’t an option.”
However, Zack had listed on his drivers license that he wanted to be an organ donor, and his parents took comfort in this. In this way, at least, a part of their son would live on. They gave doctors permission to take his organs.
With the transplant procedure to take place within 24 hours, friends and neighbors gathered around his bed to say goodbye. Pam and Doug struggled to let go of their beautiful son, who had been an answer to their prayers 21 years ago when they were desperate for a child. Zack was only 15 days old when they brought him into their home, their family, and their hearts.
His grandmother Naomi, who adored him, found it especially hard to say goodbye. “I went in and I prayed right there,” she said. “ . . . (H)e was too young for God to take him. It wasn’t time.”
But God seemed to have another plan, at least that’s the way it looked until a few minutes later when Zack’s cousins, Dan and Christy Coffin, both nurses, came into the room.
Christy Coffin recalled: “I sat there and I just said to him, ‘Zack, if you’re in there, if you can hear me, ask God to help you.’ And I mean it probably wasn’t 10 minutes later, I started getting this different feeling in my gut. And I thought, ‘he’s not ready.’”
Her brother Dan agreed and, acting on a whim, pulled out a pocket knife and scraped it up the length of Zack’s foot, from heel to toe.
“He jerked his foot plumb out of my hand,” Dan said.
They could only stand there in shock. Another nurse, Brenda Ysasaga, who was in the room at the time, said it was just a reflex, not uncommon even from those who are brain dead.
But Dan wasn’t so sure. “So I grabbed Zack’s arm and I stuck my fingernail underneath his fingernail. You know that’s a tender area. And Zack just threw his hand . . . . He physically moved his hand away from me, across his body.”
Christy Coffin could only gasp, “Oh my God!”
Only four hours after declaring him dead, Dr. Leo Mercer, Director of Trauma Services at the hospital, reversed that decision. “These were purposeful movements,” he said.
Zack was alive.
The family was beyond thrilled, but Dr. Mercer warned them that they did not yet know the extent of Zack’s brain damage. What quality of life would he have?
They waited in anxious prayer as two days later, the ventilator was removed and Zack started breathing on his own. The same day, he squeezed their hand. A week later, a neurosurgeon asked him to hold up two fingers and Zack did it. The doctor declared him aware. He was “in there,” as they say.
Within twelve days he was talking, then took his first steps, and is now home after spending months in rehabilitation. He’s close to normal, his family says, but still suffers from memory and emotional issues.
Doctors have no medical explanation for his recovery. They followed every procedure, performed all the right tests. Zack was gone, they say.
But now he’s back. And he claims to remember hearing his own death knell, so to speak, when his doctor declared him brain-dead. He was aware of what was being said, but was unable to respond. How did that make him feel?
Angry, he said. “I’m glad I couldn’t get up and do what I wanted to do.”
Everyone believes Zack’s return was a blessing from God, and they feel humbled by it.
“ . . . God has some big plan for Zack,” his mother said. “We’ll do everything in our power to help him pursue it – whatever it is.”
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