"[If they would have] told me I would be going back on an ambulance, I would have given up hope - mentally I would have given up. I was mentally fighting to stay alive."
"Doctors have considered me a medical miracle. I consider the miracle the friends who helped me and cared. It was the effort of everybody involved. Everybody laid a foundation for me to recover."
Magical. Amazing communications skills. These are the phrases Special Agent John Zinna utters repeatedly to describe the day when BEMCC coordinated events that would save his life.
At the age of 15, Zinna joined that niche community of Americans who discover the beauty and fun to be had in Baja California,Mexico. He first started going down south to surf, then he started fishing and most recently he'd go down with friends once a month to ride his ATV.
With so much experience in Baja California, Zinna never stopped to think that anything could ever go wrong. That was until Saturday, January 27, 2007 when Zinna, riding at 60-70 mph north of San Quintin, had a collision with a pile of rocks that sent him flying over his handle bars. The collision knocked him out for a moment. His buddies examined him and saw he was numb from the chest down. He was paralyzed. For the next several hours Zinna endured excruciating pain as the race to save his life began.
The first players in Zinna's safe return home were his buddies - they hurried up the beach to gather wood for a makeshift backboard to stabilize Zinna. Luck was also on their side - a friend had recently given his extra satellite phone to a member in Zinna's group. They were able to call for help using this satellite phone.
The next key players on this day were the ambulance driver and the Mexican police. Upon arrival, they helped carry Zinna to the ambulance, put him on an actual backboard and transported him to Clinica Santa Maria San Quintin were Dr. Toski gave him an IV and anti-inflammatory medicine to reduce swelling.
Zinna praised the key players who'd participated up to this point. He says the police's professionalism had a calming effect on him and the doctor really knew what she was doing. While in the hospital, a bone was protruding from Zinna's skin. He was in such pain that he wanted to get off the backboard - but the doctor, knowing this movement would be detrimental to his recovery, made him stay put.
While all this was happening, Zinna's friends were trying to coordinate AEROMEDEVAC back to the United States. The problem was that in this small town the airport had closed and wouldn't open again until the next morning. It would have taken an ambulance three hours to arrive at Zinna's location and five hours to return to the border - not to mention the narrow and bumpy roads are not good for transporting a patient at risk of permanent paralyzation.
The accident happened at approximately 11 a.m. - by 4 p.m. Zinna's friends had been turned down by everyone they had asked for help. The best they could do was coordinate an ambulance ride back to the border. At around 4 p.m., they finally called the right place - they called BEMCC.
Celia Diaz, BEMCC Executive Director, immediately began seeking help. She asked Zinna and his friends to keep their plans for ambulance transportation as a backup plan. Recalling the event, Zinna remembers, "[If they would have] told me I would be going back on an ambulance, I would have given up hope - mentally I would have given up. I was mentally fighting to stay alive."
Diaz knew that the difference between an ambulance and helicopter ride would determine Zinna's fate. She knew the importance of getting him back to the United States quickly so he could get the surgery he critically needed.
After confirming that AEROMEDEVAC would not be able to help until the next day, Diaz contacted the U.S. Coast Guard for help. The local U.S. Coast Guard got in touch with U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters and was able to secure permission to evacuate Zinna via helicopter.
The helicopter ride secured with the U.S. Coast Guard required that a physician be on board. Diaz was relieved to find Dr. Andres Smith, Director of Emergency Services at Sharp Chula Vista, on his day off. Dr. Smith was attending a personal event with friends and family, but understood the importance of saving Zinna's life. With this obligation, Dr. Smith left his event and joined the efforts that would save Zinna's life.
Diaz directed Zinna's friends to the Mexican military base in San Quintin where the helicopter would land, but when Zinna and his friends arrived they were not allowed to enter despite their efforts to explain the situation.
Meanwhile, the helicopter was trying to land in complete darkness - a highly dangerous situation. Officials at the military base did not have information about permission for this helicopter to land on their base and therefore, did not turn on the lights.
Diaz then had to get on the phone again. She learned the U.S. Coast Guard had secured permission from Mexico City Headquarters to land on the military base. Diaz then had to communicate this with the Captain at the base. She convinced the Captain to allow the helicopter to land.
At around 11 p.m., 12 hours after the incident, the helicopter landed at the Scripps La Jolla Trauma Center. "I remember Dr. Smith jumping in to the ambulance when the helicopter landed," recalls Zinna. "It was comforting."
Zinna underwent a nine-hour surgery to treat a broken neck and thoracic area. He spent two weeks in intensive care and then four weeks in acute rehab where he had to learn to walk again. Today, he has completely recovered.
When Diaz met Zinna for the first time, she did not expect to see a man walking perfectly without a cane. "I ran three miles and biked ten today," he says with a smile. "Doctors have considered me a medical miracle. I consider the miracle the friends who helped me and cared. It was the effort of everybody involved. Everybody laid a foundation for me to recover."