The world as Sparta senior Miguel Vazquez knew it changed on December 5, 2018.
That morning started like so many others, when his girlfriend, a fellow senior, Tabitha Bouzis picked him up for school. Their vehicle slipped on the icy road and veered into an oncoming car.
Tabitha didn’t survive and Miguel started what doctors told his family would be a lengthy recovery. “They first thought that I would be in the hospital for months, but I was out in about a week,” he said. “Then they sent me to Mary Free Bed and said I would be there at least two months, but I worked hard to meet all my goals and was out in under two weeks.”
Miguel buried himself in his recovery, using challenging physical workouts to help heal his body and his spirit. He said that he took everything the physical therapists told him seriously. “I just decided to do what needed to be done,” he said.
After the hospital, he continued his recovery at home. An older sister moved back to help his mother care for him. He returned to high school only five weeks after the accident, determined to catch up and graduate with his class.
After a visit to the hospital English teacher Doug Kleyn made the determination that Miguel “would be away from school for months, but he came back quickly and ready to work.”
“He was relentlessly positive and ambitious. He set small goals and continually met them,” said Kleyn. “He did not want to be given any short cuts, he never asked to be excused from any of the work. He never used his injuries as a reason to avoid assignments.”
In January Miguel used a wheelchair and depended on his friends to carry his bag from class to class. But he had set his mind on catching up and graduating with his class. With some online support and lots of hard work, he managed to get through first semester exams.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for Miguel was missing out on an anticipated internship. Enrolled in the Mechatronics Program at Kent Career Tech Center, he had planned to work part time for a metal working company during second semester.
Miguel explained he was planning to work at Spec Tool just down the street from the high school, and hopes he could do that this summer instead. Mechatronics Instructor Travis Raspotnik is working to make that happen. “At this point we are talking about a summer job for him,” he said. “It is awesome.”
Classes in the Mechatronics Program are a mix of lecture, online content and hands-on activity, said Respotnik. Fellow classmate Jared Rathborn videotaped every lecture to make sure his friend Miguel was kept up to speed.
“It was great he had such support from his classmates,” said Raspotnik, “but when he was here, he worked hard to catch up. He has done a remarkable job.”
Classroom projects, like the one Miguel is currently working on are sometimes “actual projects for a vendor from the real world,” according to Raspotnik. “This one has been really heavy on the technical side, and he is really good at building and design.”
His injuries, which included a broken back with several broken and cracked vertebrae, a broken femur and a dislocated hip, kept Miguel from competing on the Sparta sports teams he loved.
Football season was over before the accident, but as an accomplished wrestler, he was looking forward to his senior season. “I was disappointed to miss the incredible Sparta 2019 season,” he said.
The day of the accident he was set to serve as team captain for the first wrestling match of the year, said varsity wrestling coach Mike Gohn.
Miguel’s coach was by his side at the hospital when Miguel was at Tabitha’s bed asking her to “keep fighting.”
Those words became a theme sported on team shirts. As soon as he was able, Miguel attended wrestling matches to cheer on teammates. “What was most impressive to me is that he called each of them by name and was always on the sidelines, calling to them to ‘keep fighting,’” said Gohn.
Gohn, like Kleyn recognized the spirit that came from deep inside Miguel. “I wasn’t surprised that he finished with his class,” said Gohn. “It was clear to me that the desire to keep fighting was deep within him. It has been amazing to watch him progress.”
The loss of Miguel on the team was deeply felt. “Not only did we lose the six points in his weight class at every single meet, the team missed out on a great leader,” said the coach. “Leaders like him make such a difference with the younger kids.”
One highlight in Miguel’s journey is that he has recovered enough to travel with his rugby teammates this spring. “I go along to every game – only as emotional support – but I am thrilled I am able to be there with them,” he said. “I am disappointed that I can’t play. I had never even heard of rugby before my freshman year, but I think I worked up to being pretty good at it.”
Miguel continues to rely on physical training to heal both his body and spirit. “The doctors say that I can do whatever – just to make sure that I quit if there is pain,” he said. He works out hard and there isn’t much he cannot do or at least work up to doing. “I work out every day, and increase the weight I add to my legs nearly every day,” he said.
Kleyn said that “Miguel never uses his tragedy to procure special treatment. He has a fierce sense of ambition and is realistic and positive about his recovery and sets achievable goals for himself physically, educationally, and emotionally.”
During his final presentation in English class, Kleyn said the students were asked to share a life goal. “Miguel said, ‘Someday I will run again.’ He will,” said Kleyn.
After graduation, Miguel plans to attend Grand Rapids Community College to complete his general education requirements and then pursue a degree in electrical engineering at Grand Valley State University.