A split-second moment changed an Oberlin family forever, when a typical afternoon baseball practice turned into a parent's worst nightmare. 12-year-old Zach Villareal was an All-Star baseball player, who is now fighting his hardest battle off the field.
Candid moments on a mother's cell phone capture Zach's energy and wit before the day that changed him forever. Zach is the youngest of three athletic boys. "They play basketball, football, baseball, track. We're the sports parents!" said mom, Rae.
Even before Zach was old enough to dress out, he was on the field with his big brothers.
When it was finally his turn to play, parents Rae and Tony say he gave it his all. "He played All-Stars on two teams and he was going back and forth between tournaments, playing for one team, going back and changing uniforms, playing on the other team," said Tony. "He loved it."
This dad loved it, too. He was on the sidelines the afternoon of September 1, 2013, when Zach collapsed at baseball practice. "Me and the coach both were like, 'Come on Zachary, get up already.' He just wasn't responding," said Tony.
A parent called 9-1-1 and a local police officer at the field started CPR.
Rae got the call at home and rushed to get to her unresponsive son. "I just prayed all the way there, 'God, please don't take my baby.' When we got there, the only thing I saw where his feet at the end of the ambulance," she said.
Even with CPR, Zach had been without oxygen for several minutes. An ambulance got Zach to a helicopter and everyone tried to hope for the best. "I don't think they wanted to worry me more about what was going on," said Tony.
It took three days to confirm Zach's diagnosis: a hereditary heart rhythm disorder called "long QT syndrome," and severe brain damage from an estimated 10 minutes without oxygen. "With an anoxic brain injury, it actually deprives your brain cells of oxygen and so they end up being killed off," said Rae.
After one week, Zach opened his eyes. Next, he was taken off a ventilator. Then came a defibrillator, another hospital and two months of intensive physical, occupational and speech therapies. "Slowly but surely we'd see fingers move, and then we would see hands start to move. Now we have arms that move," said Rae.
When Zach was finally cleared to come home, the whole town came out to celebrate. "The driver told us to look out of the ambulance window," said Rae, "there were fire trucks, police cars and everybody was just lined up and cheering and yelling and clapping for him. It was amazing to know that they loved him that much."
That love spilled over at Christmas, with carolers from local churches filling the home.
Then came the gift of potential mobility: a surprise delivery of equipment that helps Zach learn to stand again.
The Villareals say their greatest gift is that their sons are still here and through Zach's diagnosis, doctors detected the same heart condition in his mom and oldest brother. That is a discovery that will allow them to live longer, together. "My oldest son said that it doesn't matter he can't play another sport again," said Tony, "but he says, 'my brother saved my life.'"
Zach's oldest brother, Jonathan, will get a defibrillator as soon as the school year ends. Rae and Tony are urging all parents to have EKGs done on their children and read by a professional to detect heart conditions before tragedy happens.