“Everybody thought I was gone”: The Ultimate Comeback Story
“There were many times over the six-week time period that we thought we were going to lose him.” -Karen Nouges, Gadsden Independent School District Athletic Director
The Santa Teresa High School volleyball team has a greater appreciation for the game, their coach, and the preciousness of life following the battle Art Aguirre faced last fall.
It was September 21, 2020, the first day of practice for the Santa Teresa volleyball team. “I was already feeling pretty bad,” recalls Coach Art.
“I can remember the moment I looked at him sitting down and could tell something was off,” said junior Ashlyn Espinoza.
Aguirre started to recognize the signs of COVID-19, the virus that had taken over the country for months. “I didn’t have a fever, but I started to feel out of breath and started to lose my sense of taste,” he said. “I decided to go to the urgent care facility. Once I tested positive, they called for an ambulance and my oxygen rapidly started to get dangerously low. I passed out minutes later.”
That was on September 21st.
Art Aguirre didn’t wake up until November 3rd.
“Everything in between, I’ve had to be told about,” said Aguirre. “I didn’t even know the Dodgers won the World Series,” he joked.
COVID-19 became a possible death sentence for the longtime coach. After Aguirre was hospitalized, word started to circulate that he was unconscious in a hospital bed. “I found out the next morning after practice,” recalls junior Rilen Garcia. “I didn’t know what would happen next, I was really scared.”
“COVID was real, but I never had a personal connection,” said Espinoza. “My heart dropped and I was terrified. I didn’t know just how real it had gotten.”
Aguirre was initially intubated because of his respiratory failure. After days of intubation, doctors surgically made an incision in his trachea, or windpipe, and had a trach placed in him. Aguirre required a feeding tube to help keep him alive.
Weeks went by without change.
“We tried to stay positive, but we thought he might not ever come back,” said Garcia.
“There were many times over the six-week time period that we thought we were going to lose him,” said Gadsden Independent School District Athletic Director Karen Nouges.
Family were told they might want to say their goodbyes, last rites might be administered soon.
But then on November 3rd, after more than six weeks, Aguirre awoke. “I remember opening my eyes and I had no idea where I was and why I was there,” he recalled. “I thought it was still September 21st. I had lost 80 pounds and lots of muscle. I couldn’t move my legs. I thought I suffered a stroke because all I could move was my fingers and hand. They were afraid I suffered permanent damage because I couldn’t move my arm and wasn’t able to walk.”
Not only did Aguirre have to learn how to walk again, but he also had to learn how to swallow and eat solid foods. “When they removed the trach, my voice changed too,” he said. “Everybody thought I was gone. One of the nurses told me during rehab that other people in a similar situation, that long being in the hospital, don’t make it. I’m fortunate to be alive. It wasn’t my time to go.”
Aguirre was released from the hospital on December 10th and was almost unrecognizable with a physical transformation. “I saw him at church in December,” Espinoza remembers. “I didn’t even recognize him. He was so skinny, his hair was long, he was using a walker, carried an oxygen tank, his voice was almost gone and he could hardly talk.”
After weeks of rehab, Aguirre finally returned to practice with his team. “We were excited,” said Garcia. “His shorts were baggier than normal and his voice was different.”
“He wasn’t able to yell at us anymore,” she joked.
Aguirre, back coaching his squad, has a relatively young team with five sophomores, one freshman, three juniors and only two seniors. Santa Teresa has won four straight district titles and has been to the state semifinals in each of the last four years. With the state tournament taking place next week, Aguirre believes his team will get there again. “I believe we are a top 3 team in the state,” he said.
As a result of his physical struggle, Aguirre still can’t hit a volleyball at practice and has to take medication for another month, but he and his team both embrace the opportunities they have in front of them. “The biggest thing in life is perspective,” said the coach. “Seeing my wife and son every day, enjoying our time together, mean even more. I enjoy coaching and love being around the game and watching my team grow. The more I see it, the more I appreciate it.”
“I appreciate the people around me even more,” said Espinoza. “It wouldn’t be the same without Coach Art here. He helps the game to be more fun and bring us together.”
“Don’t take things for granted,” said Garcia. “Every practice, every game, take advantage of it and make the most of everything in front of you.”