MILPITAS -- As a 12-year-old, Zachary Rowe, was a video gamer and sports fan with an easy smile who loved to pose for photos. But a year ago this week, his life took a drastic turn as he was crushed by a 74-foot oak tree that fell on his tent during a family camping trip.
About 4:30 on the morning of July 25, 2012, a loud crack awoke the camp at San Mateo Memorial Park near Pescadero. Even as family members called for help in the dark of night, unaware of what exactly had happened, Zachary knew he was lucky.
"Mom, you know that show, 'I Shouldn't Be Alive'?" he asked. "This is like that show."
The extent of Zachary's injuries wasn't immediately apparent -- his cousin, who shared a tent with him, was unharmed -- but Zachary reported his "legs feel like jelly." His condition deteriorated quickly. When Mike Rowe, Zachary's father, was notified of the accident, no one knew whether Zachary would even make it out of the operating room.
Mike Rowe, who lives in Maple Valley, Wash., jumped on a plane right away.
"Even though the flight was only a couple hours long, it felt like it took forever," he said. "When I approached the doctor, he said, 'I want to talk to you about your son.' I pushed him aside and went straight to Zach."
Zachary, who was visiting from Arizona, required a hip disarticulation and a hemipelvectomy, a high-level amputation that slices right through the hip joint. It's a rare procedure that only a fraction of amputees undergo. The first weeks after the accident took a heavy toll on the whole family.
"There was a lot of pain, a lot of fear, a lack of confidence," said Michelle Peters, Zachary's mother. "With so many wounds, just to have him get out of bed and into the wheelchair was very, very difficult. It was hard for him, being 12 years old." She and her husband have since moved from Arizona to Santa Clara for Zachary's care.
Suzanne Mendez, a pediatric doctor at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, attended to Zachary the four months he was there. Even though her hospital is a major trauma center, she had never seen such a high-level amputation before.
"Practically every organ system had been involved, he needed so many different transfusions and surgeries," she said. "By the time he left, he had really fought through a lot of different complications, and it was very inspiring to everyone involved."
Zachary, having endured multiple surgeries and hundreds of hours of grueling physical therapy, is now zooming around on his wheelchair and smiling as broadly as ever. His family recently threw a party at Dave and Buster's in Milpitas to celebrate a year of his recovery.
Speaking with the maturity of someone wise beyond his 13 years, Zachary knows there's a lot of work ahead.
"I can't do much after the accident," he said. But he's attacked new hobbies with verve: learning the guitar and designing his own video games, which he plays with his father online.
His family remarked on how much he has matured during this ordeal. "He wants to be his own person," Mike Rowe said. "It almost seems like he doesn't want this accident to stop him from growing up. More power to him."
In some ways, Zachary is the same as ever. As an animal-loving young boy, he once noticed an injured duck on a bird watching trip and took it to a wildlife center. Even in pain, his compassion shines through.
"In the hospital, sometimes Zach would say 'they're worse off than me,'" Peters said. "My heart just gets touched when he feels worse off for somebody else. He's still storing empathy for other children."
A year into his recovery, Zachary continues to see a revolving door of doctors and even has occasional surgery. Everything -- school, his family, friends and hobbies -- has changed. But he still harbors the same love for video games and animals and wears the same easy smile.
"He's going to be such an inspiration," said Brenda Cruz, Zachary's grandmother, of Milpitas. "It's hard on me, but when I see him, he brings a smile to my face."
So, in some ways, nothing has changed at all.
Contact Edward Ngai at 408-920-5064