This Guardian Angel Bleeds Red

Sebastian Metz's heart is in the right place. If only his brain and body could follow.

But Shauna loved Sebastian's ethic, his heroics and his willingness to do anything to keep the Angels strong (one time, he dove in a dumpster to replace an old toilet at the Angels headquarters, she says). And she saw that he was just as fearless on the ice and on the soccer field in the various sports leagues he participated in.

The couple married on February 9, 2003, and moved into a larger house. The next year, Sebastian became the first person west of New York to draw a full-time salary, albeit a modest one, from the Angels, as the organization's western region director.

When Shauna got pregnant, she made Sebastian, who hated going to the doctor, get checked out as well. Another physician had noticed a heart murmur a few months earlier but decided it was nothing more than high blood pressure.

Sebastian Metz before his surgery (left) and today.
Mark Manger
Sebastian Metz before his surgery (left) and today.
Sebastian is flown to Denver in a coma after heart surgery.
Mark Manger
Sebastian is flown to Denver in a coma after heart surgery.

The second doctor heard the murmur, too, and after some tests, another physician shocked the Metzes by telling them Sebastian needed surgery as soon as possible. He had a congenital heart defect that blocked his aorta, which kept the blood from getting down to the rest of his body. The blockage actually kills most people by the time they are seven years old.

The doctor was amazed that Sebastian had lived as long as he had and said there was no time to waste. Without the surgery, he wouldn't make it another five years. Actor John Ritter was killed by the same defect.

"He had the most fucked-up plumbing around his heart that he could possibly have, and no doctor in the whole state of Colorado would touch him," Shauna remembers. So Sebastian was scheduled for surgery at Stanford University in California. He had to choose between a pig valve that would've lasted ten years in his body before he'll need another surgery or an artificial valve that would require him to take blood thinners but wouldn't necessarily require a replacement. He chose the latter.

Death was certainly a possibility, although it was one that Sebastian refused to accept. His son, Rooks, was born in October 2004, and in January 2005, Sebastian flew to California for his operation. He and his wife went out for a nice Italian dinner before — a memory that didn't come back to him until nearly a year later.

The complicated procedure to put an artificial metal valve and add tubing to replace his descending aorta lasted more than eighteen hours, and Sebastian flatlined three times. The doctors had to massage his heart to keep it beating, and he suffered multiple strokes. By the time it was over, Sebastian was in a coma.

Tubes ran in and out of almost every hole in his body, keeping him alive, and the doctors told Sebastian's family that he'd be a vegetable if he ever pulled out of it. But Shauna and friends and family and a couple of Angels on hand, including Sliwa, told the doctors that they just didn't know Sebastian.

On the fourth day of his coma, Sebastian's left arm and right leg started to swell up, and his fingernails and toenails turned black. He had an allergic reaction to the blood thinner, and his blood clotted instead of thinning. He ran a high fever, and they had to put his shaking body on an ice bed. The reaction also could have caused the brain injury, Shauna suspects, though they'll never know for sure. (Cardiovascular surgeon Craig Miller, who led the procedure, couldn't be reached for comment.)

While Sebastian fought for life, his wife battled the insurance company as the costs associated with the surgery and an around-the-clock nurse in the intensive care unit soared. Shauna says the company wanted to put Sebastian in a nursing home, but it couldn't do anything until she signed to get him out of the intensive care unit; the insurance company then tried to fly him to Denver without her, but she wanted to be on the plane, monitoring his condition. In the end, it went her way, and Sebastian returned to Denver on February 7, where he was taken to St. Joseph Hospital and, later, to Craig Hospital.

Six weeks after the surgery, Sebastian began to emerge from the coma. But his memories are jagged. He remembers being wheeled out of the hospital on a gurney with a nurse rolling an oxygen tank alongside him. His wife and son were there. He remembers being in the airplane, although he says he couldn't think normal thoughts.

"I knew pretty quickly that I was damaged, and I was bitter about that," he says.

Sebastian recalls being at St. Joseph, trying to walk again. His stepfather and one of his sisters were there with Shauna and Rooks. "I remember walking around with the walker, and I wasn't clear what had happened. I thought I had fallen down and hit my head or something, because I couldn't remember the surgery," he says.

Over the next few months, Sebastian had to relearn how to eat, to walk, to tie his shoes. His speech was slurred and not as commanding; he struggled for his words. But the most difficult part for him and for everyone around him was the short-term memory loss. He couldn't remember left. He couldn't remember right. Eventually he came home, but the insurance company said the house they lived in wasn't suitable for his condition — too many stairs and no railings — so they had to move to a smaller place.

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