When Nicole Patteson pictured her senior year at El Toro High, she always imagined another person there holding her hand.
She and Jimmy Pequeno, together since eighth grade—set up by a teacher who said they would be “perfect” together—were inseparable.
As their junior year drew to a close, the couple had a bright future in their sights.
For him, the Marines. For her, college. For both, one final year, marked by time-honored traditions—the homecoming football game, prom and sunny summer days together before the arrival of adult life.
But mere days into the summer of 2011, a nighttime adventure to Blackstar Canyon—a popular destination for adventure seekers, thanks to rumors it is haunted—ended in , a well-liked, athletic 17-year-old.
Although he escaped near-certain death, his injuries forced doctors to send him into a coma from which he has yet to emerge.
July was just beginning and with it, summer break. Pequeno and Patteson’s respective groups of friends, who did not frequently mix socially, planned to spend an evening together.
But, as things are wont to do during the lazy days of summer, plans changed. Pequeno and his friends headed to explore the canyon’s mysteries; the girls met for a sleepover.
Once their evening adventures in Blackstar concluded, Pequeno and his best friend, Avery Bean, hopped in Pequeno’s 2007 Honda and headed out of the canyon.
Traveling south on Santiago Canyon Road near Ridgeline Road at about 1 a.m. July 1, . The crash knocked out power to nearby homes and wrapped the sedan around the pole. There were no indications alcohol played a role in the collision, police said.
Pequeno took the brunt of the crash. Bean, sitting in the passenger seat, was able to clamber out of the wrecked vehicle, sustaining minor injuries that would leave massive bruises on his legs for weeks to come.
When Bean got out of the car, he began screaming for help, Patteson said.
The quick arrival of emergency crews in response to his shouts likely saved Pequeno’s life, she said.
“If the ambulance would have came a few minutes later …” she said, unable to finish the sentence. “The doctors say Jimmy’s a miracle,” she added, a note of shy pride in her voice.
Curiously, Pequeno’s father, a Lake Forest police officer, had been scheduled to work a nighttime shift in the area but, by happenstance, decided to switch his shift and stay home that night.
Firefighters used the Jaws of Life to manhandle open the sedan, pull out Pequeno and bundle him into a waiting ambulance, which screeched off toward Mission Hospital.
On July 1, Patteson awoke to five missed calls from her father. Her stomach churned with nervousness.
Pequeno had stopped responding to her texts the previous evening—an uncharacteristic move for the ordinarily attentive teen.
Patteson tried to rationalize her father’s tone in the messages pleading for her to come home immediately.
“I thought I had forgot to do the laundry” or some other household chore, she said.
Still, “I knew something was up.”
She rushed home, leaving her overnight items at her friend’s house.
Upon arriving, the news that Pequeno’s life hung in the balance caused her to fall apart so completely that her father said she would have to be driven to the hospital to see him.
At Mission Hospital, she found a waiting room full of Orange County police officers, supporting Pequeno's parents as they waited for news on their son.
The crash left him with two skull fractures, a broken jaw, a pinched left carotid artery, separated left shoulder, punctured right lung, broken left leg and cuts and scratches, according to Pequeno's father. Doctors put him in a medically-induced coma and told his parents they might never see him awake again.
The "Marathon" Months
For the next 31 days, Pequeno's parents, Robert and Angela Pequeno, and Patteson rarely left his bedside.
As the days crept by, Robert began keeping an online journal marking medical— and emotional—milestones for the family. His detailed notes begin July 2, the day after the crash, with a word of caution from one of Pequeno's doctors: "This is not a sprint, it's a marathon."
Within a week, the 17-year-old, who doctors feared would die from his injuries, had stabilized enough that Robert and Angela felt comfortable spending their first night back at home.
In mid-August, Robert wrote that his son was able to squeeze his hand and follow movement with his left eye.
He joked that his son didn't like his singing when the two "celebrated" their Sept. 17 birthdays together at midnight in the hospital.
Patteson surprised the Pequenos with a check for $500, which she raised by selling blue plastic bracelets with Jimmy's name on them, accompanied by the phrase "always a fighter."
In early October, after Patteson visited Pequeno to mark her 18th birthday, doctors took him into surgery to repair his ear canal. They also removed two nodules that had formed in his throat, impeding the airway.
Now, the Pequeno family is waiting for a surgery date in mid-November, when doctors are scheduled to fully reattach a piece of Pequeno's skull—a major medical step that could hasten his recovery.
His family hopes to bring him home this winter.
The Coming Days
Patteson joked that the couple are going to prom—whether he is out of the hospital or not.
"I don’t care if I take him in a wheelchair," she said adamantly.
Sharing her boyfriend's story—keeping his friends informed, talking to others for the Pequenos—has forced Patteson to grow out of her naturally shy personality, she said.
Recently, she organized a campuswide "Jimmy Pequeno Day," during which students wore blue, signed posters for his hospital room and held a prayer circle in his honor.
"He was the outgoing one and I was the shy one," Patteson said. "When he gets out of this, I say it’s going to be the opposite."
Until then, she has the last texts they sent the night of the crash. Drive carefully, she messaged him. "I'm sorry," he sent back at 8:55 p.m., apologizing for changing their plans.
"I'm never deleting that," she said.