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Damien, 6, gives new meaning
to the word ‘fighter’
When he’s in his corner in an ultimate fighting ring, mixed martial artist Alejandro Zea knows what will take place. There will be a smack-down with an equally-strong and formidable foe in the center of the mat. And, as with all MMA fighting, one will triumph.
Alejandro, 25, is a professional MMA fighter and a career firefighter/emergency medical technician in Montgomery County, Md. He believed that athletic competition was the pinnacle of what it means to fight, until his son Damien, 6, was born. Damien was diagnosed with a moderate form of Cerebral Palsy at the age of 2.
Alejandro says that in the four years since his son’s diagnosis, the words endurance, willpower, intensity and strength would come to mean something different. He could claim he has learned more about being a true fighter from his son, than the ring.
“When Damien was born, I was 19 and his mother, Jennifer, was 18,” said Alejandro. “Being young, we already had a lot to learn about parenting.
“But when Damien was two years old, we started to notice that he favored one side of his body,” Alejandro said. “He also had an undeveloped calf muscle. We took him to a neurologist, and he was very sure about what it was, and he was calm about it. Neither of us knew anything about Cerebral Palsy – and that was part of what made it so difficult. We didn’t know how it would affect our son, and what his future would be.
“Even though we suspected something was wrong, we were shocked,” Alejandro said.
After two rounds of Botox® that required six weeks of corrective hard casting and 24-hour bracing they came to admire Damien’s strength and disposition. After surgery to lengthen his Achilles tendon, requiring another six weeks in a cast, a brace and physical therapy the parents admired his endurance, his stamina.
“I get my strength and courage from my son. As difficult as work and training may become, I always stop and think to myself that in only 6 short years my son has had it harder and is still a long way from being passed braces and surgeries.”
– Alejandro Zea
“Damien has never complained once, he has never allowed himself to be slowed down,” said Alejandro, noting that Damien fights every day to take part in the activities others take for granted. “He is above his grade level in all of his school subjects and has a caring personality and hilarious sense of humor.”
Every step, for Damien, is a battle of uncommon courage, according to his dad.
“I get my strength and courage from my son,” he said. “As difficult as work and training may become, I always stop and think to myself that in only 6 short years my son has had it harder and is still a long way from being passed braces and surgeries.”
A painful diagnosis, a valiant fight
Hearing the words “Cerebral Palsy” is devastating to a parent. For Alejandro, coping with the diagnosis was initially difficult because all of the hopes he had for his son were upended by something that was cloaked in mystery. And, it was a condition the new parents were told was permanent which further engendered a sense of helplessness.
Alejandro’s first step was to find out everything he could about Cerebral Palsy. Day and night, he was online looking up terms, looking for personal stories, and seeking out any available information about Cerebral Palsy.
“I educated myself, and that helped me a great deal,” he said. “This has had a huge impact on my life and Damien’s life because you never think of anything except being young and healthy at this stage. I found out a lot of things that I didn’t know.
“I think the most important thing that I learned is that there were things that could be done to help Damien,” Alejandro said. “It helped us a great deal to be proactive, and it helped us get Damien into the right programs early on.”
It wasn’t long after Damien’s diagnosis that he began seeing therapists and participating in early interventions at his local school. Alejandro said that although Damien is doing well overall, there have been serious issues that have occurred that needed to be dealt with so his movement and strength can be maximized.
“If I had to categorize Damien’s condition, I would call it a moderate case of CP,” he said. “He recently had invasive surgery to link his Achilles’ tendon because it was causing him a lot of problems. He wears a brace all day, but fortunately, he does not have to wear it at night. He’s going to therapy once a week.”
Although mixed martial arts is a full-contact combative sport that taxes the body, Alejandro said it’s nothing when it comes to what Damien faces physically, even on good days.
“He has to wear this brace, and when I put it on him in the morning so he can go to school or ride his bike, I think about what he’s going through,” Alejandro said. “He’s going through things that I don’t even know if I could get through … and he has a smile on his face.”
Damien has endured several surgeries and procedures, and is likely to undergo more in the future. Alejandro said in some ways, the process of diagnosing a child is ongoing in that interventions regarding a child’s health take place on an ongoing basis.
“We know that Damien has a long way to go,” he said. “And we’re going to be there every step of the way to help him make sure he gets everything he needs.”
An inspiration with a punch
Damien Zea is an impossibly cute first grader that has an infectious smile and a sweet disposition. He enjoys most of the things other boys his age do; he’s fascinated with all things mechanical. His father said that Damien loves looking under the hood of a car and is fond of anything that has wheels.
“He is very verbal,” Alejandro said. “His only affects are physical; his mental abilities are where they should be. He’s very smart, reads at grade level and has a broad vocabulary. He’s in mainstreamed classes.”
Damien also walks on his own with no equipment other than his brace. Like his dad, he’s physically active, though for Damien, it’s different than it was for his father as a child. Alejandro started fighting when he was 10, Damien at 2.
When Alejandro sees his son, he not only sees his little boy, he sees a fighting spirit that continues to move forward.
“Damien knows he’s a little different than other kids,” said Alejandro. “But he doesn’t let it get him down. I don’t think he’s critical of himself because he’s different; he knows he can’t run as fast as other kids, and he knows that he has some coordination issues that affect the way he eats and drinks. Sometimes, he has to use both hands to do things like that.”
Right now, Damien is looking forward to the summer months, so he can ride his bike and swim in a pool – two of his favorite avocations. He’s also looking forward to joining his father in the gym for workouts.
“I try to get him as involved as I can,” Alejandro said. “And I try to make it fun for him.”
Alejandro said he believes his ongoing personal journey with his son has been a profound one that has taught him innumerable life lessons, and uncovered personal resolve he didn’t know existed until he became a father.
“In six years, Damien has already been in the hospital more than I will be over a lifetime,” he said. “Learning that Damien has CP was a shock, but at the end of the day, it has motivated me to be the best father I can be and to be the kind of father Damien deserves.
“Right now, I see him learning to walk again after this last surgery, and I don’t know if I could do it,” Alejandro said. “It showed me that there’s a different kind of strength that has nothing to do with athletics.”
Alejandro said that his son has taught him to be proud of who you are and what you’ve had to overcome.
“In six years, Damien has already been in the hospital more than I will be over a lifetime,” he said. “Learning that Damien has CP was a shock, but at the end of the day, it has motivated me to be the best father I can be and to be the kind of father Damien deserves.”
– Alejandro Zea
“I think Damien’s potential is limitless,” he said. “I think he’ll be able to do whatever he wants, and we’re going to encourage him to pursue what he wants to do. He’s a happy kid and a constant source of inspiration, and we’re lucky to have him.”
For more information on
Damien and Alejandro:
To see Damien star in his father’s “Fighter” music video, visit Damien’s Video Premiere.
To follow Alejandro on Facebook, visit Alejandro Zea, MMA, Facebook.
There’s an old saying that the measure of a person’s life is measured by how much they are loved. There’s no doubt about it: our relationships with others are the cornerstone of our ability to thrive and enjoy life. Relationships allow us to explore all of the facets of giving and receiving love, from the patient and protective concern shown between a parent and child to the fire and chemistry that happens between friends, mates and spouses. And the level of ability has nothing to with the level of love one is willing to give to or receive from another.