`MIRACLE CHILD' LOOKS TO BRIGHT FUTURE 1 YEAR AFTER AN ICY `DEATH'

Published: Sunday, Feb. 26 1989 12:00 a.m. MST

When rescuers hauled his limp body from the icy Red River more than a year ago, Alvaro Garza Jr. was given little chance of surviving the 45 minutes he spent under water.

Now the boy pulled from the river without pulse or blood pressure, the child whose temperature dropped to 77 degrees, has high hopes for his future and more than $16,000 in donations waiting in a trust fund."I'll probably go to college and be a lawyer," said the 12-year-old son of a sugar beet worker.

Around here?

"Uh uh. It's too cold in the winters."

Over the months the boy slowly and painfully regained use of his arms and legs, shedding the braces that once supported the limbs whose nerves were damaged by the cold. His parents, devout Roman Catholics, this summer fulfilled a vow to pay homage to a miracle shrine in Mexico. They took Alvaro but left his braces at the shrine in a gesture of thanks for the boy they call "the miracle child."

Alvaro shows no sign of brain damage from his submersion - one of the longest periods anyone has survived under water without oxygen. He was promoted to the sixth grade five months after the accident and enjoys playing baseball and wrestling. Like most boys his age, he has a ravenous appetite, eating as many as five enchiladas at a single meal. He has put on a dozen pounds in the past year.

The youngster shows little emotion when watching dramatic videotape of river rescue work. He was considered clinically dead at the time.

"It seems pretty weird," he said of the film. "I don't remember nothing."

But his recovery from the Dec. 4, 1987, accident - he broke through river ice while fetching a dead squirrel - changed his life and the lives of his parents and brother, transforming them into celebrities.

In a park west of the river in Fargo, N.D., a plaque at a live pine tree reads, "This tree is symbolic of the miracle of Christmas that the Fargo-Moorhead community experienced during the life-saving rescue of Alvaro Garza in December 1987."

During the past year, TV producers have flown the family to Florida and California to appear on "That's Incredible Reunion," and "Celebrate the Miracles," where the youngster hammed it up with TV's Merlin Olsen. They were guests on the religious TV show, the 700 Club, and on a New York talk show.

Occasionally strangers from other states showed up, unannounced, at the door of the Garza home to see the child who beat the odds.

Dr. William Norberg, who led the medical team that worked on Alvaro, said: "I'm not sure what a miracle is. They seem to occur when people work the hardest."

A combination of luck, youthful resilience, medical persistence and family support contributed to the boy's survival.

Although authorities believe Garza was fully submerged for at least 45 minutes, he apparently was struggling the first few minutes and managed to keep his head above the surface and breathe. That accomplishment may have made the difference, doctors said. By the time he slipped completely under the surface, his body had cooled enough to reduce its need for oxygen and prevent serious damage to cell tissues and organs.

Youths generally fare better than older people in such cases because their bodies have a better chance of being thoroughly cooled to avoid damage from oxygen deprivation. The apparent record for such recoveries belongs to a 2-year-old who survived more than an hour's submersion in a cold stream in Utah, Norberg said.

In June, 1986, 2-year-old Michelle Funk spent more than an hour submerged in icy Bell Canyon Creek near the family's southeast Salt Lake home. She has since recovered from the near-tragedy and is "normal - right on track" with her age group, physicians report.

But Alvaro, who was 11 years old at the time, "was beyond the accepted boundaries" for surviving underwater, Norberg said. "We've been told it's about 45 minutes for someone under age 5," but doctors must "challenge the limits all the time."

Doctors used a heart-lung bypass machine to warm him and force in air and pump out water. He regained consciousness about 12 hours later and spent 17 days in the hospital. The boy's survival and daily progress became a national story.

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