“You can’t stop just because you’re dead”
Zuton Lucero-Mills' heart stopped beating after a horrific car crash. Less than two years later, she’s realizing her calling to live by helping children.
For most people who wake up in the hospital intensive care unit, homework is the furthest thing from their mind. Zuton Lucero-Mills, however, isn’t most people.
“I remember sitting up and saying, ‘Oh no — if I’m here, then that means I’m missing school,’” the spring 2019 Metropolitan State University of Denver graduate recalled. “The nurse told me, ‘Honey, you’re in the ICU.’ But I didn’t care – I had stuff to do.”
The horrifying accident that landed Lucero-Mills in the ICU occurred on Oct. 13, 2017 near the intersection of 33rd Avenue and Peoria Street in Aurora: A car crossed the median and slammed head-first into the vehicle carrying Lucero-Mills, her husband Stan and four of their 12 children. The impact ruptured her heart with a 2-inch hole; she went into cardiac arrest at Denver Health as she was being rushed to the operating room.
The survival rate for such injuries are less than 1%, according to the trauma surgeon who operated on her. Yet, thanks to the fast-acting Denver Health doctors — and an unwavering commitment to her faith — Lucero-Mills staged what can only be described as a miraculous recovery. She carries that miracle forward with her every day.
“I don’t believe in being defeated,” she said. “Ministers talk about their calling – I’m living my calling. My responsibility is to live.”
Walking the walk
Lucero-Mills’ calling to live is now also manifested in her degree in literary empowerment for children, which she designed through MSU Denver’s Individualized Degree Program. It combines elements of psychology, education, sociology and social work to help young people process grief and find their own inner-strength.
“The things we go through are not necessarily for us,” she said. “That’s why we have to give our testimony – if we all share our stories, we become closer together and gain a shared sense of compassion for one another.”
Among the MSU Denver faculty Lucero-Mills credits for supporting her before and after her accident is Brian Bagwell, PsyD., associate professor of human services and counseling and coordinator of the University’s Fire and Emergency Response Administration program. It was his Theory and Practice of Counseling course she thought she was missing when she woke up in the Denver Health ICU following her accident.
Bagwell’s support helped her earn admittance to MSU Denver’s Master of Social Work program, she said.
“When (Bagwell) asked how I was doing, I’d say: ‘Well, I’m trying.’ He’d stop and say: ‘No, you’re not trying, you’re doing,’” Lucero-Mills recalled. “That was so huge for me – that kind of encouragement really changed my perspective.”
Bagwell credited Lucero-Mills’ inherent resilience as a defining factor in for her success, including her admittance to graduate school, which she will defer until next year to focus on her recovery.
“A lot of folks talk the talk, but she’s walking the walk every day,” Bagwell said, shaking his head in disbelief. “You look at the mission (of a University) like this, and Zuton is living it. She’s unbelievable.”
“It only gets better”
Lucero-Mills plans to parlay her graduate work into a career facilitating the grieving process for young children through education.
Grieving, she said, is a part of life which our society handles poorly.
“Education gives you power to do what you want to do, and kids keep us grounded,” Lucero-Mills said. “We often go into a room of children thinking we’re the smartest ones there, but they’re really the ones that teach us so much. They’re fearless, resilient and super creative.”
She would know. The mother of 12 published her first book, “Mommy’s Reflections: Losing Zumante and Finding the Mustard Seed,” in 2012 following the 2009 death of her 9-year-old son. She lost three more family members over the course of 13 months prior to and following her 2017 car accident – her grandmother, uncle and aunt each passed.
Combined with the trauma caused by and recovery from her car accident, no one would fault Lucero-Mills for taking a step back.
But that’s not in her nature. After all, she has much left to do.
“There’s so much to celebrate in life, and it only gets better from here,” Lucero-Mills said. “It reminds you to keep going no matter what. You can’t stop just because you’re dead.”