Zach Broten's journey included a near death detour and a vision made real
For Zach Broten it was always about his body.
From the age of 10, he would look up to his older brother and father and marvel at their physiques. Then he would mimic them in the garage with weights, his adolescent arms struggling at first then quickly developing. Soon enough he was stronger than most other boys his age. He took up Karate too so he was more than just strong, he was skilled.
His brother would get into fights and taunt his opponent by saying "Your so weak my little brother could beat you up," and sure enough, drawn into the fight, Zach would pummel them into submission. "I just loved combat and I was kind of an angry kid." he said.
At first he hid his muscles under loose shirts, just as he hid his fascination with body building magazines, amazed by people like Dorian Yates or Arnold Schwarzenegger. But his primary heroes were Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler. Coleman won Mr. Olympia 8 years in a row. Cutler won four years.
Zach kept training, since the gym was where he found peace. But his fighting nature led to problems. He was suspended several times from West Seattle High School and finally in his Junior year he was sent to an alternative school for a few months.Though he has never been arrested his anger issues were only kept in check by his love of training.
He freely admits, "That was always my release, and without it I'd be in prison for sure."
A member at 24 Hour fitness, Zach was there with a friend one day in 2013 and a beautiful girl walked by. He was 21. Celeste had tape on her wrist and Zach thought she was a fighter, but then she made a remark about his abs, "That's what I'm trying to get." Even though he was a little intimidated by her (not a familiar feeling) he offered to train her. From that moment on they became friends and then drew closer becoming a couple.
Three years on, Zach and Celeste were both still working out, both getting stronger. But then in the summer of 2016 Zach was training someone who didn't feel well. He learned that the person was suffering with pneumonia, and soon enough Zach felt ill too. He felt tired at first but kept training. For three more weeks it got worse. But he's not a quitter. His body was his temple after all. He found himself coughing, and then coughing up blood. Still he wouldn't see a doctor. The lack of health insurance and his belief he could beat it on his own were major factors. He hid his bloody coughs but the congestion grew worse. Celeste said, "His face was just pale and white. He told me he had a bloody nose but I caught him spitting in the trash cans."
He had been working toward his first body building competition and it kept driving him, but after Celeste pleaded he finally he agreed to see someone. They went to Indigo Urgent Care in SeaTac. They took one look and told him he needed to be hospitalized immediately. Zach and Celeste drove to Valley Medical Center. The doctors gave him oxygen but it became clear he needed more. Then came the mask. Even that was not enough. A chest x-ray revealed that his lungs were almost totally filled with fluid.
He was drowning.
They told him, "We're going to have to intubate you," and that would mean putting him into a medically induced coma until they could drain his lungs. But he was unwilling. At least until he spoke to Celeste. He told her, "I'll only do this if you promise me to be there when I wake up." She agreed.
By then Zach's parents were there, as was his older sister Jessica who is an ER nurse at another hospital. He needed to sign over the Power of Attorney in case he could not be awoken and his parents chose to let Celeste make those tough decisions. They began the procedure and Zach was out. Jessica saw Zach's chart and saw his vital signs over the next six hours had declined. She began to demand answers about her brother's condition and then he slipped away. Flatline.
For 13 desperate minutes, doctors struggled to save his life. "CLEAR!" came the shout as they applied the defibrillator. No good. They tried again. Nothing. A third time, and no. They kept working on him but nothing happened.
Zach had passed. His face and skin had gone blue.
They announced the time of death. Grief overcame his loved ones.
The family had been allowed into the room and then, just then a blip appeared on the scope. and they saw it.
Zach was back!
They exploded in tears of relief. His heart had resumed a normal rhythm. "The medical team was amazed at how his body handled things. his pain, his tolerance," Celeste said.
What they did not know then, was that he had heard them.
"You got this!" and "Don't do this to me son!" his Celeste and his father had shouted. Through the inky blackness their shouts were heard.
But he also heard something else later. Something not spoken in his room.
Once his heart had started beating again he was not out of trouble. He was still in a coma, and his body went into septic shock, as his kidneys and liver shut down.
Sepsis, as it's called, kills between 25 and 50% of those who suffer from it. The doctors put him on dialysis to flush his blood in attempt to save his kidneys. His body struggled as they put in a feeding tube to keep him fed and hydrated. But for a man whose training table used to include several pounds of lean flank steak, chicken, rice, eggs and more daily, now confined to a bed, he began to lose weight fast.
In that comatose state Zach said he had dreams. But he didn't experience the classic Near Death visions of passing through a tunnel, seeing a white light and being greeted by family members who had passed.
Instead he had crazy abstract dreams that didn't make any sense to him. But, as he recounts it, just days before he would eventually emerge from the coma, he had three distinct, vivid, hyper real experiences. Call them real or call them visions but they would come to shape his entire life from then forward.
He came out of the blackness to find himself in a room like a prison hospital bed. He was paralyzed but could move his eyes left and right. He could not blink. To his left were bars. But beyond the bars was Hell.
Horrific scenes of violence and torture were taking place. Screams of agony were just past the bars that held him captive. On the wall to the right was a clock. It's second hand seemed to sweep the dial slowly. A male figure came into the room. Red hair, glasses, in a prison style shirt. He leaned in to Zach's unblinking gaze, inches away, his breath held the stench of death. "This is your reality now! Accept it!" Flooded with fear and panic Zach could only keep his eyes on the clock, as the minutes passed and the hellscape continued. He pleaded with God to "Get me out of this!"
Then, as the 24th hour approached its end, in the last minute, he heard an outside voice. It was reciting a prayer. It was Celeste's sister Kaori.
But she was not in the room.
She had called Celeste on the phone. Celeste happened to be the hospital parking garage some distance away, and Kaori had spoken a prayer to Celeste, "Dear Heavenly Father, I ask you to watch over Zachary and to guide him to keep my sister wise and humble. He's not ready to go yet. We love you and we're gonna leave everything in your hands."
Zach heard those exact words in his time of complete despair. And blinked.
When he opened his eyes again he was in an apartment. He was standing up. But he had become a baby again. "I was naked, and a baby but it didn't matter," he said, "I was just so happy." Incredibly over the next 30 seconds he grew into his full adult body.
Across the room was a man in a chair. It looked like his father but there was a brilliant white light around him. Zach concluded it wasn't his Dad. but he had to know, and asked, "Are you God?" and the man said only, "Father" so Zach took three more steps toward him but was suddenly frozen in place, unable to move. The man's face had taken on very serious stern expression. Somehow Zach understood when the man said, "Not yet!" and again, Zach blinked.
When he opened his eyes this time he was in a hospital room, the morning light streaming in on a beautiful sunny day. Celeste was there. She smiled sweetly at him and he stood up as she handed him a baby girl, swaddled in a blanket.
"I can only describe the feeling as euphoric," he said, "It was the happiest I've ever been." For the next 20 minutes or so he stood at the window, glancing outside, but then looking again at the baby girl in his arms, memorizing her face. He was afraid to blink again. It would mean leaving this perfect place. But he did, and he plunged back into darkness.
When he came to in real life soon after, his first question of Celeste was, "Where's our baby girl?" since his vision had been so real.
He asked several times, insisting she was real. He had held her and seen her face. He was so convinced he convinced Celeste they had to name her. Celeste saw no harm in humoring him so they combined their mother's names and called her Cristilina.
Upon leaving the hospital Zach was told he had suffered heart damage and might an invalid the rest of his life.
He had lost over 100 pounds, and was emaciated to to point he was barely recognizable.
The next year was a blur of doctors appointments, workouts, and feeling like quitting. Celeste would not let him.
She was adamant that he stop making excuses, stop feeling sorry for himself and get on with it. He regained a lot of his former 235 pound weight quickly but he still needed to keep working. Finally his cardiologist took a look and said, "Your heart is back in good condition. You're going to live a long life."
In 2017 on the day before his birthday, Celeste brought him momentous news. "I'm pregnant," she announced and Zach knew, with no testing, it was going to be baby girl. Through the ultrasound exams he would tell the technicians, "I've already met her."
On March 25, 2018, Celeste gave birth to a 7 pound baby girl.
Zach had requested they go back to Valley Medical Center for the birth and on a sunny morning, he came into her room and met his baby daughter for the second time. "She looked exactly as I remembered her. A full head of dark hair, and the same face I had seen." The vision had come to reality.
The experience taught Zach some powerful lessons. He had been asking himself "Why did I survive this? Other people don't why me?" and "Why did I have to go through this?"
In the moment he held Cristilina in real life, those questions disappeared. "I realized it was not about me at all. It was about her."
Zach is now a changed man in many ways. And Celeste too has been transformed by her daughter's arrival. He's "much more chill" he said and Celeste was frightened at first but has grown as a woman and mother.
Taking his own life lessons to heart Zach said, "It doesn't matter like what you leave your kids. It matters what you leave in them. A part of you and what you leave in them is what matters. You know, that's what you know. "
For Zach Broten, it used to be all about his body. Now it's about his soul.
NOTE: Zach is the Personal Training Director and a personal trainer for hire at West Seattle Health Club. "If people need any personalized plans they can reach out to me directly. I work with people of all different ages and there’s not anything I’m un-comfortable training somebody with," he said, You can reach him at 716-282-5374
He's also training again for his next competitive bodybuilding event.
I met Zach when I joined the West Seattle Health Club a few years ago and he was my introductory trainer who set me up with a customized plan. He is truly a kind and extraordinary soul. I'm grateful his inspirational story was shared here.
What an amazing story of Zach's life!
Zach I read your story, how inspirational it made me feel. I’m am a dear friend of your Father Paul he an I grew up together in Louisiana. I’m glad things worked out great for you and your family, again thanks for story I will never forget it . 💪🏼💪🏼💪🏼💪🏼🙏