August 20th, 2012, 4:07 pm · · posted by KELLI SKYE FADROSKI, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Steve Guzman awoke and was surprised to see CHP officers, paramedics and firemen surrounding his car. He was dazed, confused, desperate to remember what had happened – how he went from cruising down the 5 freeway in Anaheim to suddenly being at a dead stop with authorities attempting to assist him.
It was Monday, May 14, about 4:30 p.m. The 27-year-old had just worked his first full day at CAPC in Whittier, a nonprofit organization that works with adults with disabilities, and he was on his way back to his Santa Ana home when the accident occurred. He lost consciousness and control of his 2005 Scion xB and drifted from the fast lane through moderate afternoon traffic and into a wall on the opposite side of the freeway. He avoided hitting anyone else but the impact totaled his vehicle.
He doesn’t remember any of that.
“They asked me my name and I couldn’t remember,” Guzman said during a recent interview, sitting comfortably on the couch in his parents’ family room almost three months after the accident. You can tell he’s still searching for answers about what happened that day, his eyes squinting slightly as he tries to recall all the details.
“I couldn’t remember who I was or what I was doing. In the ambulance they asked me what day it was and I said really fast, ‘May 14th!’ I kept saying ‘May 14! May 14!’ It was the only thing I could remember because it was my first official day at that job and I was actually going to be paid. I was so looking forward to it for such a long time, so that was the first thing to come back to me. Then they asked my name and I said: ‘Steve!’ I could remember my name.”
Dealing with Change
Doctors told Guzman he had suffered a multiple sclerosis-related seizure; he had been diagnosed with the disease in 2005, when he was 20. He had started to notice that he was feeling weak and sometimes dizzy, and the symptoms soon grew worse. His eyes would uncontrollably flutter. He experienced numbness in his fingers and toes, which eventually spread throughout his entire left side. He lost the ability to taste food.
One day at work he fainted. Later that night he went searching for answers on the internet. “It could have been anything,” he says, “from something as simple as a summer flu to a brain tumor.”
He finally saw a doctor who assured him it was just a flu bug that had been going around and he’d be fine. Guzman and his family had their annual trip planned to Yosemite the next weekend and he was determined to go, whether his body was falling apart or not, he says. But once in Yosemite, his condition worsened. He couldn’t move, was fatigued and in pain, so his family immediately drove him to St. Joseph Hospital in Orange.
“That’s when I saw a neurologist and after a CT scan, an MRI and blood work, he told me that it was either one of two things: MS or a brain tumor. Then he said, ‘The better thing would be if you had MS.’”
His first reaction: “Wait, this was the best-case scenario? Are you serious?”
A spinal tap finally revealed Guzman did in fact have MS, though initially he was diagnosed with the progressive form and told his symptoms would never get better, only slowly and steadily get worse.
“The doctor basically said to forget about my job, forget about school – that this was going to be my new life and I was going to have to start getting used to it,” he recalls, pausing to shake his head slowly before continuing. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to get used to this. Ever! I’m going to be OK.’”
Three months later, most of Guzman’s symptoms seemed to miraculously subside. He went back to the doctor for more testing and this time received the correct diagnosis: He suffers from relapsing-remitting MS, where the condition will worsen and then improve repeatedly.
Facing such a lifelong affliction led to a series of changes for the budding filmmaker. Initially required to inject numerous medicines daily via small needles, he began looking for alternatives, starting with a change in diet to organic vegetarian foods and a new exercise regimen. Both had a profound and almost immediate effect.
“It was like magic,” he says. “I don’t mean to preach about it or anything, but I have a strong feeling that working out and becoming a vegetarian had a lot to do with – if not had everything to do with – why I got so much better.”
In 2008, a healthier Guzman decided to quit his pattern of “9-to-5, office-cubicle day jobs” and go to school to pursue his passion for filmmaking. Even in kindergarten, when kids wanted to be firemen or astronauts, Guzman would tell people he wanted to make movies.
“I was obsessed with films and cartoons and I loved telling stories,” he says. “My neighbors and all the kids would come around and ask me to tell them my stories and I would make up the most random stuff. I always had a wild imagination and I knew they entertained people, so that’s definitely what I wanted to do.”
Guzman began attending classes at Orange Coast College, where he and friend Hannah Barnick created the short film Greener, loosely based on their own experiences, leaving “safe” jobs to pursue dreams and to see if the grass is greener on the other side. It earned acceptance into the Newport Beach Film Festival and was screened there in 2009.
That has been followed by several other short films, a documentary and a music video, for “Not Enough” by local pop artist Stacy Clark, that was nominated for best video at the 2011 OC Music Awards. His most recent work, the Spanish-language effort Claudio, Maura y Yo, will be featured at a festival in Mexico later this year.
The Turkey and His Friends
Not long after getting his diagnosis straight, Guzman and his friends organized the nonprofit Turkey and Friends, Turkey being Guzman’s nickname. How he got it, he says, is boring, but he assures it has nothing to do with “Thanksgiving, the animal or the country.”
He and a handful of friends began collecting donations from neighbors, acquaintances and companies to donate to the MS Society. Eventually they started staging charitable events like fashion shows, gallery fund-raisers and benefit concerts featuring local acts.
Through word-of-mouth the nonprofit grew, doubling in membership year after year, until different chapters were launched in other cities and even countries, including Mexico and Ghana. The group also has focused on hosting benefits for other resources: the American Cancer Society, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Children’s Hospital of Orange County and Orangewood Children’s Foundation.
Each year Turkey and Friends hosts toy drives around the holidays where local bands perform for the cost of one or two new unwrapped toys. Acts like Honeypie, Micah Brown, Jameson, Stacy Clark and more have all participated in such Guzman-driven benefits.
So when Honeypie vocalist Trisha Smith heard of Guzman’s May freeway accident, she asked his permission to host a benefit to help raise money for his medical expenses. Currently without insurance, Guzman’s bills have climbed to more than $10,000 in the last three months. He just received notice that he’s approved for MSI benefits, which will help in the future, but for now he’s left in debt. Without a car, a driver’s license – it was suspended for six months following the accident due to medical reasons – or a job, his income is limited.
“When Trisha asked me to do the show, I was like, ‘Can we just do it for something else and I’ll help you?’” Guzman says. “(But) she likes doing shows for people who need help, and she said ‘right now you need the help.’ I do need it. I would be lying if I said I didn’t. But it was hard for me to accept.”
Smith was able to organize an evening at Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa on Aug. 30, with a $5 minimum at-the-door donation for performances from several local favorites who have often participated in Guzman’s charity events: the New Limb, Micah Brown, the Ultimate Bearhug and many more.
“I really like all of the bands that are playing that show – I’m actually excited just to go see the show,” he says. “I love this community. Regardless of who you are or what you do, we are all supportive of each other. We’re so united and Trisha is so fabulous for putting this together for me. I’m so incredibly grateful.”
Guzman is also grateful to his parents, Humberto and Raquel Guzman, and his brother Wally and sister Iris, for helping him out physically, spiritually and monetarily during his recovery. In the coming months he hopes to pick up more film projects, search for a job in the nonprofit world and plan more Turkey and Friends benefits.
“I’m really humbled by how everyone is going out of their way to help me,” he says. “I have the best parents, the best family and the best friends ever.”
Come Together for Steve, a benefit for Steve Guzman featuring the New Limb, Jameson, Micah Brown, Honeypie, the Ultimate Bearhug and more, takes place Aug. 30 at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., in Costa Mesa. Minimum $5 donation at the door, 21-and-up only.
Photo by Justin Aguirre
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