For many people, teenage years are difficult. But as Michael Azzalina explains from behind his assistant principal’s desk at Price Elementary, his teenage years were literally life altering. Born into a large Italian family in Easton, PA, Mike grew up as a rather quiet kid. Surrounded by supportive family, friends, and teachers, he earned good grades and played on his school’s baseball team.
His simple and happy life became a little more complicated, however, when he started having what he calls “episodes”—fainting spells where he would lose consciousness for anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. By the time he entered high school, doctors discovered Michael had something called neurocardiogenic syncope.
“It’s a really fancy way of saying ‘don’t get dehydrated,’” Mike laughs, as he points to several water bottles surrounding him. Keeping well-hydrated and taking medication seemed to help his symptoms, and Mike managed to maintain a typical teenage life. But one afternoon after a fall baseball practice, everything changed.
“It was September 7th, 2004. I left practice and went home. I walked into the house and my brother was home, but nobody else. I was on the phone with my best friend. My brother peeked into my room and said, ‘I’m running down to the grocery store,’ which was a block away. He said, ‘I’ll be back in ten minutes.’ I wasn’t supposed to be alone—I was supposed to have somebody with me because I had just changed medications.
I ended up making myself a sandwich and got myself a soda instead of water. I knew what I should’ve been doing, but being a 17-year-old, you’re going to do what you’re going to do. I started to walk down the steps… as I turned the corner, the last thing I remember is being very dizzy. I fell—a free fall about six steps—and hit the linoleum floor headfirst.”
Luckily for Mike, his best friend was still on the phone. When Mike didn’t respond to her shouts, she ran over to his house, arriving at the same time as his older brother. The two found Mike unconscious at the bottom of the steps. He was rushed to the hospital with severe brain and spinal injuries and put into a medically-induced coma. When he awoke, he experienced the unimaginable… he couldn’t remember anything.
“Retrograde amnesia is the exact term,” he explains. Mike’s lifetime of memories disappeared. His family and friends became strangers. In addition, immediately after his accident Mike found himself unable to walk. Through working with occupational therapists, neurologists and psychologists, and with the support of his family and friends, he gradually recovered, but it was an excruciatingly slow process. “Getting through that senior year in high school was probably the most difficult,” Mike admits. “Trying to relearn everything… My parents set up a schedule so that people could come visit me and try to rekindle every memory I had.”
The memories came back slowly, but the stumbling blocks in his recovery were numerous. Schools that had made offers for Mike to play baseball in college backed out. Writing became such a challenge that he switched from being left-handed to right-handed. He lost his sense of smell for years. And, unfortunately, the oncequiet, well-mannered and motivated student became unruly—kicking over garbage cans, failing, and physically lashing out at teachers.
It was this change that altered the course of Mike’s future forever. With baseball out of the picture, Mike thought about his experiences and kept coming back to the teachers who, despite the change in his personality, never gave up on him. He realized that he wanted to become an educator, working with children who may have experienced trauma to “give them the resiliency they need to get through it. Because that’s what these teachers had done for me.”
By the time he graduated college, the majority of Mike’s memories had returned. He earned a teaching degree from Elizabethtown College, and taught second grade in Manheim Township for eight years. He is now the beloved assistant principal at Price. Although his trauma changed the course of his life, Mike admits that it made him a better person. He shares his story to inspire struggling students and remind them that if he can overcome his obstacles, they can, too.
“My support system gave me that growth mindset of, I’m not stuck here. I don’t have to be stuck here. I can find a way to maneuver myself through this. I want to do that for these kids,” he says. Michael is living a life he didn’t originally imagine, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.