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Fountain Valley : Honorary Marine Loses Battle With Dystrophy

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John Zimmerman, the 15-year-old muscular dystrophy patient who became an honorary U.S. Marine earlier this week, died early Friday in Fountain Valley Community Hospital.

John was born with the illness, his parents, Richard and Sandra Zimmerman, said.

“They didn’t expect him to live past 2, but we called him our miracle child,” his mother said.

John was a freshman in the special education program at Fountain Valley High School. One teacher, Sal Cracchiolo, described him as “by far the most courageous person I’ve ever met in my life. We never catered to him, despite the shape he was in, and he never wanted to be catered to.”

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During John’s last six weeks at school, he was in such pain when sitting up that his teachers got a special mat so that he could recline during class.

John never missed an assignment. He was a “very conscientious pupil and a very bright boy,” Cracchiolo said. “He was an inspiration to all the other kids, and I will truly miss him, in every respect.”

Bonnie Jack, one of the intensive-care nurses who cared for John in the hospital, remembered him as a “fantastic” person.

“We dearly loved him,” she said. “Anyone who came in contact with him, even remotely, fell in love with him. Through all his trials, he had a winning smile. He never seemed to complain, no matter what was going on.”

John died “very peacefully” at 3:30 a.m., Jack said. “The nurse on duty said he was concerned about how his parents would feel.”

Several years ago, while at a summer camp for muscular dystrophy patients, John became friends with several U.S. Marine Corps counselors, a friendship that developed into a lifelong bond. On Wednesday, in a bedside ceremony attended by some of his Marine buddies, John was made an honorary Leatherneck.

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His father, with whom he was very close, called the ceremony “the highlight of John’s life.”

The night before he died, a tube was inserted into John’s throat through the tracheotomy he received when he stopped breathing and was hospitalized Jan. 1. The tube allowed him to talk for the first time in 2 1/2 weeks, Sandra Zimmerman said. Besides “Hi Mom,” the young Marine also said, “I’m a hell of a fighter, ain’t I?” his mother recalled.

John also is survived by his sister, Joan, 17, a senior at Fountain Valley High School; his maternal grandparents, Ed and Shirley Haertel, of Anaheim; and his paternal grandparents, Richard and Margaret Zimmerman, of Chicago.

Memorial services are planned for 6 p.m. Sunday at Peek Family Colonial Funeral Home, 7801 Bolsa Ave., Westminster. As was his wish, John’s remains will be cremated.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in John’s name to the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. “They have helped us tremendously,” his mother said.

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