Zack Aschim

Considered medically dead after collapsing and not breathing on his own for 30 minutes in January 2014, Billings native Zack Aschim will graduate this weekend from the University of Montana with a degree in theater, having made a miraculous recovery. “Waking up and having the same quality of life that I had, and that I have now, it shouldn’t have happened,” Aschim says sitting in the scene shop where he works.

The emergency room doctor picked up the phone on Jan. 3, 2014, and dialed the family in Billings with heavy news.

Zack Aschim, a diabetic, had collapsed in the shower, and his roommates had found him unresponsive with his insulin pump unattached.

The patient hadn't breathed on his own for some 40 minutes.

On the phone, the doctor from St. Patrick Hospital delivered a grim prediction to the family more than 300 miles away.

"There is a good chance that this is going to be the last time that you see him."

That day, Aschim's mom Rebecca, dad Shawn, little sister Gabbi, and grandparents Vickie and Larry Williams hit the road, praying for Aschim through a blizzard.

More than two years later, the Billings native believes those prayers worked. Aschim made a recovery he said he, his clinicians, and his family consider a miracle, and this week, he graduates from the University of Montana with a degree in theater.

"Waking up and having the same quality of life that I had, and that I have now, it shouldn't have happened," Aschim said. "I shouldn't have been able to work four months afterward, either.

"It defies all the odds, definitely."

In the hospital, doctors considered him medically dead at the age of 21, but now, he's more alive than ever. Since his recuperation, Aschim is fueled by a higher sense of purpose, a return to his Christian faith, and a dedication to use his skills as a "maker" to help others.

"I'm going to make this my own, for sure," Aschim said.


Aschim still doesn't know the reason he blacked out that day, and he learned about the details that transpired from friends, family and his doctors and nurses.

"They had given me drugs to forget, so there's a week that I don't remember," he said.

His roommates took him to the hospital, and there, the staff performed some 40 minutes of CPR altogether. He had fluid in his lungs, and he suffered a heart attack when doctors took him from the ER to the intensive care unit.

He took a shot of adrenaline to his heart and received chest compressions.

At first, the doctors didn't think he would live.

"I was in an induced coma for four or five days, and I woke up the day they took the breathing tube out," Aschim said.

Then, they figured he'd at least be damaged.

"Each day, the doctor would be like, 'There's an 85 percent chance that he won't be able to function at the level that he used to,'" he said.

"And then it was 75 (percent). Then 65."

Before the end of January that year, Aschim went home, and he took the semester off in Billings to recover.


In those first months after his collapse, Aschim had trouble eating because the back of his esophagus was scratched.

He still believes he aged 10 years in that short time, and he remembers being physically drained.

"The weeks after I had woken up and was able to function were very hard," he said. "I'd lost a lot of muscle mass after being in the induced coma, so I wasn't able to walk for about three days."

He did physical therapy for three months to rebuild his muscles.

He relearned the complicated math he used to do as a carpenter who computes fractions with ease.

That summer, he felt strong enough to work, and he took on the job of carpenter and technical director at Fort Peck Summer Theatre.

"I was excited to get back to theater," he said. "It had been a long time off, and I was ready to go back and do what I loved."

Since his collapse, he looks back in awe at the uncanny string of fortunate turns that led to his recovery, like the doctor in the ER being a cardiologist when he needed just that specialist. The revelations are steering Aschim back to his roots.

"I grew up Christian and had fallen away for a while from the faith, and after this, it was an amazing thing," Aschim said. "There's something. There's something that pulled me out of this because everything was against me, really."


So Aschim has returned to the faith of his youth, and he's not afraid to fight for his beliefs on a university campus where he's swimming upstream.

"School is a very hard place to keep your religious values," he said.

At the same time, he knows his religion is one of love, and he values other people's opinions and interpretations even as he delves into Bible studies on his own.

Aschim's grandfather is a Baptist preacher, and Aschim reads a Bible his grandparents gave him, one with extra large print. His grandfather does prison ministries in Billings, and Aschim has helped.

He's considering following his grandfather's footsteps in the church, just as he's already followed his grandfather in being "a maker," a carpenter drawn to using his skills to help others.

He uses his hands to build, and some of his favorite passages in the Bible are about building the church after Jesus ascended.

"That's really interesting, how to spread faith when everything is going against you," he said.


In some ways, Aschim understands what it's like to be the odd man out. He entered the world of theater in high school because it was the one place he fit in. He started as an actor, but a teacher introduced him to the work backstage.

It fit, and it has since.

Last semester, he was the scenic designer for "Chorus Line," and he created a 22-foot-tall art deco fan unit built in three parts.

"It looked beautiful, and they lit it really well," Aschim said.

Earlier, in "Fiddler of the Roof," he built some of his favorite props: "I made four cheese wheels out of cardboard and hot glue and foam. That was fun."

He was always studious, but he's become more driven since the episode that nearly killed him two years ago.

Despite the odds, he's not only designing and building props in the scene shop, Aschim is teaching other students, said Mike Monsos, professor and director of the School of Theatre and Dance.

"People look up to him quite a bit. He's a leader in the shop," Monsos said.

And since the accident, Aschim is living life to the fullest and reveling in the moment, he said: "He seems to have fully grasped the concept of how fragile and short life is."

Monsos said he's thankful Aschim survived and proud to know he'll be representing UM as a professional in the business. He too believes an incredible force had a hand in bringing Aschim back to life.

"St. Pat's did miracles, basically, to get him back. I don't know what else you would call it," Monsos said.


Aschim tires sooner than he'd like, and he has an auditory distraction that sometimes makes it hard to focus if more than one conversation is taking place at once. Other than that, he's back to full health, looking for jobs and planning to live outside Montana for the first time.

Ideally, he'd like to be in charge of a scene shop in a small Christian college and take classes to be a pastor at the same time.

In conversations, Aschim doesn't necessarily argue with people about religion, but he has some personal experiences to share when people question him. 

"I can tell you a story," he said.

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