Doctor turns to training to cope with son’s death

By Arthur Lightbourn


“Hitting the wall” is something Michael Capozza knows about, both as an athlete and as a father.

“It’s where you just don’t want to go on anymore ... and you have to mentally push through that,” he says.

Capozza, 45, is an anesthesiologist, marathon runner, triathlete and two-time Ironman-distance finisher.

As a runner, he experienced that feeling earlier this month while competing as an invited VIP in the 114th Boston Marathon.

It was only the second full-marathon he ever competed in.

A friend thought it would be good for him and arranged for his invitation as a nonqualified entrant.

“I was having a great race and putting down great times until about the halfway point,” he recalled.

Then it became painful.

The early portion of the race is mostly downhill and, for a relatively inexperienced runner, you can go fast, but it’s very taxing on the leg muscles.

But he knew he just had to press on.

He finished the 26.2 miles in 3 hours and 58 minutes.

As a father, he hit an even harder wall last October, when his son, Alex, 17, a Torrey Pines High senior, was killed when a vehicle in which he was a passenger crashed and rolled in Rancho Santa Fe following a party. Another passenger was seriously injured.

Capozza and his wife, Vivian, were in Bora Bora celebrating their 20th anniversary when their son was killed.

They didn’t learn of the tragedy until they arrived at LAX terminal. Capozza’s brother, Steve, met them at the airport. He told them what had happened.

“You never want to see your family on the wrong side of the Customs, I’ve learned. It was not good.”

They learned that five Torrey Pines seniors, all 17, were in the Mazda3 when it left the roadway, in the early morning hours, crashed through a fence and rolled.

A California Highway Patrol report said a combination of speed and alcohol contributed to the accident.

The teen driver subsequently pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter and driving while intoxicated.

He was sentenced last December to probation and up to 547 days in a youth correctional facility.

“The kids (who were at the party) are very forthcoming with me and Vivian,” Capozza said. “They were very clear what had happened.

“The story the kids tell me is that Alex was looking for a ride home. He was past his curfew. We had a housesitter here, who, I’m sure was looking for him. And he just got in the wrong car.

“I presume that he was either going to get dropped off here (at home) or back at a friend’s house where he had left his car,” he said.

Normally, Capozza, had he not been out of country, would have been calling his son when it was past his curfew, and offering to pick him up and drive him home. “And it would have been just another night.”

Capozza and his son used to love surfing together and going on road trips.

“He let me participate in his life more than some teenagers. He wasn’t averse to trying anything. He raced bikes for a while. That was a fun thing I liked to do. We surfed together all over the world. He loved gourmet food. Normally that’s something teenagers don’t want to get too involved with on a Friday or Saturday night, but he’d always make a point of saying, ‘Where you going? What are you doing? What kind of restaurant is that? Well, OK. I’ll meet my friends later. I’m going to dinner with you.’”

Alex had been in multiple AP classes, got super high SAT scores and was college bound, Capozza said.

Since Alex’s death, Capozza said his family has benefitted from bereavement counseling from the Jenna Druck Foundation.

“They went to my workplace and talked to the nurses and the staff and said: ‘Here’s what you’re going to be looking at ... and when Dr. Capozza is ready to speak about it, he will ... and, I believe, they went to my daughter’s school (Torrey Pines) as well and spoke to the counselors there.

“And my wife, Vivian, has had a great experience with them.”

These days, the family keeps occupied doing “mostly social stuff with friends,” Capozza said. They are cautious about going to movies “because you never know what you’re going to get. Again, it’s a particularly raw time, and some friends that have been through this already say movies should have ‘grief ratings,’ so you don’t get blindsided by stuff that happens in the movie that’s going to tear you up.”

He has read several books on grieving and basically they all have essentially the same message: “Time will not heal it, but will make it tolerable.”

“And from what I’ve read, the months four through eight can be some of the darkest that you’ll experience ... So basically we’re just waiting for that day.”

He hopes that some teens may learn an important lesson from this tragedy.

“They are basically the last hope for each other’s safety and welfare ... when the parents aren’t there. And it doesn’t matter if one person is drunk or being stupid, as long as there are a few who care enough to say, ‘Hey, let me drive you home; don’t make a bad mistake here. Let me have your keys. I’ll drive you or we call somebody or whatever.

“I just wish we didn’t have to be the poster family for people to learn what to do.”