Injured California TSA officer’s extraordinary recovery, journey from South Korea

Monday, December 11, 2023
Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport TSO Gilbert Zapanta extended his hand to SJC Human Resources Program Assistant John Paratore and Human Resources Specialist Steven Hampton (back right) when he arrived at San Francisco International Airport. (Photo courtesy of TSA SJC)

Just a few days into a South Korean vacation with his wife, Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC) TSA Officer Gilbert Zapanta suffered a severe head injury from a fall in his hotel bathroom.

The next two weeks were lost to Gilbert, who endured a medically induced coma and two cranial surgeries. But for his wife, Frances, navigating the South Korean medical system and advocating for her very ill husband in a foreign country was harrowing. Mrs. Zapanta, along with her sister, Barbara, who flew to be with her, languished in Korea for weeks, but when the right connections were made, people from across the world worked diligently to get them home. 

Frances Zapanta with Gilbert’s doctor in South Korea. (Photo by Diane Wilson)
Frances Zapanta with Gilbert’s doctor in South Korea. (Photo by Diane Wilson)

During those first few weeks, however, the couple was in a rough spot. With her husband in ICU, Mrs. Zapanta found basic communication with doctors via her phone’s translation app frustrating and confusing. Insurance, medical bills and the daunting journey back home with her sick husband overwhelmed her.

After reaching out to the U.S. Department of State for assistance, Mrs. Zapanta’s brother contacted California U.S. Rep. Josh Harder’s office. Recognizing Gilbert was a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) employee, Constituent Services Manager and Veterans Liaison Katie Jaycox notified the DHS Office of Legislative Affairs (OLA).

While Jaycox was waiting for a reply from the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, she reached out to Avi Arditti, DHS’ OLA director of operational component coordination for help.

“Since he (Zapanta) is an employee of DHS, I am wondering if you might be able to help with this request as well,” read Jaycox’s email.

Arditti forwarded the request to TSA Legislative Affairs (LA) and made the necessary introductions between TSA LA Deputy Assistant Administrator Marian Gibson and Jaycox.

“We occasionally hear from congressional offices on behalf of DHS employees but usually on administrative matters, not a medical-logistical situation on the other side of the globe,” said Arditti. “I was very happy to see how TSA rallied to bring their injured colleague home.”

TSA LA Executive Assistant Antoinette Solomon mentioned the primary mission of Legislative Affairs is to act as a liaison with Congress and facilitate a productive relationship with Capitol Hill in coordination with DHS and TSA leadership. However, they also facilitate responses to congressional offices.

As the TSA LA staff worked to clear a path for the couple’s return to the U.S., the Zapantas’ plight was passed along to Japan/Korea TSA Representative Shawna Alldridge and Liaison Officer Diane Wilson, who is stationed in Korea.

Frances and Gilbert Zapanta relax at home prior to his third surgery. (Photo by Frances Zapanta)
Frances Zapanta with Gilbert’s doctor in South Korea. (Photo by Diane Wilson)

“We immediately worked together and contacted both of the U.S. Embassies in Japan and Korea to see what kind of assistance the Department of State could (provide),” said Alldridge. “I then contacted SJC Federal Security Director Joseph Rodrigues to bring him up to speed on Officer Zapanta. Diane reached out to Ms. Zapanta and received all the information of flights already booked. While Diane was coordinating the logistics in Korea, I started notifying the partnering airports in the states.” 

Gilbert’s home airport also opened communication with Mrs. Zapanta.

“My team and I kept constant communication daily with Mrs. Zapanta throughout the ordeal, offering any assistance they needed from our end,” said SJC Supervisory Human Resources Specialist Rosalie Cania.

Three days after Legislative Affairs learned of the accident, all the behind-the-scenes work paid off.

“We are pleased to inform your office that TSA will provide the following arrangements for your constituent,” read Solomon’s email to Jaycox. “Mrs. Zapanta has arranged for a nurse from California, to fly with them from Korea to assist Mr. Zapanta on the flight. The TSA Liaison (Wilson) will meet them at the South Korean airport and stay with them through security and to their gate.”

“Diane met us at the National Medical Center in Seoul, where Gilbert was confined for a month,” said Mrs. Zapanta. “She accompanied us to Incheon International Airport and stayed with us through airport security and to the gate.” 

Best wishes and get well soon messages to TSO Gilbert Zapanta (center) from his colleagues at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. (Collage by TSA SJC)
Best wishes and get well soon messages to TSO Gilbert Zapanta (center) from his colleagues at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. (Collage by TSA SJC)

Alldridge continued to network with San Francisco International Airport Deputy Federal Security Director Tomas Nagy, Rodrigues and Customs and Border Protection for their smooth return to the U.S. They arranged transport to a San Francisco hospital so Zapanta could have a checkup before traveling home to San Jose.

“After the evaluation, he was finally cleared to go home and was driven by SJC Mission Support staff," said Alldridge. “I am beyond thankful that we were able to get him safely home. It always amazes me that TSA is all over the world but can come together and make anything possible!”

“It’s very gratifying that we were able to facilitate communication between TSA, DHS and the Hill to provide support to an employee who needed assistance,” said Solomon. “It was definitely a team effort!” 

“It’s obvious how loved the Zapantas’ are,” added Wilson. “For example, the airline required they have a nurse fly home with them. Nurse Soccoro Soto, a family friend, jumped on a plane from California, flew the 10+ hours and basically turned around and left Korea the next day. Even their doctor seemed to love them, despite the language difference. It was my honor to get to spend a bit of time with them at the hospital and at the airport. I admire their perseverance, faith and grace under immense pressure and unbelievable crisis.”

Above all, the Zapantas’ inner strength, resilience, faith and love for each other were the intangibles that pulled them through this medical emergency.

“There are certainly plenty of lessons to be learned from this and revelations of human kindness and a higher power,” said Mrs. Zapanta.

Zapanta continues to recuperate after a recent third surgery to repair his skull bone.

By Karen Robicheaux, TSA Strategic Communications and Public Affairs