Blogger’s note: This is the 23rd installment from my manuscript of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. I post weekly excerpts every Wednesday morning. Check out the “About Summer in the Waiting Room” link at the top of this page to learn more about the story. To read previous installments, go to the “Tags” link and click on “Summer in the Waiting Room.”
By mid-year, the senior VP in California informed me that I had been selected, at his recommendation, to participate in the exclusive Comcast Executive Leadership Forum class of 2004. The Executive Leadership Forum was by invitation only, and the corporate chitchat was that those who completed the program were soon sitting in executive chairs. Just as my professional prospects were looking up, my personal life took a downturn.
In March 2003, my sister Patty, just forty-nine years old, suddenly died from myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by an infection from a virus. She started the year with what seemed like a bad cold that appeared to lead to bronchitis and pneumonia, but doctors couldn’t clearly identify the problem and decided to do exploratory surgery. The morning of her surgery I called Patty to wish her luck and told her that Sandra and I would make the four hour drive to her home in Bakersfield to see her when she emerged from the operating room. That was the last conversation I had with my sister.
During surgery, the doctors confirmed that she had myocarditis and that her heart was so weak that she would need a heart transplant immediately. A suitable heart was found at the UCLA Medical Center, just a short one hour helicopter flight to Los Angeles. The doctors first needed to make sure that her heart was strong enough for the flight, so my sisters Barbara and Sisi, and my brother-in-law’s family prayed for a positive outcome and anxiously waited for the doctor.
Finally, in the early morning hours before dawn, the doctor walked into the waiting room and asked my brother-in-law to step into the ICU unit. My brother-in-law asked me and the priest who presided over his and Patty’s wedding many years earlier to join him and the doctor. Once in the wide and antiseptic hallway of the ICU unit, the doctor, in a straightforward and unemotional manner, told my brother-in-law that Patty’s heart had weakened to the point of failure and that she would die within the hour.
As my brother-in-law sobbed and pounded his fists against the wall in grief, I stood by dazed and numb, and my mind started to spin trying to find answers in the confusion. Patty had been in great shape, she ate well, rarely stressed about anything, and she died of a bad heart. A few days later, I was given the honor to speak at her memorial service where I described her fighting spirit and her total devotion to her husband and her only son Matt, while my mind swirled about my own mortality.
At just thirty-nine years of age, I intensified the urgency I had placed on myself to achieve redemption by accepting the invitation to participate in the Comcast Executive Leadership Forum and working longer hours. I was excited about starting the program and moving forward after the stunning death of my sister, but 2003 ended on the same tragic note when my mom died of a blood infection after battling kidney failure for several years.
Once again, I found myself at the podium delivering a eulogy for a woman I loved while my mind raced about the ticking clock that foretold the end of my time. While my sister’s sudden death was startling and forced me to think about my health, my mom’s passing was devastating. She had been the glue that kept everything together. Her unconditional love kept me afloat during the darkest of times. I was sad, scared, and not sure how I would get through the tough times that were sure to come.
In addition to the emotional pain, my mom had named me the trustee of her living trust and I felt a deep sense of obligation to get it right. Hearing my dad’s voice advising that working hard was the best my way to get through sorrow, I developed a laser focus on my career and on settling my parents’ estate. On top of meeting daily responsibilities as director of government affairs for Comcast in the South Bay Area, for the next ten months I traveled frequently to Philadelphia for the Executive Leadership Forum.
My work schedule was grueling with regular trips to Sacramento and Washington, D.C, in addition to stops around the country as Comcast’s representative at national Latino political gatherings. The grinding schedule kept my mind off of the huge void left by my mom. What few hours I had left in the day would be spent with Sandra and the girls. If I was in town, I would have dinner at home before heading out to an evening event, and when on the road, I would call Sandra and the girls just before bedtime to say good night.
Sandra began expressing concerns about how hard I was driving myself. If I wasn’t careful, she warned, my family history of heart disease would catch up to me. Rather than taking that warning as a sign to slow down, I drove myself harder rationalizing that the clock was ticking and my window for redemption and success was closing fast. In September of 2004, after a long week of business in southern California, I found myself short of breath while trotting up a flight of stairs at the Long Beach convention center. At the top of the steps I was able to compose myself, and a few minutes later, the sensation disappeared.