Author’s note: The following passage from Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life is the second of nine parts that details June 7, 2010, the day that a massive heart attack forever changed my life.
After doing more relaxation exercises and deep breathing techniques in the car, I shifted the transmission into drive and rushed to the office realizing that I was already late for my scheduled 11:00 AM meeting with Sylvia Gallegos, the deputy county executive. Sylvia and I had known each other for over 17 years. She was chief of staff to the councilwoman I worked for during the beginning of my career in politics.
I called the office from the car to ask the staff to inform Sylvia that I would be in the office by 11:30 AM. It was at this meeting where I was to lay out George’s plan to allocate $2 million from the parks fund to build a soccer complex in his district for community use. We knew there would be opposition to his proposal as the parks fund advocates wanted all of the money to be used for trails and large regional parks, uses that are rarely, if ever, used by the constituents in George’s historically underserved neighborhoods.
Sylvia, a smart and seasoned public administrator, could be an ally in reshaping the county’s practice of allocating parks resources to open spaces in affluent areas, so I needed to provide her with a compelling analysis of George’s proposal to secure her support. I hustled into the county administration building through the entrance at 70 West Hedding Street. Suddenly I had to slow down to catch my breath, my mind believing that an anxiety attack was imminent.
In reality, my body was feeling the effects of thickening blood pushing through arteries that had been narrowing for most of my life. I finally reached the 10th floor board of supervisors’ offices at noon. Sylvia, wearing a perfectly tailored business suit as usual, waited at the conference table in George’s office when I walked in. I apologized to her for being an hour late.
She asked if I was okay, and I responded that I wasn’t feeling very well and immediately proceeded with the business at hand. This was unusual because casual talk about our families and personal matters always prefaced any business we had to discuss. I don’t remember anything that happened during the next several minutes.
According to Sylvia, I appeared “distracted and unfocused.” Noting that it was uncharacteristic for me to be unprepared for a meeting and unable to articulate, she repeated concerns about my well-being only to hear me respond that “I didn’t feel right.” I stopped the meeting after about 10 minutes, led her out of George’s office, muttered something to our office manager Marisa Ybarra, and stumbled into my office shutting the door behind me.
Marisa, my friend of 25 years, is married to Sam Ybarra, the friend who asked me to help him coach at the parochial school more than 25 years before. I helped Marisa get a job with the previous county supervisor and she stayed on with George after he was elected. She recounted that I had walked out of George’s office with Sylvia, mentioned to her that I had to tie my shoes, walked into my office, and closed the door – which is something I never do.
In my office, I tried to relax as the anxiety symptoms continued to persist. The parks budget, after-school sports funding, tension with my siblings, the upcoming school board campaign, and the teachers’ union opposition to the A-G Initiative were all spinning in my mind. As one friend later put it, “you must have been like a volcano ready to explode.”
Sitting on my office chair, I bent over to tie my shoes even though the laces weren’t loose or untied. I leaned back in the chair with my hands folded behind my head trying to find the right breathing and relaxation exercise to release the anxiety I thought was taking over me. Meanwhile, the clotting blood gushing through my body told a different story.
I emerged from my office and told the team I was sick and going home. Meandering through the narrow walkway that led to the 10th floor lobby and elevators, I followed my own footsteps that took me on my triumphant return to the James Lick High School graduation ceremony 360 days before.
This time the walk was different. I didn’t race excitedly through the ground floor breezeway to the parking lot at the west end of the building as I did on June 10, 2009. Rather, I slowly exited the elevator on the ground floor with my hands clasped behind my head trying to compose myself. Twenty steps later, I had to stop to catch my breath.
I sat on a wooden bench under the gaze of the large Abraham Lincoln bronze bust in the east wing lobby of the county administration building, loosened my orange and blue necktie, and wiped the sweat off my brow. Off the bench, I ambled sluggishly through the breezeway with my heavy shoulders writhing with the discomfort weighing on my upper chest and throat. There was no doubt in my mind that I was in the full throes of an anxiety and panic attack.
I had to stop and sit once more, this time just steps from the west wing entrance to the parking lot. It seemed like an epic journey. When I got to the car, I called Sandra to tell her I was going home because I wasn’t feeling well. The drive was surreal, I felt as though nothing was happening outside of the car. When I was focused back on the road, it seemed like I was driving in slow motion as the other cars on the freeway raced by.
To read previous excerpts click here: https://esereport.com/summer-in-the-waiting-room/
Next Wednesday: June 7, 2010 continues…