Author’s note: The following passage is from Chapter 5, “Buen Corazón,” of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life. This is the 48th excerpt in the series. Click on the image to read ALL excerpts.
The next week in the coronary care unit was a blur for me. While cardiologists closely monitored my heart to determine a plan forward, pulmonologists remained concerned that my oxygen levels wouldn’t stay consistent fluctuating from a normal 97% to a dangerous mid-80%.
There was a steady flow of visitors: Marisa and Erica, the Peralta clan, my brothers David and Stevie, my sisters Barbara and Sisi, Rudy, Will, Melody, Juanita, and other family friends. I don’t recall much about what was said during that time, I just knew they were there and their presence gave me hope, comfort, and the courage to fight on.
One brief visit and conversation has stayed with me since that time. My college friend Damian Trujillo had stopped in to see how I was doing to find me connected to heart and oxygen monitors that were beeping and purring behind the bed. I was also connected to a high-flow oxygen system that delivered air through narrow tubes placed in the nostrils. The pulmonologists wanted accurate and ongoing oxygen saturation readings to ensure that my body was getting the oxygen it needed.
To get an accurate reading, the oxygen monitor was placed on my forehead kept in place by a headband. I’ll never forget how the ball-shaped monitor hurt as it dug into my forehead. Damian joked, “Míralo, you look all bad like a cholo with that headband.” That’s one of the few times I remember laughing during the ordeal. I later learned that he brought tamales to add to the growing stock of food in the waiting room.
In the cardiac ICU, I had a hard time sleeping and my anxiety increased as sedative medicine wore off. Sandra stayed in the room with me each night only to lose sleep herself because I would be awake all night and sleep just a little during the day. Bedridden and weak, I increasingly became frustrated. My anxious mind conjured up worse case scenarios and I felt scared, especially when Sandra was out of the room.
Throughout our life together, she had been the solid foundation to my workaholic dream-building ambitions. Lying in a state of uncertainty while doctors tried to stabilize my heart and figure out what was wrong with my lungs, the loneliness and helplessness without Sandra sitting next to me was demoralizing.
Marisa and Erica would visit briefly to say good morning and good night. Sandra wanted to make sure that their daily routine continued as the medical crisis entered its third week. Without the sedatives, I started to understand the grave situation I was in and my spirits continued to dive. The girls would come into the room with a smile and “hi daddy,” but I could see the sadness in their eyes.
One evening just before bedtime, they came in to say good night with a gift in hand, a Build-a-Bear in green surgical scrubs and hat. They named him Buen Corazon and sat him on the headboard to watch over me. He held an X-ray of a healthy heart in his left paw. They asked me to squeeze his right paw, and Marisa’s voice came out of him saying, “Get well soon daddy. We love you! Love Marisa and Erica.” Sandra’s eyes welled up with tears, and with a huge lump in my throat, I held mine back.
At that moment, a range of emotions washed over me: unconditional love, sadness, fear, and a steely resolve. I smiled, thanked the girls, and told them that I would be fine. After hugs and kisses, they said good night and left the room as Sandra and I silently held hands. With unconditional love for Sandra and the girls and Buen Corazon watching my back, I felt a sense of confidence that all would end well.
My heart, although seriously weak, stabilized after a few days in the CCU. Nurses prepared me and all of the monitors for a quick ride to the ICU just down the hall so doctors could concentrate on my oxygen and lung issues. That day, and the next three or four days, would be the clearest for me in some time.
Leaving the cardiac ICU, I high-fived nurses and staff as my bed rolled through the unit. I got to know the people caring for me and made sure that I thanked them as I left, even if I was lying on a bed. Once in the ICU, I was reconnected to the monitors and oxygen in the room that was to be my home for the better part of that summer.
In the ICU, my room was buzzing with activity. Nurses walked in regularly to check on the growing forest of IV stands holding the various medications that were keeping me going and monitor the machines and gauges that were tracking my minute-by-minute progress. Watching the LED lights blinking and rising and falling on the monitors was like looking through a kaleidoscope filled with red, green, and orange glass.
Like clockwork, nurses came in to draw blood, add medication to the clear plastic bags hanging from the IV stands, and take my temperature. Cardiologists, pulmonologists, and critical care physicians checked in three times a day to report on my condition. It was an intense experience, but it was clear that the doctors, nurses, and staff were working hard to help me get better.
Next Wednesday: After a couple of days of progress, my oxygen levels suddenly plummeted as I struggled to breathe…