Celebrating Another Year of Gratitude

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Celebrating my “re-birthday” with part of the Kaiser Dream Team – (L to R) Christine Heywood, Sonia Marchana, Suzanne Dabadghav, and Mark Reyes

Today is a special day for me. It’s my sixth birthday. Yeah, you read that correctly. On June 7, 2010, my life nearly came to abrupt end. By the grace of God and the miracle of modern medicine, I’m alive today to tell the story. So, I celebrate every June 7th. The story of that day and the months that followed may seem a little dramatic, but it’s all true.

For readers who have followed Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life on this blog, you might remember the story (https://esereport.com/summer-in-the-waiting-room/).

Here’s what happened:

On that late spring evening, I had a massive heart attack while in the emergency room at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center. If I were anywhere else, I would have certainly met my end. My chance for survival that night was 50/50 at best. Thankfully, I lived through the night. Ten days later, while I was in the ICU, my heart stopped. Electronic paddles had to bring me back to life.

The summer didn’t get any better. Due to a rare side effect, my lungs stopped working. A ventilator and a variety of other machines kept me alive throughout the month of July. Doctors put me into a medically-induced coma and paralyzed my muscles so my body could rest while they worked on my lungs. That summer was horrific for my family.

Six weeks later, I emerged from the coma. Three weeks after that, doctors removed the breathing machines. For the first 21 days in September, I went to rehab to learn how to walk, talk, and eat all over again. I went home on September 21, 2010 – 106 days after the heart attack – to resume my life with a badly damaged heart.

My heart took a beating from the June 7th heart attack. In simple terms, my heart pumps at about 25% of how a normal heart functions. The condition, called Congestive Heart Failure, required that I drastically change my lifestyle. Statistically, my long-term prognosis didn’t look promising.

Half of all patients diagnosed with heart failure die within five years of diagnosis. The chance of succumbing to the disease increases 5-7% each year thereafter.

Today is a special day for me. It’s my sixth birthday.

I’ve done everything the doctors have told me to do. I stay away from processed food high in salt and fat. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and unseasoned lean meats are on my menu every day. I exercise by walking 30 minutes a day and spending a few days a week lifting light weights in the gym. I’ve eliminated most stress in my life, primarily by walking away from my high-stress career.

I’m grateful that the entire community has decided to join me in this effort. My family considers no-salt, no fat options for me when preparing for weekend events. The students I work with make sure that pizza days include fruits and vegetables. Local restaurants that we frequent already know the drill before I order a meal. Even if I tried to cheat on my diet, I have nowhere to go.

In an effort to understand why I suffered and survived such a dreadful medical crisis, I’ve turned to my Catholic faith. In addition to Jesus’ words of wisdom, I’ve sought out the spiritual philosophies of Mohammed, Buddha, and Gandhi. Their universal concepts of love, faith, compassion, service to others, and living in the moment are becoming clearer to me as the days, weeks, months, and years go by.

I’m closer than ever to no longer asking why this happened to me. The bigger question is, “What should I do with this gift from God?”

Today, I celebrated another year of life by going to morning mass and making my annual pilgrimage to the Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center ICU, a place I called home for two and a half months that summer six years ago. As I have for the past five years, I sat in the hallway next to the double doors that lead into the unit to reflect and give thanks to the professionals who cared for me that summer.

I always leave feeling grateful and refreshed. Today was especially inspiring. Part of the Dream Team of physical, occupational, and speech therapists that brought me back to life were able to visit with me for a few minutes. This group taught me how to sit up, stand, swallow, and use my hands after nearly two months in a paralytic coma. It was amazing to thank them again in person. That never gets old.

Christine Heywood, one of the therapists, posed a question that’s giving me much to ponder. After I described the peace, serenity, and gratitude I feel when visiting this sacred place, she asked if I felt that way every day. The short answer is “no.” At times, the challenges of everyday life overshadow the miracle that was the summer of 2010.

Christine’s question reminded me that I need to be grateful every day. We all get caught up in the daily challenges of life and forget to take a moment to reflect on the miracle that life is. I can use my second chance at life to teach others about the power of gratitude by telling my story. It’s a story of love, hope, and faith. Maybe that’s what God wants me to do.

Over the past several months, reliving my story has taken a backseat to life’s everyday challenges. The stress of daily life was beginning to seep back into my consciousness. That dark and ugly chapter of my life came back into view today, thankfully.  That was the day that faith, family, friends, and an amazing medical team saved my life.

Today is a special day for me. It’s my sixth birthday.

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