Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (Excerpt #57)

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Image by emojipedia.org

Author’s note: The following passage is from Chapter 7, “Sticking with God,” of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.  This is the 57th excerpt in the blog series.

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Mrs. Peralta, too, had a strong faith that guided her through life’s difficulties and triumphs. From her youthful days as the youngest child of a widowed farm worker to the challenges she confronted while raising four daughters, she turned to prayer to ask for guidance and to thank God for His inspiration.

She has deep faith in St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Hope and impossible causes. According to the National Shrine of Saint Jude, the saint was one of Jesus’ original twelve Apostles, preaching the Gospel with great passion in the most difficult circumstances.

During the 4th of July weekend, my critical condition made for the most difficult of circumstances for my family to that point. If there was ever a time for St. Jude’s intervention, it was the dark days and weeks that followed that long weekend. My survival seemed like an impossible cause and hope seemed like the only remedy.

With that in mind, Mrs. Peralta also began a nightly ritual that would endure throughout the summer. Just before leaving the hospital for the night, she would rub healing oil on my arms, legs, and forehead while reciting a prayer to St. Jude asking for his intercession. When I regained consciousness later that summer, the ritual brought me closer to understanding my own faith.

Two family friends took prayer from the waiting room to cyberspace. Beginning on June 18th, the long day that began with cardiac arrest, Teresa Gonzales and Vanessa Rios posted Facebook updates throughout the summer asking friends to pray for me and my family. Their pleas carried the messages of hope and faith to anyone who read the posts. God must have been overwhelmed by the prayers for a man many didn’t even know.

I first met Teresa when she was a student at Most Holy Trinity Parochial school and I coached the middle school basketball and baseball teams during the mid 1980s. Over the years, we kept crossing paths as her friendship with Kimberley, which started during the church’s youth group activities, continued to grow. Along with her husband, Tommy, and their four daughters, the Gonzalez family has been part of the larger Peralta circle of friends for over 25 years.

On June 18th, she posted on Facebook asking friends to “Please say a prayer for Eddie Garcia.” She went on to comment that, “This morning his heart stopped beating and they had to shock it to start again. He was in surgery again and he’s very sick! Right now he has a 50/50 chance. Please say a pray (sic) that he pulls through this.”

With these posts, Teresa started a conversation that described the ups and downs of the ICU while the string of prayers grew and strengthened. Two days later, she posted promising news: “The Power of Prayer…Eddie is doing very good. He continues to fight and I’m pretty sure he’s winning. Until that bell rings, please continue the prayers.” Within the week, when my prognosis took a turn for the worst, Teresa’s post described the downturn. She wrote, “Please keep prayers going for Eddie. It’s an emotional roller coaster.”

The prayers kept coming.

Vanessa began sending pleas for prayer to her network on June 18th as well. She came to the family via Kimberley when the two of them were great college friends. They grew closer as they married and had families of their own. Vanessa and her two sons have become an integral part of the Peralta clan through the years.

In her first post, she advised her friends that the “next 48 hours are critical and concluded by urging them to, “Please ask your family and friends to pray.” She followed up with posts on June 21st and June 28th updating readers on the “amazing power of prayer” and encouraging her network of friends to “keep the prayers going” as my condition continued to be “delicate.”

While Sandra made the decision to re-insert the breathing tube and considered introducing the oscillator, Vanessa posted a heartfelt message on June 30th that read:

“Today was a tough day. Someone reminded me that when we pray, we need to be specific. So please, help us pray that Eddie wins the fight of his life right now. We want Eddie to get better, his heart to be strong enough, the infection to go away and Eddie’s oxygen to be normal. We want Eddie to go home with his family…in God’s name we pray!”

Comments on Vanessa’s post showed that reaching out to God had affected others. Friends of friends and people from parts unknown followed the posts and prayed for me, Sandra, and the girls. The power of the internet and social media was making its presence felt all the way to the gates of God’s heavenly paradise.

The Facebook messages that Teresa and Vanessa shared virtually with their friends captured the spectrum of emotions that enveloped the waiting room through the last days of June and the first days of July. The posts accurately described the medical situation while exposing the raw feelings of hope, faith, and despair that impacted everyone who visited Sandra and the girls at the ICU department on the 2nd floor at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center.

As the growing circle of family, friends, and social media banded together in prayer, Sandra sat alone by my side in the ICU hour after hour comforting me, listening to the machines whirl, and watching the multitude of numbers flash across computer screens. Every time nurses and doctors entered the room, Sandra presented a long laundry list of questions to help her help doctors make the right decisions.

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Next Wednesday: Doctors continue to look for answers to my lung failure

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Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (Excerpt #56)

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40 years of friendship – Summer 2016

Author’s note: The following passage is from Chapter 7, “Sticking with God,” of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.  This is the 56th excerpt in the blog series.

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Chapter 7

Sticking with God

The long and tumultuous days of the 4th of July weekend were like dark clouds gathering for the stormy month that lay ahead. It was during the month of July that faith, family, and friends, became equal partners with talented and caring doctors, nurses, and hospital staff in the miraculous effort to save my life. Every person who frequented the waiting room that month played a unique role in the unfolding drama that kept people coming back for more.

Rudy brought his own brand of faith to the daily gatherings. Once I graduated from college and started chasing redemption for my failure demons, our friendship began to drift apart. I embarked on a tireless quest for recognition through work and professional accomplishments while Rudy continued his cycle of binge drinking and cavorting despite being in his early thirties and with a growing family.

He left the life of a construction worker for a steady paycheck and good benefits as a driver for Berkeley Farms milk products. Not wanting to jeopardize the stability the job created for him and his family, Rudy would go months without a drink or a night on the town. Every now and then he would go on a months-long binge after a party or a Saturday with the guys. The times that he and I were able to get together always ended in a drunken disaster.

Early in my career, a professional colleague invited me and a guest to a San Francisco 49er football game. Being that Rudy and I are lifetime 49er fans, I invited him to join me at the game at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The two others who rounded out the group of four were well-respected business and community leaders in east San Jose. When we arrived at the stadium, we each bought a beer and raised our cups in a toast as we headed to our seats.

Rudy bought another round for the foursome just before kick-off. The others hadn’t even finished the first beer by the end of the first quarter and Rudy was ready for yet another round. I had also finished my two brews, but declined having another beer because the negative impact a drunken afternoon would do to my future career opportunities. Looking confused, Rudy sat down and didn’t have another drink for the rest of the first half.

At halftime, Rudy again invited me to join him at the concession stand. Again, I declined. He said he would run up to get refreshments and be back before the start of the second half. I didn’t see him for the remainder of the game. In fact, I didn’t see him for several months. Rudy went on another alcoholic binge as I started on a destructive binge of my own working obsessively to slay my failure demons.

It was my work schedule that prevented us from having any quality time together. Our friendship became a one-way street. Rudy helped on my campaigns for public office and played important roles in my parents’ funerals. He even traveled to Bakersfield to be with me and my family when my sister Patty passed away in 2003.

I called him only when I had a free moment waiting at an airport or driving from one meeting to another, spending the few minutes regaling him with stories about my successful exploits. I couldn’t recognize my selfishness as I marched forward reaching for the next promotion or achievement. Rudy never brought this to my attention during that time, or since. Although I was oblivious to anything other than my next professional move, Rudy’s friendship was rock solid.

While I immersed myself in the intoxicating world of politics and the executive suite, Rudy embarked on a long and successful journey to rid himself of his own demons. With the unconditional support of his wife Melody and his family, he sought refuge and guidance in God. At Melody’s urging he went with her to services at a non-denominational church and allowed himself to welcome the presence of God in his life.

Over time, his binges were less frequent and lasted just a day or two instead of the long months of the past. He ultimately conquered the demons by putting his life in God’s hands. Although he must still fight the urge to return to his old ways, Rudy has a deep and real spiritual faith that has brought him closer to his family and a happy life.

That unconditional faith came with him to the waiting room every day. Wearing navy blue work pants, boots, and a white-collared shirt with a Berkeley Farms logo over one shirt pocket and his name over the other, Rudy would show up at the hospital around 3:00 in the afternoon after a long day of delivering milk. Most days he would bring something from the shop to add to the other offerings of food and drink for the waiting room dwellers: chocolate milk, orange juice, ice cream or yogurt.

Some days he would just sit and meditate and exchange in whispered banter. Other days, he would fill the waiting room with life and laughter by sharing colorful stories of our youthful shenanigans. He could also bring tears to tired eyes with anecdotes about how we stood together like brothers in difficult times.

After spending several hours eating junk food, sharing stories, and being one with my family Rudy would call it a night to rest at home and prepare for his route that began before dawn the next day. Like clockwork, between 7:30 and 8:00 PM, he would ask everyone in the waiting room to stand up and hold hands. Closing his eyes and allowing God to give him inspiration, Rudy would say a heartfelt prayer before leaving for the night.

Those that made the waiting room part of their daily lives would make sure to be in the room by 7:30 so they could take part in the evening prayer. The energy created by Rudy’s love for me and his unwavering faith transferred from hand to hand as he recited pleas to God. The surge of energy generated by the prayer circle gave a boost to those who would stay through the night.

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Next Wednesday: Friends start a virtual prayer circle…

Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (Excerpt #55)

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Image of “cloudy lungs” by biochem2.umin.jp

Author’s note: The following passage is from Chapter 6, “The Dreams,” of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.  This is the 55th excerpt in the blog series.

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As rumors circulated in the community about my condition, Sandra was very protective about who could see me.  With her strong faith in God, she knew I would survive and didn’t want anybody but our most trusted family and friends to visit the ICU room.  Working with ICU nurses and staff, she gave strict orders that no one was allowed in the room without her approval.

Barbara, my in-laws, the Peralta sisters, Miguel, Pancho, Steve, and Rudy were daily visitors. Eddie Velez had a difficult time seeing me in that condition, so his visits into the ICU were less frequent. He would later tell me that seeing me was traumatic as if his actual brother had been on that bed connected to all those machines.

When the Peraltas from Mendota arrived, they asked to see me and Sandra quickly agreed. They entered the room in pairs, each person stunned by what they saw.  They knew me as someone full of life always ready for conversation and a party. What they saw was a lifeless body oblivious to what was happening.

Mariano, who is 15 years younger than I am, thinks of me as an older brother and mentor giving advice on an array of topics like relationships, work ethic, and life in general.  He enjoys my irreverent nuggets of wisdom like “we’re here for a good time not a long time,” “don’t threaten me with a good time,” and his all-time favorite, “you gotta play like a champ.”  Mariano later said that he knew I would survive this setback, although he was devastated to see me hanging on to life.

For Tio Tavo, the prognosis didn’t look good.  Never one to sugar-coat a situation, he thought that they would be returning to San Jose soon for my funeral.  He’s a tall, imposing figure with a thick mustache and a hook for a left hand caused by a farming accident many years before.  A foreman at a working ranch outside of Fresno, he always wears jeans, work boots, a plaid western work shirt, and a baseball cap.

When he saw me, he stood over my bed weeping.  Tía Marta, a woman of faith, had her doubts as well. She prayed asking God to do what was best for my family.  When they emerged from the ICU, he shared his thoughts about an impending funeral. With an emotional tone, Tio Tavo’s older brother immediately scolded him,“¡Eddie no se va a morir!”  (Eddie isn’t going to die!). It was the first time my father-in-law vocalized what he was feeling.

As morning turned into afternoon, the doctor finally arrived and summoned Sandra to a small, windowless consultation room just down the hall from the ICU.  Apprehension filled the waiting room as Sandra, her mom, sisters, Barbara and George quietly followed.  Once in the little room, the doctor wasted no time getting down to business.  He began by saying that I was the “sickest man in the hospital.”

Sandra immediately asked if I had ARDS, and he responded that that was a probability as X-rays showed the classic image of cloudy lungs. The only way my body was receiving oxygen was through the respirator and oscillator, a full life-support situation.  My weak heart only complicated matters. The doctor went on explain that there is no known cure for ARDS, but he described a couple of treatment options.

The first, he said, was the traditional approach of keeping the patient sedated and relaxed with a small dose of vecuronium bromide, a medication classified as a paralyzing agent. This allows the patient’s body to rest while the lung congestion clears out on its own.  If the strategy works, the patient could be weaned off of the medication and breathing machines within 10 days.  If it doesn’t work, the steady use of ventilation could cause serious lung damage and lead to death.

The second option, steroid treatments, was more aggressive and could result in further complication to other organs, especially the kidneys. The research on using steroids to treat ARDS is mixed in the pulmonary medicine world. One school of thought is that it doesn’t enhance survival rates, but causes irreparable damage to vital organs for survivors. Other doctors believe that steroids significantly decrease lung inflammation, allowing the lungs to receive oxygen on their own faster than doing nothing.

Sandra rapidly peppered the doctor with questions. “How will you know it’s working?”  “How long will it take to see results?”  “What are other risks?”  “Do benefits outweigh the risks?”  He responded that regular x-rays of the lungs will tell him if the congestion is clearing out.  The major risk is losing kidney function which has its own set of problems.

Other than my delicate heart, I was otherwise healthy, he counseled. There was a good chance that this treatment would help.  The doctor said that the next 72 hours would be critical and could determine the possibility of my survival. He assured Sandra that he “wasn’t ready to give up” on me.

Sandra told the doctor that she needed a little time to think about the steroid option and asked how the family could help me while I was in a deep sleep. He explained that research showed that constant stimulation is essential for heavily sedated patients. Visitors whose voices are recognizable keeps the brain stimulated with sounds of familiarity.

Family members talking to me would put me at ease, he explained. He also recommended that we play my favorite music and place photos in my line of sight in the event my eyes briefly opened.  Keeping my brain active would make emerging from the induced coma less stressful and confusing.

Emotions were intense, the small group was scared, and it started dawning on them in that  cramped room that I might die. Everyone wanted the same thing, to do everything in their power to help me survive this unknown illness that had left me clinging to life in the ICU. Sandra vaguely remembers the sense of doom that day as her attention was completely focused on the doctor and his advice on how to best ensure my survival.

In her journal entry about the meeting she wrote, “I just want you to know that I have tried everything I know to get answers for you. I know you are fighting. I can see it in your eyes. So, you keep fighting and I will fight on this end.” The tone of this passage clearly displays Sandra’s resolve and tenacity. In true Sandra fashion, she also expected me to do my part.

Back in the waiting room, Sandra broke the news about the doctor’s assessment to the somber gathering. Electronic devices booted up and the information hunters were again scouring the internet to make sense of the diagnosis and the possible treatments.

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Next Wednesday: Chapter 7: “Sticking with God”

Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (Excerpt #54)

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Image by http://www.dreamstime.com

Author’s note: The following passage is from Chapter 6, “The Dreams,” of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.  This is the 54th excerpt in the blog series.

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Visitors continued to stream in and out of the waiting room that evening chatting with the regulars: Marisa, Erica, the Peraltas, Velez, Rochas, Leyvas, Barbara and Jackie, my brother Steve, Rudy and Melody, and the Medinas.  Sandra stood guard in the ICU with me watching the monitors and discussing the numbers with the nurses.

That night at 11:45 PM, she wrote to me in her journal, “You have been on this new machine most of the day and the numbers are looking positive and I am keeping a good eye on you as you sleep.”  She also mentioned that “Father Rios came by to visit you today,” and she went on to write, “He told you that the kids at SJV (St. John Vianney) need you and that they all love you. He blessed you and prayed for your healing.”

That’s exactly what Fr. Rios said in the dream where I was in a straightjacket and shackled to a chair in a navy ship office!  Thinking about that dream and others like it months later, I realized that I could feel when Sandra wasn’t in the ICU room with me, which caused my anxiety, sense of loneliness and feelings of desperation.  This must have been when she left the ICU for extended periods of time to join the family for dinner or consult with doctors.

Most of the dreams that I remember included frantic searches for Sandra. In others, I was in an unknown isolated place unable to move or talk to find help.  The dreams usually ended with Sandra finding me or vice versa. I would then fall into a relaxing and peaceful sleep. I’m sure those were the real-life moments when she returned to my side.

Throughout the day, Sandra made short and periodic visits to the waiting room to be with the girls and spend a little time with family and friends who were visiting.  Juanita’s sister, Marianne, an ICU nurse at another hospital, stopped by that day to support Sandra and the girls.

Since Marianne had experience with critical care patients, Sandra described my symptoms to her and asked if she had any ideas on what could be causing my lung failure. Upon hearing the symptoms, she introduced a term to the waiting room that immediately set the iPads and i-Phones into action: Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, better known as ARDS to health professionals.

According to the American Lung Association, ARDS is “the sudden failure of the respiratory system.”  To understand ARDS, a quick refresher of high school biology is a good start.  When we inhale, oxygen travels to air sacs in the lungs that have small blood vessels running through its walls.  Oxygen goes into the blood vessels which deliver the oxygen through the bloodstream to the body’s organs.

With ARDS patients, the blood vessels leak fluid into the air sacs.  Once the air sacs are filled with fluid, oxygen can no longer get to the blood vessels to deliver oxygen to the body.  When the organs stop getting oxygen, they start to shut down. Experts believe that about 190,000 Americans develop ARDS each year, of which 30% die from the condition.

This is a significant improvement from just 20 years ago when almost 70% of ARDS patients didn’t survive.  Doctors and researchers have developed a long list of causes for ARDS – bacterial infection of the blood, trauma, pneumonia or other lung infection, multiple blood transfusions, breathing in salt water, breathing in harmful smoke or fumes, breathing vomit into the lungs, narcotics, overdoses of antidepressants, and shock. However, they haven’t found a cure.

Although my symptoms appeared to be related to ARDS, the electronic info gatherers in the waiting room were scratching their heads because I hadn’t experienced any of the situations that cause the syndrome.  Nonetheless, Marianne’s diagnosis was plausible.  Fear and worry enveloped the waiting room knowing that 3 out of 10 ARDS patients die of the condition.

Heightening concerns was the fact that my heart was extremely weak and subject to failure if the lungs couldn’t deliver the necessary oxygen through the bloodstream.  The waiting room prayed asking God to allow the oscillator to keep the airways open and the ventilator to deliver oxygen to the body while the doctors tried to figure out what was going wrong.

The next day was the Friday that started the 4th of July weekend.  In addition to cousins on my side of the family, Sandra’s relatives from the Central Valley farming town of Mendota came into town to be with Sandra, the girls, and our families.  The patriarch of the Mendota clan was my father-in-law’s brother Octavio, whom I respectfully and warmly call Tío Tavo.

I met him shortly after Sandra and I started to date on a regular basis.  He’s blunt with his opinions and has a great sense of humor that keeps everyone in stitches the minute he walks into a room.  Together, Tío Tavo and Tía Marta, and their children, Tavito, Mariano, and Veronica are family to me.  I saw the Peralta kids from “Mendo” grow up from preteens and teens to adults, and now watch their children doing the same.

While people continued to visit the waiting room throughout the day, Sandra kept watch over me in the ICU and anxiously awaited the meeting with doctors.  I was in the most vulnerable state of the summer, lifeless on the bed connected to machines whirring and thumping as the oscillator made a booming sound every time it sent a puff of air into my lungs.

Pancho later said it was scary to watch and hear each gust of air from the oscillator make my chest expand as the machine made a thundering sound. On both sides of the bed stood a forest of IV stands with clear plastic bags hanging from hooks. The clear plastic bags held the medicine and liquid nourishment that worked in tandem with the breathing machines to keep me alive.

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Next Wednesday: Sandra’s meeting with doctors creates tension in the waiting room