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