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”

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