Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (Excerpt #64)

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Hanging out with the Cudas on a Saturday morning – June 2009

Author’s note: The following passage is from of Chapter 8, “Sharks & ‘Cudas,” of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.  This is the 64th excerpt in the blog series.

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They next day was filled with anxiety and promise for Sandra and the waiting room. Doctors were concerned that I hadn’t emerged up from the coma.  Despite my delicate condition, I was moved for the first time in over two weeks to take a CT Scan to rule out a stroke or heavy damage to my organs.

The scan was complete in the early afternoon. Sandra and the waiting room waited anxiously for the results, praying for the best and preparing for the worst. At 4:30 PM, doctors shared the good news that there had been no damage to any of my organs, including the brain.

While my lungs were showing promise and it was clear that the sedative medicine was wearing off, the dreams caused by the medicine and ICU Psychosis became more frequent, more vivid, more real, and in some cases, more scary. Many times I found myself near the water or on a boat absolutely helpless with my hands and feet bound in one way or another.

In some dreams, I saw my dad, brothers David and Stevie, Eddie, Miguel, and Pancho. In others, Rogelio would walk in wearing a tailored suit and carrying a briefcase to get me out of whatever predicament the dream got me into. A few months after I was released from the hospital, I paid a visit to Father Francisco to thank him for his prayers and his intervention. I told him about my dreams hoping that he might have an answer to their meanings.

Without hesitation, he told me that water is the Christian symbol of life, and keeping me in, on, or near water was God’s way of assuring me that I would survive the deadly illnesses that had overtaken my body. He correctly stated that each dream ended with a happy ending where Sandra, the girls, and I were back together.

July 16th brought even more good news. The pulmonologist and critical care physician who had been taking care of me recommended to Sandra the possibility of doing a tracheotomy, a procedure that could speed up my progress. The doctor and Sandra had developed a strong relationship and she trusted his judgment. A father of two young daughters, he appeared to have taken a special interest in my case due to Marisa and Erica’s central role in the waiting room.

A tracheotomy is a surgical procedure that requires an incision in the front of the neck and throat to create a direct airway to the trachea, otherwise known as the windpipe. A tube is inserted into the hole in the windpipe allowing the patient to breathe without using the nose or mouth. After a successful procedure, doctors could take the awful intubation pipe out of the patient’s mouth, air would go directly to the lungs, and the patient would be completely off the sedatives. The only downside is a scar on the throat of the patient after full recovery.

Since I had no advanced directives on file, Sandra would rely on the many discussions we had over the years about how we would live our lives. Knowing that I was a person who did everything full throttle, there was no doubt in her mind that I would have said, “go for it!”

In the meantime, as my lungs were slowly healing, the doctor wanted to make sure that the medical team refocused on my heart as well. He recommended the insertion of a pulmonary artery catheterization line, known as a Swan-Ganz Catheter or Swan line, to monitor my heart. The Swan line is used to detect heart failure and blood poisoning, monitor therapy, and evaluate the effect of drugs.

The procedure was scheduled late in the afternoon on Friday, July 16th. The next day was the championship meet for the Creekside Cudas swim team, so most of the waiting room was at the Creekside Cabana for the traditional pre-meet rally.

Marisa and Erica had been on the team since they were in elementary school. Val and Kim’s kids were also on the team, so Saturdays during the summer were family gatherings at the pool. Marisa had been chosen co-captain of the team that summer, so she played a key role in organizing and coordinating the rallies.

Mr. and Mrs. Peralta stayed with Sandra at the hospital to provide support while I was undergoing the Swan line procedure. Rudy also decided to stay with Sandra and the Peraltas until the procedure was done. The doctor explained to Sandra that inserting a Swan line was common and that he expected no complications. The procedure would last no more than 45 minutes to an hour.

Before leaving my side, Sandra said a prayer and kissed me on the cheek.

Preparation for the procedure was actually one of the first things I remember, albeit vaguely, after doctors began reducing the sedatives. For a brief moment, I could see activity around the bed and hear what I later came to know as the pulmonologist’s soothing voice. I was under a white tarp-like cover and wrapped in a white surgical gown. The doctor told me to relax as I fell into a peaceful sleep.

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Next Wednesday: Shark Attack!!

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Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (Excerpt #63)

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The “three loves of my life.”

Author’s note: The following passage is from of Chapter 8, “Sharks & ‘Cudas,” of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.  This is the 63rd excerpt in the blog series.

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During the week after the party, the waiting room was back to its daily rhythm. Melody would arrive in the morning to join Sandra and Mrs. Peralta, regular visitors would stop by throughout the day, Val and Kim would spend lunchtime there, Rudy would arrive after finishing his milk delivery route, and Will and Juanita would show up after work as would the rest of the Peraltas with Marisa and Erica.

As the evenings wore on, more visitors would arrive, many with food and snacks. Pancho and Miguel would be the first to survey the offerings. According to Pancho, small burritos made by one of Sandra’s friends would quickly disappear as Miguel popped them into his mouth like bite-sized tater tots. Of course, Miguel said that Pancho was the main mini-burrito popper. Either way, I’m sure that those bite-sized snacks didn’t last too long once they passed the threshold of the waiting room.

Sandra would emerge from the ICU from time to time to provide updates and visit. Before the evening was over, Rudy or Kim would gather everyone in a prayer circle sending hope into my room. Mrs. Peralta would say her goodbyes after rubbing my arms, legs, and head with oil and praying to St. Jude. The “night shift” would arrive usually with a Starbuck’s coffee carrier to share with those who stayed late into the night.

In the ICU, my lungs continued to show slight improvement. Throughout that week, doctors remained puzzled about the cause of my fever as test after test showed no signs of infection. One day the fever peaked at 102.7 degrees.

Miraculously, my badly damaged heart remained stable as the acute respiratory distress syndrome wreaked havoc on my lungs and body. For a brief moment, my heart raced to 150 beats per minute requiring another dose of medicine to regulate the heart rate. These moments always put Sandra on high alert.

I was slowly weaning off the sedative and paralytic medication, so doctors considered the possibility of gradually removing me from the life support machines. When Sandra was in the room I began to physically respond when she talked to me. My eyes moved under the lids when she spoke and I weakly tried to open my mouth as if I was trying to reply. Sandra was overjoyed by these tiny steps of progress.

When she was alone in the room with me, Sandra also exercised my legs and arms in regular intervals as directed by doctors. She studied and learned the significance of every number that flashed on the computer monitors. With that information, she would brief nurses during shift changes to make sure they understood my situation and discuss with them the best course of action to take during that shift.

As the week progressed, so did the numbers that Sandra so diligently tracked. On the morning of July 12th, the ICU doctor shared great news with Sandra. My lungs had “turned the corner,” he told her. Within hours, respiratory therapists removed the nitric oxide machine and lowered the oxygen input of the ventilator to give my lungs a chance to get stronger.

Just two weeks before, I was on three machines clinging to life. Now, a tiny pin-like light was visible at the end of this nightmarish tunnel.

Doctors also believed that they found the source of my infection in the intestines, which caused discomfort and fever. They were confident that the issue would be resolved in a matter of days with antibiotics.

While still in critical condition, I was headed in the right direction. That afternoon in her journal, Sandra gave credit to the day’s turn of events to God. She wrote that my will to live and “God knowing we need you here with us” carried the day. “Trust steadily in God,” she continued, “love will pull us through.” She also began writing with confidence that “very soon we’ll be on our way home to get you stronger.”

As the sedatives wore off, I would respond to Sandra and the girls by shrugging my shoulders, twitching to their touch, and slightly opening my eyes. Sandra wrote excitedly the next day that I opened my eyes enough that she was convinced that I could see her as the corners of my mouth struggled to turn up making a weak smile. During the girls’ nightly visit, Sandra asked if I could hear them. I winked my eye to the delight of the three loves of my life.

They next day was filled with anxiety and promise for Sandra and the waiting room. Doctors were concerned that I hadn’t emerged up from the coma. Despite my delicate condition, I was moved for the first time in over two weeks to take a CT Scan to rule out a stroke or heavy damage to my organs.

The scan was complete in the early afternoon. Sandra and the waiting room waited anxiously for the results, praying for the best and preparing for the worst. At 4:30 PM, doctors shared the good news that there had been no damage to any organs, including my brain.

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Next Wednesday: Vivid dreams caused by ICU Delirium intensify as I start to emerge from the coma.

Summer in the Waiting Room: My Spiritual Journey

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Author’s note: The third and final part of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life” will explore my spiritual journey since that fateful summer in 2010. The following excerpt is the introduction to Part Three.

Part Two, Chapter 8, “Sharks & ‘Cudas,” will continue next week with Excerpt #63.

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I embarked on a journey to understand God sometime in early August 2010. Before that, my conception of God was a mythical symbol that lived in the pages of Holy Books interpreted by men developing cultural philosophies. I was baptized, received communion, confirmed, married, and given last rites as a Roman Catholic. Despite receiving all the sacraments the Church has to offer, I was unsure of God’s presence in my everyday life.

When the chaplain at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center walked into my room in the ICU that August day, I was in the depths of an emotional meltdown. Fully awake, but paralyzed and with a breathing tube in my throat, I was in the beginning stages of irreversible hopelessness. I listened to the chaplain talk about faith and gratitude.

My journey toward true spiritual understanding began that day. It wasn’t an “aha” moment. In fact, I’ve learned that the road to discovering God has no end. A few days later, a doctor expressed confidence that I would fully recover from a deadly side effect that left me in a coma for six weeks.

He said that a “higher power,” not so much his years of training and caring for patients, was responsible for the miraculous turn of events. My condition rapidly improved with each succeeding day. My mind was filled with wonder and swirled with questions.

God is a universal cosmic force that’s had many names throughout history and around the world. The ancients referred to “nature” when explaining the causes and effects of the universe. Native American and other cultures use the term, “The Creator.” When scientists can’t fully describe the cause of a phenomenon, they call it “universal law.”

Whether you practice Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism or any other organized religion or philosophical tradition, faith in God is the cornerstone to understanding the inexplicable. No matter your religious, spiritual, or scientific tradition, that “higher power” brings meaning to the universe.

Since those early days in August 2010, I’ve been on a personal faith journey. Some days are marked by calming enlightenment and others have led to uncomfortable uncertainty. At one moment, the meaning of my life and God’s role in it seems to make sense. In another, it makes no sense at all.

The massive cardiac episode that changed my life has left me with a heart that works at about ¼ of the efficiency of a healthy heart. This has placed severe limitations on my energy. As a result, I have plenty of time to think, reflect, and pray on what God and faith mean to me. I usually do this when I’m on my daily walks.

Sometimes I step out to my beloved arbor in the backyard and sit in the coolness of its shade contemplating all that my family and I have been through. For family and friends, the 100-day ordeal in the ICU, operating rooms, and hospital ended six years ago. For me, it’s a daily reminder of the majesty of God.

On the road to enlightenment, I’ve learned that having faith in God is the key to understanding our place in this uncertain and ever-changing world. As is my nature, I went to the bookshelves to unravel the mystery of faith.

A dear friend introduced me to Marcus Aurelius and the ancient philosophers of Stoicism. My brother David shared New-Age writings about God. Other friends recommended that I delve into the works of Mahatma Ghandi, Muhammed, Buddha, and Paulo Coelho. Reading such diverse viewpoints on a common theme inspired me to dig deeper into my own religious upbringing and tradition.

The words of Jesus Christ and the Gospels are more meaningful to me as a result of my literary excursion. I came to realize that faith can come in many forms. Throughout my journey, I’ve come to believe that faith is rooted in acceptance, gratitude, and doing good.

ACCEPTANCE

I’m a classic “Type A” personality. I use to work tirelessly. After 106 days in the hospital, five weeks in a coma, two months in the ICU, three weeks of intensive physical rehabilitation, and three years of building up strength, I wanted to be “normal” again. That didn’t happen.  Frustrated and angry, I persistently asked God, “Why me?”

Reflection and prayer led me to the answer: “That’s just the way it is.”

Once I realized that there was nothing I could do to change the fact that my heart works at ¼ its capacity, I was able to move on with my life. Through exercise, diet, and faith, I stay healthy enough to make the most of what life has to offer. Acceptance has inspired to pursue longtime passions like writing and working with high school students on the east side.

GRATITUDE

The concept is simple, “be thankful for what you have.” I struggled most with this concept because it flies in the face of our modern way of life. The American notion of working hard to obtain things is embedded in our culture, so the idea of acquiring “more” is valued over “settling.”

I fell into this dangerous trap. Acquisition of material goods didn’t drive my ambition. I thrived on being recognized for my “successes.” Along with recognition come legions of supporters with whom to celebrate accomplishments. When my energy level dissolved along with my weak heart muscle, the acknowledgement for which I worked so hard evaporated as well.

I grew resentful.

Learning the true of meaning of gratitude changed that. God has given me the gift of a second life with an amazing family and a tight circle of wonderful friends. There was a time when I took this for granted. Now I don’t. I thank God for them and celebrate with them every day. This revelation has helped me see the power of being grateful for all of God’s offerings.

DOING GOOD

In 1 Timothy 6:18, God tells those he has showered with gifts “to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share.” This concept has always been part of my being. I fondly remember my parents sharing what little they had to help those who were less fortunate. I took these values with me into my professional and public life.

Somewhere along the way, the lines blurred between good works and professional advancement. In the rough and tumble worlds of business and politics, winning is the ultimate goal. I’m proud of the good I was able to accomplish in leadership positions. But, I also enjoyed the satisfaction of triumph. I’ve come to understand that that’s not what God means in Timothy.

My spiritual journey has inspired me to dedicate every day to try my best, with this gift of a second life, to do good in the way God intended: No recognition. No fanfare. No expectations.

The path to a better understanding of faith has been frustrating, revealing, and humbling. It’s also been therapeutic and full of love and understanding. No matter what religious, spiritual, or philosophic traditions, or lack thereof, you subscribe to, my life is testimony to the healing power of acceptance, gratitude, and good work.