Early last Wednesday morning, Sandra sat alone in the lobby of the cardiac procedures unit at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center. The bright lights and intensity of the cardiac ICU faded into the background of the joyous Christmas and New Year season. Inside the unit, a surgeon was replacing the implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) that was placed into my chest in 2011.
An ICD is a small device designed to deliver a shock to a heart that goes out of rhythm. A surgeon cuts a 3-inch incision into the upper chest and places the ICD into the tissue. It’s like dropping the device into the breast pocket of a dress shirt. Waiting while a surgeon performs a procedure on her husband is old hat for Sandra. She felt lonely and helpless as usual, but put the outcome in God’s hands as always.
A little more than an hour after she left me in the surgical prep area, the surgeon came out to the lobby to tell Sandra that the procedure went perfectly. Shortly after that, she was in the recovery room laughing at my corny jokes caused by the light anesthesia. On doctor’s orders, I spent the night in the hospital for observation.
Over the past 9 years, Sandra has endured over 120 nights in the hospital to be by my side. This time, I finally persuaded her to go home and sleep in her own bed. The past two and a half months have been especially hard on her. Reluctantly, she agreed to go home. Alone in a dark hospital room, I thought about her and our life together.
To borrow a phrase from today’s young and ambitious women, Sandra is a badass. When we met, I was like a ship floating aimlessly in the vast ocean. I had big dreams and ambition without focus or purpose. As Sandra still says, I’m a dreamer. As our relationship grew, so did the dreams and ambition. When I fell in love with her, my life’s purpose came into focus.
For those who don’t know, let me tell you who Sandra Peralta is. She’s an amazing mother who continues to guide our two adult daughters. She was a star student in grade school, ASB president at her high school, and an award-winning elementary school principal (2013 Silicon Valley Principal of the Year). She’s done it all with the utmost grace, integrity, and compassion.
She would vehemently disagree that being my life partner has been the most challenging part of her life. But, it’s true. While I traveled around the country as a corporate executive, Sandra took on the lion’s share of raising our two wonderful girls. When I knocked on doors campaigning for public office, she walked door-to-door with me. She has been my guardian angel since a heart attack changed all of our lives in 2010.
I’m a driven and independent man. No matter the circumstance – chasing professional success or living with compromised health – my love for Sandra has always led me to support her dreams and daily obligations. But let’s face it, living a full life with a compromising illness can’t be done alone. Even stubbornly independent people like me require substantial support.
Since open heart surgery in November, I’ve been pretty high maintenance. I haven’t been cleared to drive, so Sandra takes me to the many doctor appointments. The dressing for the wound on my chest needs to be changed daily. I have a small opening in my abdomen for the electrical wire that powers the pump connected to my heart. That needs to be dressed every other day.
Sandra changes the dressings every evening despite managing a full work schedule and helping her sisters care for elderly parents. She learned how to dress the wounds from the LVAD team at Kaiser. I want to take over these responsibilities, but she’s not ready to delegate them to me. I could insist to do it myself. However, if I’ve learned anything in our 30-plus years together, insisting isn’t such a smart idea.
We both have heard many stories about how chronic illness breaks up marriages and causes irreparable harm to families. In fact, according to the AARP, “the divorce rate for couples in which one spouse has a serious chronic illness is as high as 75 percent.” This is especially the case in younger couples. I was 46 and Sandra was 43 when disaster struck in 2010.
Financial stress and lifestyle changes that limit activity are major reasons that lead to tense marriages. Our annual income dropped significantly when I could no longer command an executive salary. With a hefty mortgage and two teenage daughters looking ahead to college, our finances were stretched to the limit overnight. Family gatherings, community events, and our social calendar took a backseat to the illness.
Added to those trials, depression and anxiety in a chronically ill partner bring feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, and shame to an already strained relationship. For caregivers, fatigue, impatience, and resentment seep into their daily lives. Together with financial and lifestyle changes, the mental health of the couple is a train wreck waiting to happen.
Sandra and I have experienced and continue to face all of the tests that confront a couple with a chronically sick partner. In his oft-quoted first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul the Apostle wrote that love, “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Somehow, Sandra, the girls, and I have persevered.
I truly believe that Sandra’s strength is the reason that we’ve weathered so many storms. She has an unshakeable faith in God, an uncompromising will, and a limitless reserve of hope. More important, she truly loves me, Marisa, and Erica. St. Paul also wrote, “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” That’s Sandra.
I can’t help but wonder at the amazing gifts that God bestowed on her. I’m eternally grateful that He made our life together the primary beneficiary of her talents. She has many titles: Mother, Daughter, Sister, Wife, Comadre, Caregiver, Teacher, Principal, School District Administrator. Yup, she’s a badass!