My First Love

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Mom and me


This sucks! We’ve been sheltering-in-place for 2 weeks and there’s at least another month to go. Adding to the COVID drama is the fact that
I’m at a high risk for getting an infection because of heart disease. Sandra and the girls have imposed an extra level of stay at home orders on me. Being fenced in is driving me crazy, literally.

CNN, MSNBC, and social media are making the noise deafening. But I can’t stop paying attention. With all of that going on, I still have heart failure. I’m still on the transplant list, just with an added twist. If I get called soon, I’ll be in surgery and recovery with no family physically by my side. My mind swirls and the anxiety demons dance.

But, I’ll be okay. Fate prepared me for this moment. I’ve managed the physical and mental health challenges of heart failure by following doctors’ orders and trusting in faith, hope, and love. The physical part is easy. Getting through the mental stuff is another thing. That’s not so easy.

Uncertainty is scary. Nearly a decade later, I still get nervous if I feel something in my chest area that doesn’t seem right. The spiritual journey I’ve been writing about has been helpful. It has taught me how to mentally and emotionally deal with the unknown. God, Jesus Christ, St. Paul the Apostle, and the Buddha have all inspired me to put things into perspective.

If the uncertainty of COVID-19 is causing you to be anxious, nervous, or out of sorts, now is a good time to go on your own exploration to learn how you can better mentally manage the current crisis and deal with future events that are out of your control. There are all kinds of ways to do this. For people who are religious, delving deeper into your faith will help. If religion isn’t your thing, meditation or mindfulness works wonders. 

It really doesn’t matter how you go about it. They’re are all based on some form of the same principles of faith, hope, and love. My journey has a definitive Catholic/Christian bent. I’m a big reader, so I studied further into the traditions I had known since I was a kid. For almost a decade, the power of these ideas has given me a more profound view of life.

I’ve written many posts about faith and hope. They’re the foundation for what St. Paul the Apostle called the greatest of the three: Love. To understand how love impacted my journey, I turned to the definition of love described in the book,  The Four Loves, published by Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis in 1960.

The author describes Affection as the first of four loves. It’s the kind of love among parents and their children, siblings, and other blood relatives. It’s one of the strongest bonds we have as humans. Lewis writes that affection is the “less discriminating of loves.” In other words, the bond is so strong that it overshadows nearly any fault or deficiency of a loved one.

The instant a parent sees a newborn son or daughter is nothing less than magical. There is no better feeling of safety and comfort for a child than nuzzling up to mom. I’ve said that my spiritual journey started on the heels of my 2010 health crisis. In reality, it started much earlier. My spiritual education most likely began the moment I looked into my mom’s – my first love – eyes for the first time.

Research shows that there is a direct relationship between the love/affection of a mother and/or father and happiness. As such, suffering and pain caused by a conflict with or loss of a parent are disproportionately intense. On September 6, 1995, I experienced for the first time the devastation of loss related to affection. That’s the day that my father passed away. Eight years later, on December 5, 2003, my mom followed him to the grave. The emotional wreckage of her passing was even more extreme.

Mom was a woman of unwavering faith. Praying to God was her answer to suffering. “Con el favor de Dios“ (God willing) and “Si Dios quiere” (If that’s how God wants it) were her go-to solutions for just about anything. She believed that nothing, good or bad, happened by chance. God was always in control. “just pray, mijo,” she urged whenever doubt and uncertainty took control of my thoughts.

She was warm, loving, and encouraging. She taught me and my siblings, by way of example, about compassion and caring for the welfare of others. She taught us to recite the Lord’s prayer before bedtime and say “thank you God” before and after a meal. Church on Sunday wasn’t mandatory, but going to mass during holidays on the Catholic calendar was a must. Looking back on my journey, I think mom was more spiritual than religious. 

Her death was a great opportunity for me to start exploring the faith that helped her get through times of suffering. But, I passed on the chance. Right after her funeral, I immersed myself in work. On top of my day job, I participated in a company-sponsored executive leadership training program. I was literally working round the clock.

About a year later, my emotional health came crashing down. My doctor ultimately diagnosed me with anxiety disorder triggered by my mom’s passing. Another chance to explore spirituality came and went. I fully committed to understanding the condition. I was dedicated to the medication regimen and monthly therapy sessions.

I learned about mindfulness and the chemistry of anxiety. Within 6 months, I had everything under control, or so I thought. That seemed to do the trick, so I continued on with my futile quest to control destiny only by working hard. In 2010, fate again stepped in. Rebounding from such a horrific health experience led to a roller coaster of emotions.

With mom gone, Sandra filled the empty space in my life where faith was waiting to be discovered. She has the same unquestioning belief in God as my mom. Instead of, “just pray, mijo,” the new mantra was, “just pray, babe.” I wanted to believe that was the answer but still thought that fate was in my own hands. I wasn’t so sure that mom and Sandra were right about God being in control of everything

I had questions. Throughout history, millions of people have died fighting in the name of God. They go into battle blindly following orders from religious leaders. Not only that, we all know regular churchgoers who judge and preach to those who don’t do the same. These things didn’t sit well with me. I wasn’t able to separate God from organized religion.

I would ask religious friends how the church helped them. They answered with a canned response like, “Jesus died for my sins.”  I didn’t know what that meant and no one was able to explain it to me. My critical mind would rhetorically and sarcastically wonder “Why would I give my worries to someone who died almost 2,000 years ago because some guy at the pulpit told me to?

My understanding of the unknown and mystical has grown exponentially in the past 10 years. Mom’s love for me provided the fundamentals to understanding God. I just wanted to learn more, know more. Unfortunately, it took death knocking on my front door to inspire me to dig deeper. That when I embarked on an intellectual and spiritual journey supported by God’s grace.  

Believing that some things happen “just because” has carried me through the torturous uncertainty of heart failure. However, COVID-19 laid on top of heart failure is really trying my patience. But, my spiritual journey that started in my mom’s arms calms me and keeps me focused on what happens in the here and now.

I know that everything will work out, as my first love would say, “con el favor de Dios.” 

 

 

 

Love is Always the Answer

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“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” ~St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians 13:13

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My spiritual journey has been amazing! Every day, I travel to intellectual and mystical places that help me understand the power of God, the universe, the Creator or whatever one believes to be a higher power. I understand a little more about the ways of the cosmos and better appreciate life in this world. With each step on the path, I uncover new revelations that become more profound as I meander along.

St. Paul the Apostle, especially his First letter to the Corinthians, has been a major influence on that spiritual journey. I’ve written much about my understanding of faith and hope in the context of my life story. These reflections have strengthened my belief that accepting what we can’t control and managing what we can are the first steps toward finding inner peace. Over the next several posts, I plan to explore where love fits in.

St. Paul wrote in the language of his era. The ancient Greek word he used for love is generally characterized as giving of oneself for the sake of others regardless of the circumstance, otherwise known as “unconditional love.” Throughout my spiritual journey, I’ve contemplated deeply on the existence of unconditional love. Is it even possible? Can a human being truly love without conditions?

Love means different things to different people. Some people believe that love is necessary for life. Others associate it with giving to others and practicing unselfish acts. The word is often used when describing someone’s fondness for a sports team, food, book, movie, music, etc. British author and Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis, tried to make sense of it all in a ground-breaking book he published in 1960

 In The Four Loves, Lewis sheds light on these concepts and describes four categories of love: Affection, Friendship, Eros (Romance), and Charity (God’s Love)

Affection is the kind of love between parents and their children, siblings, and other blood relations. This is one of the strongest forms of love that most of us are blessed to experience. Since it’s bound together by bloodlines and relatives, Lewis believes that 90% of a person’s happiness is related to affection. For that same reason, the suffering and pain caused by family friction is disproportionately intense.

Friendship is driven by choice, rather than built-in family love. Sharing things in common brings people together as friends. All of these commonalities and circumstances of meeting seem to happen by coincidence. But, with God in control, nothing happens by chance. According to Lewis, “friendship is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties in others.” 

Eros is tricky. Anyone who has been “in love” knows that to be true. When we think of romantic love, the warm and fuzzy feelings of happiness, butterflies in the stomach, and hugs and smooches come to mind. Potential for jealousy, power struggles, and possessiveness can complicate matters and doom a romantic relationship. The phrase, “For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death, do us part” is the true meaning of Eros.

Charity is the most powerful form of love. This is the kind of love God has for humanity. There are no strings attached. For Christians, the Passion story illustrates how love can change the world. God allowed Jesus to be tortured and humiliated on the road to his crucifixion so that the account could shine a light on God’s message about charity and giving of oneself for the sake of others. In St. Paul;’s letter, God calls on us to act on our better instincts.

At no moment in my lifetime has His call to action been so important. The COVID-19 crisis has all of us on edge. Public health experts tell us that social distancing will slow down the spread of the virus. That means that we have to give up many of the things that make us happy. No eating out, no going to the movies, no working out at the gym, no watching March Madness. As the days, weeks, and maybe months wear on, we’re sure to become irritable and increasingly selfish.

Now is the time to reflect on and practice love in all of its forms. Inasmuch as we want and need the affection of family, we must be vigilant to follow public health guidelines, especially with loved ones who are at a higher risk of infection. Friendships can and should continue to flourish despite not being able to connect in person. Romance must make do in sickness and in health without hugs and kisses.

Most of all, charity must thrive in these most uncertain of times. Share those precious necessities at the grocery stores with fellow shoppers. If you have a common cold or flu symptoms, stay home and heal instead of flooding emergency rooms at the expense of sicker patients. Check and double-check your information sources before sharing with friends and family to prevent unnecessary worry and panic. Major TV and radio networks and newspapers are your best bet.

When the dark clouds of uncertainty start gathering and force us to make difficult choices, love is always the answer. With my life story serving as a backdrop, I look forward to sharing my thoughts on the meaning of love in the coming weeks. In the meantime stay healthy!

 

We got this!

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We got this!

Wash your hands regularly.

Stay 6 feet away from each other.

Avoid crowds of 10 or more people.

***

On June 28, 2010, doctors were puzzled about why my lungs were starting to shut down. For about a week, I was wearing one of those clear masks with oxygen flowing into my nose. That wasn’t working anymore. They escalated my treatment to the next level. A pulmonologist placed Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP) headgear over my head, nose, and mouth. I felt claustrophobic. The sound of air rushing into my lungs was deafening.

The BiPAP strategy only lasted about 24 hours. My lungs were suffocating, desperate for oxygen. Over the course of 10 days, the critical care team had ruled out every possible diagnosis for the breakdown in my breathing. They needed to buy more time to figure out what was causing the lungs to fail. Doctors decided to intubate, sedate, and paralyze me.

Intubation is a process that includes placing a tube into the patient’s mouth and down the throat to send oxygen directly into the lungs. Surgeons use this procedure to ensure that the patient is breathing during surgery. It’s very uncomfortable, so being in deep sleep is necessary. To make sure my body was completely still, paralytic medicine was added to the cocktail that flowed from IV bags into my bloodstream.

When the doctors explained to me why they recommended taking these extreme measures, I was scared, anxious, and on the verge of panic. After Sandra and I peppered them with a barrage of questions, I knew that it was the right thing to do. Doctors ultimately treated me for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. The summer of 2010 was a wily and wooly ride to be sure, especially for my family. It all worked out. God’s will and a talented healthcare team saved the day.

I write often about the heart attack in 2010 and how it changed my life and worldview in a spiritual and practical way. I haven’t shared as much about the lung failure episode. It was an awful time for my family. Recovering after over 100 days in the hospital (including 6 weeks in the ICU) was the most difficult time in my life. No one who experienced that time wants to relive it. The memories are still fresh and vivid in our minds.

Nevertheless, I’ve been looking back on that chapter of my story for the past few days with hope. Reliving the summer of 2010 reminds me of how a community can overcome challenges with the power of faith and prudent action. Those who occupied the waiting room inspired many others to virtually join them in prayer. Heeding doctors’ advice, Sandra made wise decisions about my care. 

Reflecting on that time has given me hope that working together we can conquer Coronavirus in the same way. 

St. Paul the Apostle teaches us that God says, “My grace is sufficient, my power is made perfect in weakness.” God is telling us not to stress out trying to control what we can’t, especially during troubling times. We can’t control that the virus exists. We can’t control how other people react. We can’t control the false information that’s spreading on social media just as fast as the virus. 

Having faith is letting go of what we can’t control and focusing on what is within our power. Grace in the Biblical sense relates to the gifts God provides to each of us. He gave us the power to think and analyze. Let’s use that gift. Despite the seemingly hopeless news doctors shared with me and Sandra in 2010, we knew that we had no control over the fact that I couldn’t breathe. Using the gifts of thought and analysis, we put our faith in the doctors’ advice.

Today, as a community, we are facing what appears to be a desperate health crisis. Santa Clara County has directed its residents to stay home for 3 weeks, except to access essential needs like food and medical care. Now is the time to use common sense to make educated decisions based on recommendations from experts. 

County public health leaders took unprecedented action to combat the Coronavirus for the same reason doctors made extreme efforts to fight my lung failure 2010. They need to buy time to figure out exactly what kind of threat the virus poses. Time will give officials the ability to determine how many people are infected and allocate resources to hospitals where they’re needed. 

Washing hands frequently, staying 6 feet away from others, and avoiding crowds is smart advice. We tend to panic and lose sight of those three simple directives. Going to the store daily to stock up on items we already have and rushing to the emergency room at the slightest sniffle is contrary to guidance from health professionals. Standing in line next to others doing the same is even more dangerous. Don’t panic. Follow advice. Be smart.

Sandra, the girls, our extended family and friends, and I learned so much about managing crises in 2010. Perhaps the most important lessons were the power of faith and thoughtful decision-making. Not only did faith and wisdom carry us through that horrific summer, but they were also the cornerstones of getting through another health scare 8 years later. 

As days of uncertainty about the Coronavirus wear on, my family has decided to hunker down with faith and intelligent thinking. This plan has worked for us time and time again. I highly recommend that everyone try it out for the next few weeks. In God’s time, this crisis too shall pass. We got this!

 

 

Face Fear With Faith, Hope, & Love

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The news has been pretty stressful during the past week or so. Coronavirus is dominating the headlines. The country is in crisis mode. Public health officials are scrambling, education leaders are closing schools, and event organizers are canceling public gatherings. The president isn’t helping calm the country. He’s clueless as usual, too focused on himself. He’s having a hard time telling the truth. We don’t know what’s going on.

Coronavirus is new. No one really knows what to expect. It’s like a wildfire out of control. Anxiety and fear is spreading faster than the disease itself. Health experts tell us that the best prevention is washing hands regularly, avoiding physical contact with others, and staying away from crowded places. While that should slow down the expansion of the virus, worry and panic continue to grow.

Soap, hand sanitizer, toilet paper – toilet paper! – are flying off store shelves. People are panicking as if Armageddon is upon us. The numbers don’t seem to reflect the level of alarm, at least for now. As I’m writing this post, there are over 1,500 diagnosed cases and 32 confirmed deaths in the United States. By comparison, 365,914 Americans died of coronary heart disease in 2017 according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). 

A quick analysis of the data shows that heart disease is a much bigger threat. In fact, heart problems kill more Americans than anything else. Nevertheless, Coronavirus is public enemy #1 right now. It’s the fear of the unknown that has catapulted the virus to the forefront. Yesterday, during my morning walk, I saw a guy wearing a surgical mask walking out of McDonald’s. A New Yorker cartoon came to mind. Actually, the irony with heart disease was kind of funny.

With all that said, Coronavirus is a serious matter. It’s untreated growth is a danger to all of us. Most people – younger and healthier folks – will get through this crisis just fine. Older people and those with pre-existing chronic diseases are at a higher risk of getting really sick and succumbing to the virus. It’s no surprise that heart failure tops that list. That puts me in the crosshairs of the illness. 

I’m no stranger to living with disease knocking on my door every day, so I’m good at doing what the docs advise. Other than good hygiene and smart interactions with others, there’s not much more we can do as individuals to cure Coronavirus. We have to leave that to scientists and public health experts. They’ll figure it out soon enough. Meanwhile, the virus continues to wreak havoc on our sense of security. 

News about the virus is pretty scary. Psychologists tell us that worrying about the unknown and losing sleep over things we can’t control are parts of our evolutionary DNA as humans. This trait allows us to focus on solving whatever needs fixing. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, if we lack the expertise, ability, or resources needed to remedy what ails us, evolution hasn’t given us the tools to separate that reality from the anxiety that comes with the unknown.

While the Coronavirus has contaminated more than 1,500 Americans (and counting), fear of the virus has infected millions more. Cable news and social media are infecting people with worry around the clock. What should we do when nature doesn’t give us the mechanism to detach our inability to change what we can’t control from the fear that swirls through our minds in uncontrollable situations?  

My decade-long health crisis and subsequent spiritual journey have provided some answers for me. I started this blog six years ago to share my story with the hope that it will help others endure life challenges. The project has taken me to places I didn’t even know existed. As we’re in the throes of Corona-mania, my journey has given me the wisdom and tools to be measured and calm as fear rises around me.

Let’s start by listening to the experts. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve learned. Scientists, doctors, and public health officials are telling us how to stay healthy and prevent the spread of the virus. WASH YOUR HANDS. DON’T TOUCH ANYONE. STAY AWAY FROM CROWDS. It’s the first thing you see on the CDC website. These folks are smarter than the rest of us. Try not to let social media, cable news, or friends who mean well take your mind to a frightening place.

Advice is best when it’s simple,  especially when it comes from people who know what they’re talking about. After the heart attack and lung crisis that changed my life in 2010, doctors told me that I could live a pretty good life if I stuck to a low-salt, low-fat diet, took meds as prescribed, and exercised regularly. Three simple things from some pretty smart people gave me a new lease on life.

That’s been the easy part. The hard part has been accepting the truth about my health and understanding that I have no control over my fate. Living life moment by moment instead of in the past or the future has by far been the most difficult part. After nearly a decade of reading, thinking, reflecting, and praying, I’ve come to terms with the first two. The third is and will always be a work in progress.

Faith, hope, and love have formed the foundation of my spiritual awakening and learning about the ancient philosophy of living in the present have added insight into managing life’s troubles. Faith is all about acceptance of what is. Hope is knowing that what happens is God’s will. Love is wholeheartedly serving God by serving others. I try to work on all three every day. Living in the here and now keeps my mind at peace instead of fretting over the past and worrying about the future.

What does all of this have to do with Coronavirus and the growing panic? Practicing faith, hope, and love will soothe your fears. If God isn’t your thing, try out the ancient Stoic philosophers or check out The Buddha. Go ahead, google St. Paul the Apostle, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, or The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The worst thing that can happen is that you get your mind off of the craziness in the world for a few minutes. The best thing that can happen is that you’ll realize that that’s the point 

 

God’s Time is the Right Time: Part 1

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Hurry Up and Wait – September 2019

I remember the days when I traveled for work, especially during the wintertime. Bad weather and long delays at airports ruled the day. Despite the fact that neither I nor my fellow passengers had any control over snowstorms and flight schedules, the collective mood at the gate was always tense, frustrating, and stressful.

Our lives are filled with these types of “hurry up and wait” moments. We’ve all experienced the frustration of hustling to get ready for work just to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic because of an accident on the freeway.  Some of us have experienced rushing a loved one to the emergency room only to wait for hours as doctors tended to sicker patients. Circumstances that we have no power over always seem to irritate us the most.

For the majority of my 56 years, I’ve been an impatient man. I’m a product of the “I want it and I want it now” baby boom generation willing to work hard, but reluctant to let God manage the schedule. Life experience and witnessing the wonder of God’s will when everything seemed hopeless have significantly toned down my generational want of instant gratification.

It took many years and countless flights to accept the reality of unpredictable air travel. Once the realization that I had no control over how airlines managed schedules disrupted by weather, the anxiety that comes with unexpected delays no longer ruined my time at a busy airport. Endless days in the hospital further strengthened my patience and taught me to embrace the power of accepting God’s timeline.

I’m now in the most consequential hurry up and wait moment of my life. I’m waiting for a heart. Physically and emotionally, no other challenge has been harder. My daily routine is dominated by keeping the rest of my body strong and healthy. My thoughts seesaw from the anticipation of getting “the call” to the mixed-feelings that come with knowing someone will lose a life to save mine.

To complicate matters, management of the transplant list is complex. It’s not like waiting for your turn in line for a ride at Disneyland. That’s why it’s impossible to predict when a transplant will happen. The criteria for placement on the list are developed by the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

To begin with, there are three major considerations. First, the heart donor and the recipient must have the same blood type. Second, the donor and the recipient need to be about the same size. Third, the donor and recipient should be relatively close in distance to ensure that the heart is strong when it arrives at the recipient’s hospital.

The criteria developed by OPTN to determine in what order heart transplant recipients are selected include the following 6 categories (Status 1 patients are first in line):

Status 1:   The patient is in the hospital and connected to an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine. The ECMO does the work for the heart and lungs and is necessary to keep the patient alive.

Status 2:   The patient is in the hospital with a LVAD heart pump that has malfunctioned and isn’t working properly or the patient’s heart rhythm can’t be managed by medication or a pacemaker.

Status 3:   The patient is not in the hospital, has an implanted LVAD heart pump, and is qualified to be placed on a 30-day priority list. This puts the patient first in line if there are no Status 1 or Status 2 patients in the hospital.

Status 4:   The patient is not in the hospital, has an implanted LVAD heart pump, isn’t on a 30-day priority list, and is otherwise healthy.

Status 5:   The patient needs more than one organ transplanted.

Status 6:   The patient is a candidate for a heart transplant.

With that being crystal clear (LOL), it might make some sense how my 16-month journey on the transplant list has been quite an emotional adventure.  After a rigorous 7-month evaluation period, I qualified for the list in late October 2018. I was excited about the prospect of getting a new heart, but the excitement only lasted for about a week.

Some 10 days later, the heart transplant team implanted a LVAD pump to help my heart function while I’m on the waitlist. At that time, the team deactivated my placement on the list until the chest wound fully healed from the LVAD surgery. During the spring of 2019, the doctors determined that I had fully recovered. I was overjoyed by the thought of being reactivated on the list. But…

During the November operation, my lungs reacted negatively to the surgery and made the procedure challenging. Although doctors proactively addressed the lung issues, they remained concerned about the health of my lungs as they deliberated over the decision to reactivate. With that in mind, the team recommended a reevaluation of my lung function before placing me back on the list. My joy quickly turned into uncertainty.

Four more months of lung function tests and medication adjustments followed. In August 2019, the lungs received a clean bill of health. I was reactivated on the transplant list as a Status 4 patient. I had a well-functioning LVAD and in general good health. It was in an ideal situation. Doctors could be strategic about when to implement the 30-day priority status. I felt confident about the path forward.

Later that fall, the cardiology team decided that the time was right to kick in the 30-day priority option and elevate me to Status 3. There were no Status 1 or Status 2 patients in the hospital at the time. I was next in line for someone with my blood type and size. A million thoughts raced through my mind. I was excited, scared, nervous, and grateful all at once.

A mere 15 hours after being bumped up to priority status, a cardiologist from the Stanford transplant team called at 1:00 AM to let me know that a match had been identified. He asked that I report to the Stanford Hospital cardiac unit at 10:00 AM later that morning to prepare for surgery. After 7 sleepless hours, I showered, packed a small bag, and let the girls know what was happening.

Shortly before 9:00 AM, Sandra and I were on the freeway heading north on U.S. 101. It felt like the longest 40-minute drive of our lives.

********

To be continued…

2020 Vision

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Christmas Eve – 2019

New Year’s Eve was my dad’s favorite day of the year. Other notable days on the calendar – his birthday, St. Valentine’s Day, Easter, 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas – were just like any other day. While he recognized those dates as important, his way of celebrating them seemed obligatory at best. New Year’s Eve was different. He celebrated the end of the year with joy. His charming smile and mischievous eyes carried the day.

At first glance, it appeared as though his fondness for the year’s farewell was rooted in the revelry that followed. But that wasn’t the reason. My dad never met a party that he didn’t love. With some music and a little alcohol, he could turn any gathering into a full-fledged bash. I think that there was something about washing away the challenges of the previous year and getting a fresh start that ignited his imagination.

When I was a young man, I too reveled in the celebratory trappings of New Year’s Eve, partying into the night and wee hours of the morning setting fire to the past. That changed as I got older and built a family with Sandra. Other than midnight hugs and kisses, the passing of another year is merely one more day for our extended family to share time together.

On that note, the ritual of making a New Year’s resolution never really appealed to me. Like a political purist protesting for a cause, I stubbornly refused to participate in the annual tradition of promising to do something that surely wouldn’t be accomplished. For me, a New Year’s resolution was a delusion of grandeur that usually and ultimately resulted in disappointment and self-judgment.

About 15 years ago, I learned how to write a Personal Vision and Mission Statement while participating in an executive training program. The statement looks like the outline students are supposed to prepare before writing a term paper in English composition class. Here’s how it works: The vision is like a thesis statement and the mission provides the main points and body of evidence for the essay.

I primarily used this technique to create a roadmap for my career. I updated it on an annual basis after analyzing the previous year’s goals and objectives. It worked like magic. Within 6 years, I achieved a professional stature that was unimaginable as a kid or college student. After my 2010 medical crisis, I reworked the statement and began using it as New Year’s resolution to manage heart failure and my personal life.

For 8 years, I made minor adjustments as circumstances didn’t change much. I didn’t update my personal vision and mission last December because I was fresh out of LVAD surgery nursing an open chest wound and learning how to live with a mechanical pump attached to my heart. With the passing of each month in 2019, I was feeling better and growing stronger. By mid-summer, I was on autopilot.

During the last quarter of 2019, monthly cardiologist appointments continued to go well. Blood tests were consistently positive and daily walks were better than ever. Yet, I was off balance. There was the close call for a heart transplant in late September and then…nothing. After that, I increasingly felt like a rudderless boat floating aimlessly in calm waters. Life went on for everyone else, but stood still for me.

When the rains came, I didn’t walk as much as usual. Just before Thanksgiving, my father-in-law was waging the last battle of his life. December started with funeral preparations and Christmas caught us all by surprise. The carefree summer on autopilot changed into an early winter rut. I turned to my personal vision and mission statement for guidance. None was forthcoming. The annual tweaks no longer made sense.

I spent New Year’s Eve in deep thought, brooding over a lifetime of mistakes and “what ifs.”  The year 2019 began with the basics – working to regain the strength I lost during a difficult surgery – and finished with no end in sight to my current health situation. I was looking 2020 squarely in the eyes with no vision for my life. When I tucked into bed at 2:00 AM, I resolved to completely rework my personal vision and mission statement.

I dedicated the late morning hours of 2020 to that task. For a decade and a half, I’ve shared this most intimate working document with no one. Today, I put myself on blast sharing my vision, mission, and modus operandi for the year ahead. I would like to give readers some insight into how to turn a resolution into an action plan and give some hope to those facing life’s challenges.

My personal vision for 2020 is to live a full life while preparing for the next phase of my health journey. To accomplish this, my mission is to nourish my body, mind, and soul on a daily basis.

During the final months of 2019, my routine was void of intellectual curiosity. I spent hours channel surfing and social media scrolling. Reading was limited to periodic articles in magazines and the internet. The last entry on this blog was 73 days ago and I spent little time interacting with friends and family. In 2020 I will feed my mind by reading at least one book per month and writing at least 500 words per day. I plan to post regularly on ESEReport.com and participate in dialogue with others on issues of the day.

I also intend to strengthen my body in the coming year. My heart and lungs struggled during surgery last fall. With God’s grace, the rest of my organs, tissues, bones, and muscles were strong enough to withstand the challenges. My 2020 plan includes a low-fat and moderate-salt diet, plenty of water to stay hydrated, 7,500 steps per day, and light resistance exercises a few times per week.

By digging deeper into the words of St. Paul the Apostle and the Buddha, I’ve made amazing progress on my spiritual journey. In 2020, I’ll take care of my soul with the daily Gospel, morning prayers, and meditation. Reflecting on the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism will come to the rescue when desire for something or another inevitably rears its ugly head. Being present for my family and mentoring Latina and Latino emerging leaders will continue to be the centerpiece of my passions.

I know that my plans can come to screeching halt when a donor heart becomes available. I subconsciously sat around waiting for that day to come for the last few months of 2019. With my 2020 personal vision, mission, goals and objectives complete, I’m entering the new decade with faith, hope, and love. I will carry on with gusto day-to-day until God reveals his plans for the next phase of my journey.

 

 

 

Hope = S + E + C (Part 2)

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I’m goofing around while leaving the hospital on August 20, 2019

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”

~ Romans 5:3-4

***

Early in our relationship, Sandra showed her deep understanding of faith and hope with a strip of paper she lovingly put into the palm of my hand. She was just in her early-20s, but already endowed with precocious good judgment. I was a few years older with a swagger in my step, a chip on my shoulder, and determination in my eyes. I was confident that ambition and hard work would secure a successful future.

On that slip of paper were 15 words of wisdom: “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% of how you react to it.” Sandra offered this wise advice as a tool to relieve the obsessive resolve that would consume me when someone or something posed a threat to my progress. She folded the ticket-sized document, placed it in my wallet, and encouraged me to reflect on it when anxiety reared its ugly head.

I cherished that piece of paper because Sandra gave it to me. But, I didn’t take the advice. For years it stayed in my wallet while my reaction to challenges remained unchanged. When my brothers-in-law playfully tossed me into a swimming pool fully clothed one summer, the fragile document disintegrated in the water. Nevertheless, Sandra’s gift stayed on my mind. Unfortunately, its lessons didn’t.

My spiritual journey inspired me to research where the quote came from. An American Christian evangelist named Charles Swindoll said it during a sermon on hope. It was his action-oriented response to St. Paul’s assertion that “suffering produces endurance.” In other words, we shouldn’t surrender to suffering by giving up. We should carry on by building character and giving ourselves hope.

St. Paul’s definition of hope and Swindoll’s guidance to persist positively in the face of hopelessness bring to mind the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Those Truths teach us that (1) suffering is a fact of life, (2) not getting what we want causes suffering, (3) removing the desire to get what we want can end suffering, and (4) living a meaningful life is the way to take away desire.

I got a chance to try out these ideas a couple of months ago. Doctors were concerned that I was developing an infection and admitted me into the hospital for preventive doses of antibiotics and additional testing (see “Hope=S+E+C, Part 1” https://esereport.com/2019/08/28/hope-sec-part-1/). Encouraging Sandra to go home and get some rest, I found myself in a dark hospital room alone with my thoughts.

Those who have spent any amount of time in a hospital know that it’s not a pleasant experience. In addition to the pain and discomfort caused by illness, a black cloud of worry and doubt hangs over you. It’s the anxiety of being confined and not knowing the outcome that cause people to say things like, “I hate hospitals. I wouldn’t be able to stay there very long. I just want to go home.”

That’s how I felt when the doctor told me that I could be in the hospital for an undetermined amount of time. The best case scenario was that I would be free of infection and go home after 3 days. The worst case was having a bad infection that would require surgery to cut out the contamination. That option would create a new set of issues. The prospect of surgery intensified my sense of uncertainty.

I had no desire to be in this situation. In the darkness of the room, I prayed on St. Paul’s meaning of hope, reflected on the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, and thought about the words of wisdom Sandra shared with me on that slip of paper over 30 years ago. The facts were clear, though. I was in the hospital with a potential infection (10%), but it was my choice on how to react to it (90%).

I decided to concentrate on the 90%. I would make the best of the situation and just go with it. I knew the routine: lights out around 10:00 PM, shift change at 11:00 PM, IV medication change around 2:00 AM, blood draw for labs at 4:00 AM, morning medication at 6:00 AM, and doctor’s rounds between 8:00 AM and 9:00 AM. Once the morning shift starts, it gets really busy. It sure sounds like a funny way to get rest.

Since I knew what was coming, I figured I could make the time pass by catching up with those who cared for me in November and getting to know the folks I hadn’t met yet. Seeing familiar faces, I retold the tall tales of 2010 and the previous fall, talked about politics, and learned more about my condition. I took several walks each day running into yet more people on the healthcare team. This might sound a little weird, but it was like a homecoming.

When I was alone in the room, I read, watched the news, and kept up with social media. Even though the place is more expensive than the Four Seasons, accommodations sucked, the food was lousy, and I didn’t feel all that well. Despite the downside, I stayed focused on the people. They’re consummate professionals and caring human beings.

They made me feel like the most important person in the world whenever they walked into the room. So much so, I wanted to do the same. The hours flew by. When Sandra came after work, we caught up on our days. I updated her on the doctor’s morning analysis and she shared war stories from her busy day at the office. If it wasn’t for the uncomfortable bed and the IV needle sticking out of my arm, the evenings were like any other we spent at home.

All in all, I spent 3 nights and 3 days in the cardiac unit at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center. When the smoked cleared, I was free of infection. Many people would say that God answered our prayers because it ended the way we wanted. Of course, that’s true. But it’s more than that. God answered my prayers by allowing me to focus on each moment as it passed, rather than worry about an unknown outcome.

Spending time alone gave me the opportunity to think about how chronic illness, a broken relationship, a job loss, a car crash, a natural disaster, or just about anything that goes against what we want can change everything in an instant. That’s the 10% of life Pastor Swindoll talks about. We don’t have much control over those things. Yet, we spend so much energy and time trying to control them.

I also spent much time thinking about St. Paul and the Buddha while in the hospital. Both spiritual leaders believe that life is all about how we respond to suffering. Paul tells us that it leads to endurance, character, and hope – the certainty that God does what’s just. Buddha tells us that suffering can be overcome by minimizing the desires that cause so much havoc in our lives.

Mick Jagger poetically put it this way, “you can’t always get what you want.” But that’s okay. That’s better than okay. It keeps us balanced in a world fraught with desire. We want our loved ones to live forever. We want that car, that partner, that bank account, that house, that job, we want that ad infinitum. When we don’t get what we want, we become angry, sad, disappointed, and frustrated. That’s why we suffer.

Armed with new tools to manage the unknown, I left the hospital with a sense of a relief and gratitude. I was joking around and saying goodbye to the amazing cardiac unit team as a volunteer pushed the wheelchair through the hallway to the elevator that would take me down to the first floor and out to the car. God willing, I will see everyone again soon when I return to recover from heart transplant surgery.

In the meantime, I’m taking it day by day. Although that slip of paper Sandra gave to me so many years ago is long gone, its words are forever seared in my heart and soul. “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% of how you react to it.” For 3 nights and 3 days that strategy worked for me in the hospital.

As usual, Sandra is right. I hate when that happens!

 

Hope = S+E+C (part 1)

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Sandra, Erica, and me at Oracle Park – August 10, 2019

A few weeks ago, Sandra, Erica, and I spent the afternoon with our compadres and their family in San Francisco watching our beloved Giants. It was an awesome day hanging out with dear friends and watching great baseball. Given the nature of my health challenges over the years, I felt incredibly blessed to be among the more than 39,000 people cheering on our team on a beautiful day.

Between laughs, ooohs and aaaahs, and a couple of handfuls of Cracker Jacks, my attention drifted to the journey that brought me to that seat in Oracle Park. I thought about my heyday on the diamond. I was the winning pitcher in our Little League championship game when I was 12 and selected captain of the high school varsity team. I chuckled at my own self-perceived brush with baseball immortality.

In spite of those youthful illusions of grandeur, the role competitive athletics played in my life has been more impactful than any algebra equation or geometry formula I may have scribbled on a piece of scratch paper in high school. Let’s see… (2x+3) (x2) = whatever Mr. Neff said it did.

Mr. Harris: What is the area of that circle?

Eddie: Um…I dunno, Mr. Harris.

Mr. Harris: Try this. π =π(radius)= πr2

Eddie: Um…I think it’s a pretty big circle, Mr. Harris.

It became clear early on that math wasn’t my strong suit. I wasn’t that good of an athlete either. But there was something thrilling about throwing a slider toward home plate against a big hitter or stealing a pass from a smooth point guard. More times than not, the guy on the other side of the ball got the best of me. Nevertheless, competitive sports taught me how to handle situations that didn’t go so well.

After a bad day on the free throw line or in the batter’s box, the coach would rally me and my teammates by encouraging each player to “stay with it and keep true to yourself.” That was the formula to overcoming obstacles and rising from the ashes of defeat. That coaching point came in handy when I was fighting to overcome a college setback, political defeats, and career disappointments.

Now I’m in yet another competitive contest. St. Paul and the Buddha have been my coaches throughout this fight. In his fifth letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” If I could recreate his text into an algebraic equation, here’s what it would look like: Hope=S+E+C.

Wait! What? Rejoice in our sufferings? Was St. Paul kidding when he wrote that? Who in their right mind wants to rejoice in suffering? Like a good mathematical equation, the first variable doesn’t make sense when standing alone. We all experience suffering. That’s just the way it is. My spiritual journey has taught me that faith – accepting what is – is the first step to understanding the formula that leads to hope.

Hope is a tricky word. We use hope as a synonym for want or wish. In fact, Webster’s dictionary defines hope as, “a desire of some good.” I’ve always used it in that way. I hope my daughters are healthy, happy, and successful. I hope the Giants win the World Series this year. I hope that I get a new heart soon. What I’m really saying is, “I want, I desire, I wish.” If those things don’t happen, disappointment is soon to follow.

St. Paul has an entirely different definition. He gives a comforting perspective on hope. He tells us that having hope is being certain that whatever barrier life presents is going to work out according to God’s plan for us, rather than what we want for ourselves. In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that there’s a “sure hope of a glorious future” for those who have faith. Does that mean everything will always go our way? No, it doesn’t. It means that everything will go God’s way. That’s where hope comes in.

Throughout my journey, I’ve struggled to wrap my mind around the concept that hope is a certainty, not a desire. Exactly one week after that amazing weekend in San Francisco, the true meaning of hope hit me with a clarity that only God can deliver. That day, another health uncertainty loomed over what started as a wonderful day.

Sandra and I had just finished watching a movie and walked through the mall to get something to eat for dinner. For a couple of days, I felt tenderness around the skin near the opening in my abdomen where an electrical wire that powers the heart pump enters my body. The wire is called a driveline. The area needs to be cleaned and dressed every other day to ensure that an infection doesn’t grow there.

If not addressed immediately, an infected open wound could quickly develop into sepsis, a potentially fatal poisoning of the bloodstream. Keeping that area clean and sterile is a serious matter. A driveline infection is one of the leading causes of re-hospitalization for LVAD patients. Sandra and I had effectively managed the open wound, which helped me avoid spending even a single day in the hospital.

As we walked out of the theater after the film, I mentioned to Sandra that the driveline was sore to the touch. Together, we inspected the dressing and noticed an unusual amount of discharge on the bandage. This was definitely not a good sign. I called the LVAD clinic hotline, described the situation, and sent photos of the affected area.

After a few minutes on the phone, the advice from the LVAD team was to enjoy dinner, clean the driveline and change the dressing when we got home, and visit the doctor’s office in the morning. All went according to plan. In the clinic the next morning, the LVAD physician assistant took more pictures, dressed the wound, and sent me to the lab to draw blood.

While I waited for my turn to get poked by a needle, the cell phone in my pocket started to buzz. It was the physician assistant. He informed me that the cardiologist reviewed the images. He advised that I stand by after doing the blood work. The doctor decided to admit me into the hospital. Driveline infections could be dangerous, he continued, so the team didn’t want to take any chances.

There it was. Bam! Another blow to the gut! Just like that, I had no control of what would happen next. My response on the phone was, “Are you serious?” The answer on the other line was brief. “Yes, we’re waiting for a room to become available.” I called Sandra to share the news and waited some more. A few minutes later, as I watched blood flow from my veins into a bunch of test tubes, I thought about how the change of events put me into another phase of uncertainty.

For the first time in 9 months, I had to shed regular clothes to don the thin light blue cotton hospital gown that symbolizes the anxiety that comes with confinement. I’d been here before. One hundred six days in the summer of 2010. Four separate visits in 2018 as my heart showed signs of wear and tear. Twenty-six days in November of that same year. Each time the prospect of never leaving hung over me like a black cloud.

This time, I was armed with the wisdom of St. Paul the Apostle and the Buddha. Faith and hope were intertwined in a spiritual dance that would mold my outlook on the latest crisis. When the nurses came into the room to prepare for the stay, they put me at ease immediately. They recalled rooting for my recovery during those harrowing days last fall. Though not happy about the circumstances, they greeted me with cheerful smiles. “Hi Mr. García, it’s good to see you doing so well.”

Doing so well? That was reassuring and uplifted my spirits. Other than the tenderness near the driveline wound, I was thriving. After LVAD surgery, I’ve spent quality time with Sandra and the girls. I walk every day. I continue to pursue my passion for working with and mentoring emerging Latina and Latino leaders. I’ve gone to the ballpark, the movies, and danced at family gatherings.

Standing in the hospital room, I accepted that something was not right. It was out of my hands. I left it to God to make sure that the doctors were taking the prudent course of action. While the cardiology team analyzed results of the blood cultures to confirm or rule out an infection, they pumped antibiotics into my bloodstream to fight whatever contamination that might have been brewing.

The nurses completed their work prepping for what was ahead. I had two IV needles fused into my wrist. The familiar and depressing sights, sounds, and smells of a hospital room closed in on me like a sterile vice. This time was different though. Instead of descending into the darkness of despair and uncertainty, I rejoiced in my suffering. I knew that this would make me stronger and give me the spirit to soldier on. I was hopeful.

 

 

 

 

 

God’s Grace is Sufficient (Part 2)

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“A revitalizing breeze swept through me and the bright sun covered my back like a warm blanket. At that moment, I felt the presence of God.”

Click here for God’s Grace is Sufficient (Part 1)

https://esereport.com/2019/07/29/gods-grace-is-sufficient-part-1/

***

I put on a black t-shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and black Nike quarter socks. I transferred the LVAD equipment from the satchel to a backpack especially made to carry the VAD’s controller and batteries. With the backpack in place, I laced up a pair of black Nike cross-training shoes, grabbed my sunglasses, smart phone, earplugs, a baseball cap, and water bottle.

I set the hat on my head, situated my shades, and opened the front door. I love listening to music when walking, so I connected to the Spotify app on my cell. On the heels of the good news from my cardiologist, I was upbeat and in the mood for James Brown. The earplugs were in place and JB’s funky classic “Get on the Good Foot” blasted in my ears as I briskly strolled down the driveway ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgGwI12zMJg).

I followed my usual route to Evergreen Park, a little more than 2 miles away. From the house, I went to the end of my neighborhood, crossed a small bridge, hiked on the Montgomery Hill trail through Evergreen Valley College, and navigated a busy intersection before getting to the park. Along the way, my midsection began to tense up a little. James Brown’s iconic screams were fading in my ears as my gait slowed.

I tried to figure out why I was feeling that way. My mind had been in turmoil for some time until the phone call from the heart clinic. Impulsively, it was on a high because the news was good. Faith isn’t supposed work that way. True faith is about standing strong while in the farthest corners of uncertainty. Yet here I was, celebrating a desired result shortly after weeks of doubt. Maybe I hadn’t learned anything about faith at all.

When I arrived at the park, I found a concrete table and bench shaded by a small grove of trees. I sat down to gather my thoughts and reflected on the story about how St. Paul the Apostle prayed three times pleading with God to take out a thorn stuck in his body. After the third request, God responded by saying, “My grace is sufficient, my power is made perfect in weakness.” This profound sentence has been the foundation of my spiritual education.

Here’s the thing about faith. It’s not a singular encounter or destination. It’s a long and winding road littered with debris like chronic disease, failed love affairs, job loss, a sick child, or death. The list is endless. Every time we think we’ve discovered the mystery of faith, the world throws something in our paths and we’re back in the spin cycle of worry and fear.

Catholic teaching has been part of my life since childhood. With that said, my journey has taught me that faith isn’t just a religious experience. Religion needs faith more than faith needs religion. People with different worldviews might not believe in God in the religious sense. But, there are things we just can’t comprehend or control. Faith provides answers to these unanswerable questions. Call it what you want – fate, the universe, the Creator. I call this mysterious force God.

Sitting on the concrete table with my feet on the park bench, memories of my darkest moments came to mind. Nine years ago doctors told me that I was having a heart attack in the emergency room. A week later, my heart suddenly stopped beating. Shortly thereafter, I felt a breathing tube snake down my throat before going into an induced coma. During each of those events, I was physically weak and in control of nothing.

Faith hadn’t even entered my vocabulary at that time. There had been no spiritual journey yet. I had no say in the situation. God promised St. Paul that “my power is made perfect in weakness.” In the absolute weakest and most hopeless days and nights of my life, the forces of faith washed over me. Without my participation, God handed over control to healthcare providers so they could collaborate with Him to save my life.

As these flashbacks ran through my mind, a revitalizing breeze swept through me and the bright sun covered my back like a warm blanket. At that moment, I felt the presence of God and reflected on what He has taught me about following the trail of faith. One thing is for sure. Nothing is permanent. Unexpected obstacles come and go and instances of triumph are only temporary. We need faith always.

Unfortunately, most of us practice situational faith. When in dire straits, we call on God for intervention and proclaim our faith. When success and accomplishment win the day, we thank God and proclaim our faith. That’s what happened to me after hearing good news about the transplant. For nearly a month and a half as I anxiously completed test after test and awaited the results, my faith was in short supply .

Minutes before I stopped to sit on the concrete table in Evergreen Park, my stomach churned and my mind wandered. With the sun’s warming rays showering over me and a light wind brushing my face, God reminded me what faith is all about. There are things that we just can’t control. We have the power to do the best we can with the tools God gave us to handle in any situation. We have to surrender the rest to God, fate, the cosmos, the Creator – whatever we want to call it – and accept the results.

I did everything in my control to give myself a chance to enhance the probability of getting reactivated on the transplant list. The doctors did too. Instead of leaving the rest to God, I spent days and weeks worrying about what might be. I allowed the forces of doubt, anxiety, worry, and fear to hijack my psyche. Despite my amazing journey, I reverted to worldly instincts and didn’t allow faith to combat those forces.

When my cardiologist called with good news, I immediately thanked God. But, my gratitude was for the wrong reason. I thanked Him for the results I wanted. I had forgotten that surrendering to Him and accepting the results is the true meaning of faith. My uneasiness during the walk reminded me of that. I got caught up into the vortex of desire – I want – instead of trusting what is.

We all succumb to the ways of the world. When good things happen we’re happy. Other days are awful and we become sad or angry. We look for many ways to turn bad days into good days. We have parties. We buy that dream something or other. We get a new hair style. We thank God for getting what we want. The list goes on and on and on. We feel better until the cycle starts again.

Having faith means getting off of that merry-go-round. Having faith is hard work, though. We have to practice it every day. I learned another big lesson sitting in the park. The phrase, “it is what it is’” isn’t just something we say when throwing up our hands in defeat. It should be used when we leave our destiny in God’s hands once we’ve done everything in our command.

Before I stood up to continue my walk, I again made the sign of the cross and thanked God. This time, I expressed my appreciation for reminding me to trust and accept His will. I thanked Him for giving me another moment of life and giving me the strength to face any new challenge He puts in my path.

In terms of my health, I still have a long way to go. I’ll keep doing all I can to help doctors guide me on the right track for a successful transplant. The rest I’ll leave to God. With faith on my side, I can fight the doubt and worry demons and keep them from getting in the way of basking in the glory of love, family, and friendship. It won’t be easy. That I know.

I started back across the park, through the busy intersection, and onto the trail through the college campus. Changing the music from the Godfather of Soul to the Great Bear of Baroque, George Frideric Handel, I approached the bridge that leads back into my neighborhood. I had a little skip in my as step I marched triumphantly over the creek with Handel’s “Messiah” blaring in my ears (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usfiAsWR4qU) .

My exhilaration wasn’t due to the cardiologist’s good news. I celebrated because God reminded me of the most important lesson learned on my road to spiritual discovery. His grace is sufficient. It doesn’t matter what the future holds for me. The final outcome isn’t in my hands anyway. I just need to go with it and fully appreciate and enjoy the life He has given.

God’s Grace is Sufficient (Part 1)

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Looking out to my backyard on a beautiful summer day

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting alone at the kitchen counter hunched over a bowl of oatmeal, bananas, blueberries, and walnuts. I stared out through the kitchen bay window at the backyard garden above the retaining wall. A hummingbird was hovering over the yellow hibiscus flowers and miniature red roses that were in full bloom. As I dipped the spoon into the hot cereal, I was lost in thought.

I was thinking of the 4th of July week. Erica has been home plotting her next move after graduating from college. Marisa flew in from New York to spend time with us and Sandra took the week off. Movies, dinners, binge-watching Netflix, and an annual Independence Day campout with family and friends filled our days and nights. We shared many laughs, recounted old stories, and created new ones.

People always say that having a great time surrounded by family and friends is supposed to be the very essence of what defines happiness. Social media posts abound confirming that belief. Yet, throughout that week and the next, a faint gnawing churned in my stomach. The good times and the wonderful company merely masked what was going on in my mind.

While sipping water with my breakfast, my attention turned to why I wasn’t overwhelmed with cheer. The past 9 years have been a bumpy ride. There was the horrifying summer of 2010 followed by 8 years of managing heart failure. Dealing with medication, exercise, and diet filled my daily to-do list. Maintaining a disciplined routine worked until my heart started showing signs of severe wear and tear.

An expectation of better days ahead came last fall when I qualified to be placed on a heart transplant list. In the meantime, a surgically implanted LVAD mechanical heart pump would keep me stable until a donor heart became available. My heart and lungs decided not to cooperate with the surgery, so the ride got bumpy again. Five days of uncertainty evaporated the hope of a smooth transition.

The road back from the complicated surgery in November has been steady. I feel better than I have in years. Getting reactivated on the transplant list is the next step for me. But first, doctors wanted to make sure that my lungs could get through another major open-heart operation. That meant another round of tests and more evaluation.

The anticipation of getting back on the list had been weighing on me for the better part of a month. The festive week with the girls being home and the family campout provided some relief. But, the fact is that I’m sick, very sick. Reality is always there slung over my shoulder in a black satchel that carries the equipment connected to the LVAD attached to my heart.

There are no days off living with advanced heart failure. Taking a “cheat day” from my strict diet isn’t an option. It’s low-salt, low fat for every meal every day. Relaxing and unwinding over a couple of cocktails after a long day is out of the question. Forget hot dogs and beer on the 4th of July. While coping with the physical challenges of the illness is extremely difficult, the psychological and emotional impact can be paralyzing.

The American Heart Association estimates that nearly 40% of patients with chronic heart disease suffer from depression. Anxiety and other psychological maladies make that number even bigger. Throughout my illness, I’ve waged a brutal battle with depression and anxiety. For years, I struggled to comprehend why this all happened to me. I resented being “cut off” at the prime of my life. These kinds of thoughts are common for someone with a chronic illness.

After finishing the oatmeal, I stood at the sink washing the bowl, spoon, and water glass. I reminded myself that I’ve been on a 9-year journey to learn how faith can help conquer those destructive thoughts. Throughout my trek through spiritual self-discovery, faith has helped me rise above the negative spirits that occupy my soul.

Nevertheless, while staring out the window again, the demons danced around my head. What if the tests showed that my lungs couldn’t handle another major surgery? What if the CT Scan of my chest revealed scarring from nearly a decade of the heart and lungs struggling to keep me alive? What if I have to be on the LVAD for the rest of what’s sure to be a short life?

I focused on taking steady breaths as I wiped the dishes with a dry towel. I’d been in this place of doubt plenty of times. The evil spirits in my mind were trying to pull me in a downward spiral. I was pulling in the other direction to lift myself up to a place of calm and trust. Since I embarked on this journey, faith always swept in to save the moment. This time, faith came through again.

Feeling less anxious, I sat on the family room sofa and turned on the morning news. I always do this before going on my daily walk to check in to see what kind of mess Donald Trump has caused. Suddenly, my cell skipped on the coffee table as the vibration mode indicated that a call was coming in. The number on the caller ID was all too familiar: +1 (408) 851-1000, Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center.

The digits on the caller ID displayed the medical center’s general number. The person on the other end could be any one of the people on the amazing team of professionals managing my healthcare. I get regular calls from the team. Scheduling appointments, sharing lab results, or giving instructions for the next exam are typical topics during the calls.

Earlier that morning, my cardiologist was scheduled to present my reactivation case to Stanford, the location of the transplant surgery. I expected him to call, but not until later in the day. As I reached for the smart phone, the demons began their dance again. Is it the cardiologist? Does he have good news? Does he have bad news? Was the meeting cancelled?

When I answered, it was the doctor’s soothing voice that greeted me. It was good news. The laboratory results were positive. The lungs were stable. Everything looked good. And, oh yeah, my name was reactivated on the heart transplant list effective immediately. I expressed my deepest gratitude to him and his team for caring for me with such commitment and professionalism.

I sat back on the comfy couch, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I thanked God, made the sign of the cross, and took another deep breath. When I emerged from that serene moment, I called Sandra to share the doctor’s update. I don’t exactly remember her response, but I could feel her warm hugs through the smart phone. I sent texts to the girls next. After exchanging celebratory messages with them, I went to the bedroom to get ready for my walk.

To be continued…