All posts by eddiemgarcia

2021 is Here: Now What?

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” ~Jospeph Campbell, Philosopher and Mythologist

***

The other night, I had a short dream about me and my late father-in-law. He was 81 years old when he passed away a little more than a year ago. We were about 15-20 years younger in the dream. Although Sandra’s dad was small in stature, his work ethic, humility, and quiet strength made him a giant of a man. Few words were needed for him to express approval, disappointment, encouragement, or mischievousness. His eyes and a simple nod of his head spoke volumes.

The dream reminded me of a time in my life that was full of opportunity and professional excitement. I was in my late 30s, confident and a little full of myself. Providing for my family, working my way up the corporate ladder, and serving the community in a variety of ways were priorities. My father-in-law looked like he was in his early 60s, full of life enjoying retirement and the fruits of his labors as a cement mason.

He was from the same region in Mexico where my grandmother spent her childhood. I loved hearing stories about his boyhood and he loved telling them. We also talked about politics, history, and current events, usually while grilling ribs on the barbecue pit or around the dining room table over rounds of Budwiser, Coors Light, or Corona. In the middle of me waxing eloquent about some historical event, he would suggest another round of beers with a simple nod, raised eyebrows, and encouraging eyes. It was his way of asking, “Are you ready?”

Despite these shared interests, we couldn’t be more different on the surface. He was great with his hands and could build or fix anything. I can’t hammer a nail straight into a piece of wood to save my life. He was soft-spoken and I’m outspoken. When he talked, it was mostly in Spanish. English is my language of choice. With a few too many beers under our belts, we would switch languages and howl with laughter at each other’s attempts to tell a funny story. 

Perhaps our biggest difference was in the way we approached life. He was a steady as he goes kind of guy. I’m a dreamer. He worked in concrete construction for over thirty years. I’ve had no less than 5 professions in the same span of time. Throughout my career, each day brought new experiences. Without fail, he awoke before dawn, labored in the elements all day, had dinner with his family, and watched the news and novelas before going to bed.

I admire how he just got it done, day in and day out. He was a prolific cement mason on large industrial projects and especially talented working small side jobs. With perfectionism and creativity, each patio, driveway, sidewalk he did was a work of art. I’m sure he didn’t plan for that life when he was a boy in Sonora, Mexico. Per the old Mexican saying, he took it un dia a la vez – one day at a time.

His story brought to life philosopher and mythologist Joseph Campbell’s classic quote. This kind of philosophical outlook builds resilience and strength. We spend too much time trying to mold our lives into the “perfect” life of meticulously designed happiness. When the inevitable unplanned event happens, we grow uncertain, unhappy, and frustrated. Last year was the perfect example.

2020 started with the optimism of a year befitting a symbolic and symmetrical number. Before the first month was out, we experienced the tip of a global pandemic iceberg. It all went downhill from there. Before long, “Covid Fatigue” had set in. As a society, we opted not to take it un dia a la vez. Any possibility of resilience and strength gave way to vulnerability and weakness. People were uncertain, unhappy, and frustrated.  

Ironically, 2020 was actually a pretty darn good year for me. On January 1, 2020, a titanium pump was still attached to the lower left side of my heart to help my seriously diseased heart circulate blood throughout my body. On April 16, 2020, I had a heart transplant and a new lease on life. By New Year’s Day 2021, I felt physically and mentally stronger than I could ever imagine 365 days earlier.

I paint a rosy picture of a wonderful and blissful year. Of course, that wasn’t the case. It doesn’t account for an extremely difficult transplant recovery. Physical and mental challenges in the aftermath of surgery consumed me so much that it may have been God’s way of protecting me from the darkness of world events. With or without Covid and smoke from devastating fires, I had to shelter in place.

I had the luxury of taking that solitary time to read, think, and reflect. My ancestral and cultural  “one day at a time” belief system started to sink in. We have no power over future or past events. The Lord’s Prayer even tells us to ask God to, “give us this day,” not yesterday, not tomorrow...this day. The pandemic, political nonsense, and fires were out of my control, so why worry about such things.   

2021 is finally here. Now what?

I’m sure that millions of us will resolve to eat better and become physically fit in the new year. Other resolutions probably include things like working toward career advancement, finding love, pursuing a lifelong passion. Then the first week of 2021 came. The optimism that blew air into the 2021 balloon on New Year’s Eve developed a slow leak before we could recover from the 2020 hangover.

Like many of you, I sat stunned, saddened, and angry watching the images on TV of modern-day barbarians sacking the symbol of democracy and freedom. I’m a Mexican American eastside Yankee Doodle Dandy with a deep love and profound respect for the traditions and institutions that secure our American way of life. As my anger grew, my thoughts turned to the spiritual journey that has given faith, hope, and love to my life. 

My anger and sadness began to drift away. I learned the lessons of 2020 well. I had no control over the awful images that came from the Capitol and have zero power over what happens in the days to come. All I have is today. “Give us this day…” I’m resolved to use the remaining 351 days of 2021, a day at a time, to explore ideas that lead to a deeper understanding of life and inner peace. 

That’s just a fancy way of saying that I will look for ways to keep the bullshit that causes emotional pain from taking control of my thoughts. Inspirational memes, superficial feel-good rah rahs, and trendy mindfulness gurus won’t get the job done. It’ll take hard work and dedicated commitment to the craft of learning to understand our world and the universe beyond. God’s prophets, philosophers, and psychologists will be my guides. 

I strongly recommend that everyone also use the remainder of stay-at-home time, however long that may be, to do the same. I urge you to read, think, and reflect instead of fruitlessly looking for ways to fill in empty spaces with diversions that imitate the “good old days” before the pandemic. The worst that can happen is you’ve occupied your time with something that isn’t harmful or unhealthy. The best thing that can happen is that you find the ever so elusive inner peace.

In the dream with my father-in-law, we were at a backyard party. I was chatting with a group of faceless men and he was digging through an ice chest fishing out a couple of beers. He turned around and slowly walked toward me extending his arm offering a can of Bud. He gave me his signature nod with raised eyebrows and encouraging eyes as if to ask, Are you ready?

Rather than asking if I was ready for another drink, I think he came to me in the dream to ask if I was ready for the next stage in my life. I’ve come a long way and I know there’s a long way to go. I have so much to learn. I have more experiences waiting in the wings. I still have room to grow intellectually and spiritually. Am I ready? I think so. 

Next! – Idaho Finds a Home: Part 4

“The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.” ~ Proverbs 4:18

***

When I was a kid, I loved playing 3-on-3 pick-up basketball. It didn’t matter where we played: on a school playground, in a park, on someone’s driveway court, or during open gym night at a high school. Usually there were other guys on the sidelines waiting to play against the winners of the game in progress. The winners would sometimes triumphantly boast and shout, “Next!” to summon the next set of players onto the court. 

Thinking about those carefree days took me back to the amazing experience in the echocardiogram exam room 2 months ago when I heard my strong and steady heartbeat. For a brief moment that day, the fear and uncertainty that brought my recovery to a slow crawl faded away. I wondered how amazing it would be to play a pick-up basketball game again. Each beat was like a lyric in a hopeful song from God and another step in my long journey of spiritual discovery.

Since that moment, I’ve seriously reflected on how God and spirituality continue to make a positive impact on my life. The journey started like the morning sun 10 years ago during the dark days when a massive heart attack and miraculous recovery consumed my life. There hasn’t been one “aha” moment along the way. Instead, like the words in Proverbs 4:18, the sun continues to shine brighter each day shedding new light on my understanding of God.

I was born and raised Catholic. I’ve received 6 of the 7 Holy Sacraments, including the Anointing of the Sick several times while on my deathbed. The only sacrament missing is ordination as a priest or deacon. Despite being a practicing Catholic, I never was able to connect the dots that linked the rituals and trappings of the Church with the wisdom of God ‘s word. The morning sun that started shining upon me a decade ago changed all of that.

I’ve been witness to miraculous things that have happened to me. I regularly read the daily mass and associated Bible commentaries. I also study the wise words of philosophers who have searched for the meaning of life. One thing is clear, this stuff is complicated. I believed in God as a little boy because my mom told me it was so. My limited understanding of what that belief meant came from mom, friends, family, and folklore. There was nothing to back up what they said.

A recent question that made the rounds with extended family was, “Does Jesus greet you in heaven when you die?” There was a flurry of differing opinions on the matter, some agreed and most were unsure. It turns out that the Bible doesn’t provide the answer. The closest thing to an answer is from the Gospel of Matthew 16:13-20 where Jesus gives the keys to heaven to St. Peter. The implication is that St. Peter is the guardian at heaven’s gate and greets all who enter.

But, all of that doesn’t really matter. My spiritual journey has taught me that the whole idea of God or any other supernatural power is believing in the power of faith, hope, and love as described by St. Paul the Apostle. Those 3 thoughts provide us with the strength and determination to carry on through the darkest of times. 

Faith allows us to accept the circumstances that exist in our lives. Hope assures us that whatever happens is supposed to happen according to God’s plan. Love inspires us to help others because it’s the right thing to do, not because we expect something in return. 

With that said, I also believe that putting our fate in God’s hands includes trusting the tools He provides. I don’t believe that God wants us to sit back and do nothing for ourselves. Throughout my health crisis, the tools he has given me are my amazing family and the expert healthcare team at Kaiser Santa Clara: doctors, nurses, support staff, psychologist, physical therapist, technicians, etc. 

God puts these kinds of heroes in our paths to enrich our life journeys. To ignore and not trust them is to not trust Him. According to the Gospel of Luke 4:12, Jesus tells the Pharisees , “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” I tested Him many times in the past without success. That’s why I decided not to do that throughout my health crisis. I believe that using the tools He has provided is a major reason for enduring the past 10 years.

Another question looms on the horizon as I’m about midway through the most challenging 18 months of transplant recovery. As my physical and mental health continue to improve on a daily basis, I’m starting to think ahead. Every time I scale Montgomery Hill or get a great progress report from the heart clinic team, my lifelong tendency to start planning and plotting the next move kicks in. Part of me wants to yell, “Next!” with the bravado of a teenage boy winning game after game of 3-on-3 basketball. 

The other part of me, tempered by a decade of health trials and tribulations, will venture on with patience and no intention of prior planning or preparation. The strategy goes totally against the grain of what I learned as a kid and practiced as an adult. I won’t meticulously organize the next steps of my life. I tried that before, but God had other plans. My record of testing Him is absolutely abysmal, so the answer for a path ahead is clear. 

I’ll take it one day at a time. That’s what God, His prophets, thousands of years of philosophers, and modern-day mindfulness gurus have been telling us to do. Many loved ones and friends tell me that I should just enjoy life. I must confess that I don’t know what that means. What brings joy to one person doesn’t necessarily mean that same thing is enjoyable for another.

I love to read, write, think about things that many people might not care much about, share my thoughts, and help others. While a few friends count down the days to retirement, I look forward to doing the same kinds of things I did for a living, but without timelines, benchmarks, deadlines, and compensation. I’m willing to bet that there are those who may wonder what’s wrong with me. After all I’ve been through, I’m sure they reason, why would I do anything that has even a hint of “work?”

Summer in the Waiting Room on ESEReport.com is an example of doing something that requires the same energy as a job, but isn’t “work.” The original purpose for writing the story was self-therapy to help me accept my health condition and the demons that haunted me. It also inspired me to explore the meaning of God and share, in simple terms, a regular guy’s knowledge of heart failure to educate those suffering from the disease. Putting my thoughts in a blog gave me a platform to do just that and be a source of hope for people struggling with illness or any life-changing incident.

Today’s post is the last of the Summer in the Waiting Room series. I finished writing the story and will soon begin the process of converting it into a manuscript. Although Summer in the Waiting Room excerpts are done, I’ll keep writing and posting my thoughts on a variety of issues I’m passionate about. The mission of ESEReport.com is to inspire people with faith, hope, and love as the overarching philosophy and theme. Stay on the lookout for more posts to come.

With all of this in mind, taking care of myself and Idaho is the top priority. I’ll spend most of my additional time reading, writing, thinking, sharing my thoughts, and looking to find ways to offer hope. When COVID clears up, Sandra and I will watch movies, go out to dinner, and spend time with family and friends. In the meantime, I’ll pursue with gusto my passions for documentaries, cable news, and exploring different genres of music. Right now, I’m pretty hooked on 1960s soul crooners and 2000s pop punk. Who knows what other type of music will cross my path? 

The morning sun of faith that first rose that fateful moment in 2010 keeps shining brighter each day as I gain knowledge and wisdom about the world we live in and the heaven we aspire to. It may sound like the next chapter in my life has a full agenda. Will I be able to enjoy it? I don’t know. But, I know one thing for sure, whatever happens will happen in God’s time. I can live with that.

The Hilltop: Idaho Finds a Home – Part 3

Montgomery Hill – November 6, 2020

Be strong and courageous, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” ~Deuteronomy 31:6

***

As soon as the heart transplant team nurse practitioner (NP) who manages my care walked into the exam room, we got straight to work. She enthusiastically asked me how I felt. I didn’t give her the glowing report expected of a 3-month post-transplant patient. I told her that I felt weak and wasn’t making much progress.

Lab results from the day before and an echocardiogram (echo) from earlier that day told a different story. The blood tests showed that my body was functioning normally and confirmed no organ rejection, the biggest factor in transplant failure. The echo indicated that Idaho was performing like a Ferrari, just as the Stanford surgeon boasted after surgery.

The echo is an easy non-invasive procedure. While I was undressed from the waist up lying on an exam table, the technician made circular motions over the heart with a wand. The device sends images and sound to a computer that records the results of the exam. The test measures the strength of the heart muscle as it squeezes with each beat.

A darkened room allows a technician to better see the images on the computer. I’ve had countless echo procedures done. Two things always stood out before the transplant. First, the image on the screen showed a lopsided organ because the lower left chamber of my diseased heart was enlarged. Second, I could hear my heart laboring with unsteady beats.

The six-month echo was different. The image on the computer screen showed a heart that was perfectly shaped. With each beat, Idaho danced in a smooth rhythm while the strong and steady swishing sound of the heartbeat provided the background music. The sound was amazing. It was as if the words of Deuteronomy 31:6 were lyrics to a song that God was singing to me. 

The lyrics went on to tell me that it was time to start working to overcome the weakness and hopelessness that had infected my mind. Lying on a table in that dark room, I was reminded of St. Paul’s assurance that hope comes from suffering, endurance, and character. The message was clear: I’ve been here before and I can bounce back again with faith and determination..

Back at the transplant team exam room, the NP confirmed that the results of the echo were stellar. Despite the glimmer of hope that washed over me during the exam, I still reported that I didn’t feel good. Sandra asked if depression and anxiety could play a role in how I felt physically. The NP agreed and recommended that I consider speaking with the transplant team psychologist. 

The spiritual echo room experience and the knowledge that Idaho was strong and healthy inspired me to take on the mental and physical barriers that prevented me from moving forward in a positive and productive way. Adding a psychologist and physical therapist to the team was the first order of business. 

There has been great progress in the public consciousness about mental health, yet people still tend to lock the issue behind closed doors. In the aftermath of my mom’s passing in 2003, I learned that managing the mind is just as important as taking care of the body. Deciding to give my all to the process was a forgone conclusion.

My therapist is a young woman with the skills of a seasoned veteran. She has a casual, caring, and empathetic manner that allows me to be open about what troubles my mind and soul. Working with her helped me identify the cause of the depression and anxiety that swept through me like a hurricane during the first months of recovery. 

The issues we identified are related to my academic disqualification from San Jose State University almost 40 years ago and other self-perceived “failures” from that time. Since then, I graduated from SJSU and married an amazing woman. Together we have two wonderful daughters. 

Professionally, I worked my way up the corporate ladder to the executive suite, served in public office, and created a nonprofit organization that trains emerging civic leaders. Personally, I survived a massive heart attack and fought through heart failure for 10 years. The fight included a disciplined diet, medication regimen, exercise plan, and an implanted artificial heart pump. 

After all that, failure demons still hung over me like an executioner’s axe looming over the neck of a guilty convict. The events of the early 1980s made me believe that I was a failure. I met every accomplishment with a yawn and a stronger determination to do more. Each professional setback, however minor, further confirmed my core belief that I would never succeed.

Before starting therapy, I spent every day in bed feeling alone and curled up in a loose fetal position. My stomach churned and my mind swirled day after day believing that I failed Sandra and the girls by no longer providing for our family the way I had for so many years. I felt unworthy of the new heart and the donor that selflessly gave it to me. 

The therapist not only helped pinpoint the cause of my seemingly hopeless emotional condition, she provided me with mental exercises and a plan to fight the failure demons. Our work and my faith journey, brought back into focus by the spiritual encounter in the echo exam room, put me on the path to be mentally healthy for a successful transplant recovery.

During the early days of recovery, I benefited from physical therapist (PT) home visits. The role of the PT was to work on the twin goals of strengthening the new heart muscle and developing a plan to recondition my body after the traumatic surgery. After three months, I was able to go on short walks a few times per week. Idaho performed well, but the rest of my body lagged behind.

I wanted to walk to the top of Montgomery Hill, a hike I did a few times in the years before the transplant. It’s a 3 mile round trip from my house. To get there, I have to walk through the neighborhood to a bridge that crosses a creek onto a trail that meanders up to the hill. After 8 weeks with the in-home PT and a month of self-guided walks, I still couldn’t even make it to the bridge.

While working on my mental health, I also had the chance to address and improve my physical condition. Kaiser Redwood City has a specialized cardiac physical therapy department with experience serving heart transplant patients. My physical therapist (PT) is a patient and friendly young man with intimate understanding of physical rehab strategies related to heart failure.

He began by asking me to list a few short-term and long-term goals. I gave him three in this order: (1) walk to the top of Montgomery Hill, (2) shoot hoops, and (3) play a round of golf. He developed an exercise regimen I could do at home. These include leg workouts, and light dumbbell and core exercises. He advised me to work my way up the hill in small doable daily walks, adding distance gradually.

Two days before my 57th birthday, I had gotten within a few hundred yards and one steep incline away from my goal. On the morning of my birthday, which was also the 2nd anniversary of heart pump surgery and almost 7 months post-transplant, I made it to the hilltop and quietly celebrated by myself.

Sitting on a bench marvelling at the view of San Jose lying below, I felt the full weight of gratitude. The grace of God was watching over me. I was grateful for Sandra, Marisa, and Erica enduring with me every good and bad step of the way. I was thankful for my transplant care team, the team’s psychologist, and the Redwood City PT. 

I was back on track. Faith, hope, and love again ruled the day. The Buddha and the ancient philosophers returned to being valued advisors on this journey. As I made my way down the hill, I walked with purpose and a little spring in my step. 

I can’t wait until my 8-month transplant team appointment. God willing, I’ll be able to report that I’m feeling pretty darn good.

***

To catch up or re-read Part 1 and Part 2, go to the following links:

https://esereport.com/2020/08/21/idaho-finds-a-home-%f0%9f%92%97/

https://esereport.com/2020/10/23/all-alone-idaho-finds-a-home-part-2/

All Alone: Idaho Finds a Home – Part 2

Sitting in the exam room during the first week after transplant – 5/5/2020

To catch up and read Part 1, go to the following link:

https://esereport.com/2020/08/21/idaho-finds-a-home-%f0%9f%92%97/

***

Although I was grateful to be in our Ford Explorer with Sandra, I felt all alone. 

We took a detour instead driving straight home. The Santa Clara Kaiser transplant team scheduled an appointment for immediately after Stanford discharged me. The purpose of the visit was to do lab work, examinations, and additional testing to determine my short and long term needs for recovery. 

At Kaiser, Sandra had to help me out of the SUV and onto a wheelchair. My muscles were deconditioned from surgery. I could only stand for a few seconds before my legs began to shake uncontrollably from weakness. 

Although I didn’t feel well, entering the Kaiser clinic building lifted my spirits. The lobby was like a ghost town due to COVID precautions, but the sights, sounds, and smells of the facility provided a sense of comfort that everything would be okay. I spent so much time there during the past 10 years that being in the building was a homecoming in itself.

Sitting in the exam room was all too familiar. During the 7 months of the transplant evaluation period and 17 months with the LVAD, the exam room was a fixture on our monthly calendar. We waited in silence and nervous anticipation as loneliness crept back into my consciousness. My anxious stomach churned relentlessly with thoughts of the unknown.

The afternoon was filled with drawing blood, checking vital signs, and completing an electrocardiogram (EKG), an echocardiogram (echo), a heart biopsy, and a physical exam. The biopsy provides the most critical data point. It’s a somewhat invasive procedure that determines if the body is rejecting the heart. Rejection is at a higher risk during the first 3 to 6 months post-surgery.

It can be a bit intimidating. Rather than being in the comfort of the warm exam room, the procedure is done in the Cath Lab, a cold antiseptic surgery-like space that houses huge medical equipment resembling a James Bond movie scene where weird experiments are conducted. I had to dress in a gown and surgical cap before being wheeled into the cold Cath Lab.

While I was fully awake, the doctor began by numbing the right side of the neck to make an incision on the jugular vein. A tube called a catheter is inserted into the cut so the doctor can thread a hard wire into the vein to an artery that leads to the heart. The wire collects heart tissue to send to a lab for testing.

The entire process takes about 45 minutes. There isn’t much pain involved, but the sensations are strange. As the doctor thread the wire into my vein, it felt like his fist was pushing hard against the neck. I’m sure it was just in my imagination, but I heard the wire being threaded into and out of the catheter. All the while, the doctor, nurses, and technicians shouted numbers to each other.

When the doctor visit was complete, Sandra and I made our way back to the car escorted by an orderly who helped Sandra lift my limp and exhausted body onto the passenger seat. We left the medical center campus to embark on the rest of our lives. When we arrived home, our extended family and a few close friends greeted us, in social distance fashion, from their cars with honking horns and cheers.

Love washed over me and I quietly thanked God for the amazing gifts He bestowed on me. I smiled and mustered a weak wave before Sandra and the girls whisked me into the house. Overflowing with gratitude, Sandra and I worked as a team to get me into bed. I was happy and scared at the same time.

The first week at home was exciting and hopeful. Due to  overwhelming physical and emotional challenges, that would change quickly. Sandra had to do everything for me. Although she had a hectic work-from-home schedule, she cared for me round the clock with love, grace, and selflessness. Marisa and Erica were an amazing support team chipping in and keeping me company.

The chest pain from breaking my ribcage open was almost unbearable, even with the help of pain medication. The intense surgery deconditioned the rest of my body, which left me nearly unable to physically do anything. The transplant team later described the trauma of transplant surgery like being hit by a speeding 18-wheel truck on the freeway. 

On top of all that, one of the anti-rejection medications made me shake like a nervous chihuahua on a cold day. I wore a towel around my neck like a bib to prevent my shaking hands from scattering food all over my shirt or the bed. Mealtime was always frustrating.

A different med put me on a roller coaster of mood swings. Everyday, I found new ways to get on Sandra’s nerves and vice versa. We were at odds like never before. Emotionally, I was a wreck. Thoughts of failure and regret came roaring back to haunt me from morning to night. 

I felt helpless and unproductive. I made myself believe that I had made a mess of my life and the lives of Sandra and the girls. I believed that God had forsaken me once again as He did in the Stanford ICU. Despite the amazing support system at home, I felt all alone.

During the first month after transplant, routine dominated my life. Sandra prepared breakfast and helped me take meds. Lunch and more meds in the afternoon were followed by a shower. Showering was no easy task. Sandra had to help me undress, get in and sit on the bench in the shower, wash, get out, and dress. Evenings were capped by dinner and even more meds. The days and nights seemed to drone on endlessly.

I also had two clinic appointments and one biopsy every week. Being at the clinic was the highlight of each week. I was able to escape the dark dungeon my mind had created for me. At home, I spent nearly all of my time in bed. Brief conversations with the girls, sleep, and wallowing in my self-imposed emotional suffering filled in the gaps. 

In month two, the routine proceeded as usual and Idaho continued to avoid rejection, show positive lab results, and get stronger. The transplant team arranged for a physical therapist to make a house call every week to work on conditioning. The rest of my body was slowly recovering with short walks and exercises prescribed by the therapist.

Meanwhile, depression and anxiety maintained their hold on me. Loneliness and uncertainty drove deeper into my consciousness. My stomach churned, almost to the point of being painful, from depression and anxiety day and night. The meds prevented me from being able to concentrate for more than short moments. My passion for reading and writing was no longer. The situation was becoming hopeless. 

Family and friends gave me time and space to rest. There were few calls or texts. I so much wanted to share the details about my experience, but communications were brief and without substance. I was beginning to believe that they had abandoned me. In reality, I deserted them. While I stubbornly and selfishly waited for people to reach out to me, I dug a deeper hole of loneliness for myself.

Sandra was so busy taking care of me and tending to her work responsibilities that we didn’t talk much about anything other than lab results, medication schedules, and COVID precautions when I went out to an appointment. Other than discussions related to my medical condition, our conversations were also brief and without substance.

I thought that God abandoned me too, so I no longer read the daily mass to reflect on His wisdom. I couldn’t concentrate and lost the spiritual growth I had worked so hard to cultivate. I stopped reflecting on the writings of St. Paul the Apostle and the Buddha. I wasn’t interested in their words of hope and perseverance. Ironically, I was too focused on my own suffering to remember that they offered solutions to ease my pain.

In the real world that existed outside of the dark cloud in my mind, Idaho and I showed steady improvement. The transplant team shared that many patients considered the third month as the “turning point” in recovery. Patients reported that they felt great compared to the way they felt before surgery. I looked forward to that day to lift me out of the funk.

As Sandra and I walked (the first time I did so on my own) into the clinic for the 3-month appointment with the Kaiser heart transplant team, I felt awful. Physically, I was still weak and emotionally the clouds were looming dark as ever. I fully expected to hear bad news. I was convinced that my health was taking a turn for the worst.

Sitting in the quiet exam room with Sandra waiting for the team to walk in, I felt all alone.

***

To be continued… 

Idaho 💗 Finds a Home: Part 1

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Facetime with Sandra and the girls while in recovery at Stanford Hospital

“Good morning, Mr. Garcia, Your new heart just arrived in the hospital. It looks great. We’ll get started soon.” 

***

Sandra, Erica, and I were watching The Voice and spending a nice shelter-in-place evening together. We had just started to enjoy a small scoop of vanilla ice cream when my cell phone began to buzz. It was around 9:30 PM. The number was from my cardiologist’s office. The three of us looked at each other intuitively knowing why the doctor was calling so late.

Our instincts were confirmed. She called to tell me that Stanford identified a donor heart that was a “great” match for me. She advised that I should expect a call from Stanford within the hour. After spending 45 minutes of nervous anticipation, Stanford called with instructions on when and how to report to the hospital.

I quietly gathered my things and put them into a backpack, took a shower, and dressed for the drive to Stanford. Few words were exchanged between me, Sandra and Erica during the nerve-wracking 35 minute trip to the hospital. Because COVID restrictions didn’t allow visitors in the hospital, Sandra dropped me off at the curb.

After a few hugs and kisses with two of the three loves of my life, I walked into my future. The healthcare team that greeted me at the door was friendly. Going into the new Stanford hospital was like entering a 5-star resort. The lobby was spacious and welcoming. I wasn’t nervous or anxious anymore. I could feel God walking with me as security escorted me to the cardiac unit.

Shortly after midnight, a cardiac nurse started preoperative preparations. This included taking vital signs, drawing blood, and briefing me on the surgery. I asked if the donor heart was at Stanford or en route. She confirmed that it was still at the donor hospital. The prep process was completed around 3:00 AM.  

The nurse gave me some light sedatives to help me relax and I fell asleep. It was a whirlwind night and early morning. In the haze of the call from my cardiologist, the hectic activities, and relaxation medicine, I heard that the donor heart was from Idaho. That hasn’t been confirmed. Nonetheless, I decided to nickname my new heart, “Idaho.”

At about 9:00 AM, almost 12 hours after the call from my cardiologist, hospital staff woke me to roll the gurney with me on it into the operating room. Once in the OR, nurses and the anesthesiologist made final preparations for surgery and gave me some more medicine to relax. We waited as I fell into and out of sleep.

All of a sudden, a young and charismatic surgeon came into view. “Good morning, Mr. Garcia, Your new heart just arrived in the hospital. It looks great. We’ll get started soon.” I was in a fog, not sure that I understood what the doctor was telling me. I shortly fell into a deep sleep.

The surgical team began by placing a breathing tube into my throat extending into the lungs to provide oxygen from a ventilator. The first part of the procedure was removing the defibrillator inserted under the skin below my left collarbone. For 9 years, the defib performed heroically saving my life on at least 2 occasions.   

The surgeon then cut an incision from just under my throat to several inches above the belly button and proceeded to saw the breastbone in half to open the ribcage. With the ribcage held open by a metal clamp, the team placed tubes into the chest cavity to drain excess fluid and blood. Doctors then connected a Cardiopulmonary Bypass Machine to a major artery to pump blood. This ensured that blood still circulated though my body during surgery. 

The surgeon proceeded to cut the remaining arteries that connected my heart and lungs. Once that was complete, he severed the electrical wire that connected the LVAD to the external equipment I carried in a satchel for 17 months. Once all the clipping was done, he removed my diseased heart from the chest cavity.

Idaho patiently waited in an ice chest next to my slumbering body. The surgeon carefully removed it from the container, rubbed the donor heart gently to warm it up,  and placed it in its new home. With precision dexterity, his experienced hands meticulously sewed the arteries to reconnect the heart to the lungs. The surgeon administered a quick shock of electricity and Idaho came to life. 

The process in the OR took about 10 hours. Sandra and Erica waited in the parking lot throughout the surgery. For me, it was much less time. What seemed like a few seconds after telling me he was about to begin, the doctor came back to see me. Everything was blurry. 

With a broad confident smile, he told me, “Congratulations, Mr. Garcia. You have a new heart! It’s working great. You have a Ferrari in your chest.” It seemed like he wanted me to share in his excitement, but I was more confused than anything else. My next memory was being in the ICU. I was scared and anxious, not knowing where I was and wary of all the strangers who were probing and prodding me.

The cardiac healthcare team I’ve been working with for a decade was at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center. Sandra, the girls, and I developed trusting relationships with them. We considered the Kaiser cardiology team like family and they treated us in kind. 

Until the moment I arrived in the cardiac unit on April 15th, I hadn’t met anyone from the Stanford team. It’s one of the most elite hospitals in the world, but it wasn’t home. It wasn’t Kaiser. And, in the Age of COVID, Sandra and the girls couldn’t be with me. I was alone and felt helpless.

During the next week in the ICU, Idaho was proving to be a perfect fit for me. All tests and analytics confirmed that it was strong and adjusting to my body. I was on heavy pain medication, so I wasn’t physically uncomfortable. My mental state was a different story. ICU delirium reared its ugly head as it did in 2010 and 2018.

Instead of weird hallucinations of me in strange places, this time the delirium was set in the  Stanford ICU. I was in a state of fear and paranoia. I thought those strangers dressed in medical scrubs were trying to hurt me or trick me into something or other.

I saw familiar medical personnel walking by in the hallway. They were members of my Kaiser team. I would excitedly wave them over, but not one of them recognized me. When a couple of them came closer, I noticed their name tags identified them as people I didn’t know. Mentally, I was in a lonely place.

Daily FaceTime calls with Sandra and the girls were like an oasis in a desert of loneliness. Although God escorted me into the hospital and stood by me throughout preoperative prep and surgery, I felt like He abandoned me once the operation was complete. I later realized that the effects of pain meds caused me to abandon Him.

I spent 11 days in the ICU and another week in a regular room. I remember very little of the ICU other than events that may have actually happened or were a product of my delusions. The time in a regular cardiac room was a little more clear, but not by much. I dwelled on the circumstances that led to my situation and over-analyzed every bad decision I’ve made in life. I became depressed.

On Sandra’s advice, I asked to see the hospital chaplain. A woman wearing a headscarf identified herself as a non-denominational chaplain entered the room and sat by the bedside. With a warm smile and a soothing voice, she asked me to describe my feelings and thoughts about the transplant. 

Feeling comfortable with her, I was completely open about my regrets. Starting with failing at my first try to college, I meticulously detailed the decisions I made to overcome that original shame. I recounted how I worked tirelessly to finish college and forge a career that would erase the stain of that failure.

I told her that all I wanted was to be a “good man” by working hard, taking care of my family, and providing long term financial stability for them. Unfortunately, I lamented, my zeal to free myself from past mistakes and ambition caused the heart attack that led to ultimate failure in achieving those goals.

With sincere empathy, the chaplain reminded me that I had in fact met that expectation. She suggested that dwelling on a skewed self-perception of the past and worrying about a future that doesn’t exist were barriers to being grateful and living in the moment. She encouraged me to allow God back into my life, continue exploring my spiritual existence, and use God’s gift of a new life to “just be.” 

Uplifted by the experience, I spent the last few days in the hospital in better spirits. One morning the cardiologist assigned to me confirmed that all was working well and announced that I would be discharged later that day. When a security guard wheeled me out to the lobby, Idaho skipped a few strong beats when I saw Sandra driving up to the front of the hospital.

In the 2010 Silver Ford Explorer that has been on this journey with us from day one, Sandra and I embraced tightly, not wanting to let go. Minutes later, we were on our way home with Idaho happily beating in my chest. Sandra was visibly elated and grateful. I was tired, nervous, and thankful for the gift from God. 

As the Ford Explorer leisurely made its way south on U.S. freeway 101, Sandra and I chatted about what I could remember and our plans for my recovery at home. Little did we know that the next 90 days or so would be one of the most challenging times in our nearly 30 years of marriage. We would need faith, hope, and love like never before.

***

To be continued soon…

Romantic Love Produces Strength in Weakness

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Summer 2019


“The greatest of these is love.” ~1 Corinthians 13:13

***

I was in a hospital bed in the ICU. I had a breathing tube in my mouth. The scene was all too familiar. I could see a ventilator next to the bed and IV pouches hanging on thin poles behind me. I’ve seen this movie before, only this time it was slightly different. Instead of being in a private room, there was a patient right next to me. The patient was my nephew Stevie.

I remember being in the same situation years earlier after a heart attack. But, I didn’t know what happened to me this time around. A doctor dressed in a white smock came into the room and explained to little Steve what was ailing him. I had a bunch of questions and tried to get the doctor’s attention, but I couldn’t move my hands or talk. The doctor walked away as soon as he finished treating my nephew. 

I had no clue why I was in the hospital and on a ventilator again. I turned to ask Stevie what the doctor said, but he was sound asleep. I knew what happened to me last time. I had a heart attack, went into cardiac arrest, and my lungs stopped working. Was it happening again? Could I still be in the ICU because I never recovered from the incident years ago? Was I having a nightmare? Feeling scared, confused, and lonely, I started to get really anxious. 

Just as the full-blown panic started to ravage my mind and body, the doctor returned and said, “Mr. Garcia, your family is here to visit you.” When I turned to see who it was, Sandra’s beautiful smiling face leaned toward me. I suddenly felt safe and slowly closed my eyes to fall into a deep and comfortable sleep.

***

The passage above is in italics because it really didn’t happen. It was a hallucination caused by a condition called ICU Delirium. Doctors aren’t quite sure what causes ICU Delirium, but they think it’s related to physical restraints and heavy sedatives used when putting a patient on a ventilator. Since the dreams are based on actual events, the vivid images feel terrifyingly realistic. The combination of those factors creates a psychological nightmare for patients. 

If you’re interested in learning more about ICU Delirium, go to this link https://www.statnews.com/2016/10/14/icu-delirium-hospitals/ for a great description of the condition. This article has special relevance today when ventilators and lung ailments dominate the news.

I suffered ICU Delirium twice, once in 2010 and again in 2018. The hallucination described in italics above occurred during my second time in the ICU. The numerous delusions I experienced both times had a common theme: I was stuck in a strange place unable to move, talk, or call for help. Just as panic and desperation set in, Sandra showed up to let me know that everything would be okay.

Sandra stayed by my bedside throughout both ordeals. When she left the ICU to visit the waiting room, eat, or shower, I must have sensed that she was no longer in the room even though I was nearly unconscious. The loneliness of her not being nearby played out in hallucinations caused by ICU Delirium. The connection the delusions had to reality is without question. 

In my last two posts, I discussed how Affection (family love) and Friendship have played roles in saving my life during my decade-long health crisis. Both terms were introduced by Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis in his book, The Four Loves. The incoherent visions I shared in the accounts from the ICU demonstrate how Eros (romantic love), the third type of love described by Lewis, has helped me live longer and thrive.

Lewis explains that in the modern sense Eros is far too often connected with sex. I can say with some authority that most men can’t disconnect the two. Lewis clarifies for us that romantic love is “simply a delighted preoccupation with the Beloved.” While attached to life-support machines and drunk with heavy sedative medication, I had an intense romantic desire to be with Sandra. Not desire in the sexual sense, rather in the spirit of C.S. Lewis.

In The Four Loves, he wrote, “If you asked (a man) what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘To go on thinking of her.’” Surviving those scary dreams in the ICU brings to mind St. Paul’s assurance that suffering, endurance, and character lead to hope. Thinking about Sandra during my weakest and most vulnerable moments gave me hope and inspiration when I needed them most. 

As singer Tina Turner rhetorically asked, “What’s love got to do with it?” As it turns out, love has everything to do with surviving and thriving through life’s challenges.

The lessons I learned can be used to help weather nearly any storm that causes people to suffer. We must take into account the definition of Eros in its totality, not just from the perspective of sex. Romantic love is the foundation of a strong relationship. Bonded by this strength, families can face the toughest of challenges.

Managing through the current era of isolation and social distancing is a good example of how Eros can be the difference between mere survival and triumph over tragedy. While we’re “stuck” in the house with our beloved, nerves are frayed and patience wears thin. But, we persist in social distancing because, according to Lewis, we have a “steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good.”

Psychologically and emotionally, I’m struggling with the pandemic. Images of COVID-19 patients on ventilators brings back dark memories of my own experience on life support. My compromised condition calls for me to stay isolated in the house, especially when Sandra and Erica were fighting colds last month. These measures run contrary to my natural desire for social interaction.

Sitting down for dinner, even if more than 6 feet apart, or taking a walk wearing surgical masks and staying a safe distance away from each other justify the hours of isolation. I know that I’ll be okay. I’ve done this before. Love produces strength from moments of weakness.

C.S. Lewis said it more eloquently. He wrote that love “will not be broken; it’s unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

 

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Spring 2020

 

Friendship is a Special Kind of Love

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I ran into Rudy on my daily walk – Fall 2019

Okay. I admit it. I’m obsessed with COVID-19 hysteria. On any given day, I normally tune into cable news, mostly to follow national politics. Now, the pandemic is the news. The stories of fear and anxiety caused by instability are especially interesting. On a very personal level, there’s a reason why this global news story is compelling. 

First, COVID is a respiratory virus that attacks the lungs. That hits close to home. During the horrific summer of 2010, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome attacked my lungs due to a complication from cardiac arrest. I needed mechanical ventilation for nearly 6 weeks. Images on the news of people on ventilators with breathing tubes inserted into their mouths bring back uncomfortable memories of that time. 

In 2018, during heart pump surgery, my lungs again decided to be uncooperative. I was connected to a ventilator for 5 days at that time. My family anxiously camped out in the waiting room until the lungs cleared. The pain I see in the faces of sick patients’ families on TV reminds me of what my family must have endured twice over the course of 10 years.

Second, for those who survive ventilation in the ICU, recovery will seem almost impossible. That was the hardest part for me. They will surely experience a condition called ICU Delirium. It’s caused by sedative medicine and being cooped up in the ICU. As the medication wears off, the mind plays tricks on patients. Weird and sometimes scary hallucinations create confusion and fear.

I’ve written about this experience in past posts (for example, see https://esereport.com/2016/11/02/summer-in-the-waiting-room-how-faith-family-and-friends-saved-my-life-excerpt-65/).

Third, the health crisis I survived helped me develop tools to weather storms of uncertainty. I hope to share these ideas with readers who feel like they have no control over the growing pandemic. These tools can also help with other seemingly hopeless situations life puts in our paths. I’ve become a big fan of the Buddha and ancient Stoics like Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. Do yourself a favor and Google them.

They all have pretty much the same message about suffering. No one is immune to it. There are things that are unexplainable and just out of our control. To get through tough times, they advise us to stop trying to manage what we can’t control. It sounds easy, right? Like my mom used to say, “it’s easier said than done.” 

Perhaps, my biggest influence is St. Paul the Apostle. His letters on the meaning of Jesus’ teachings and ministry are still relevant nearly 2,000 years after he wrote them. The core message is in his First Letter to the Corinthians. To endure suffering, he said, “three things remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.”

I’ve written much about faith and hope. Faith is accepting that which we can’t control. Hope is being certain that God will determine the outcome of an uncontrollable situation. To understand how love fits into that equation, I turned to the great 20th-century Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis. I found answers in his book, The Four Loves, published in 1960.

Lewis describes 4 types of love: Affection, Friendship, Eros (romantic love), and Charity (God’s love). In my last post, I shared about how Affection played a role in my post-health crisis spiritual journey (https://esereport.com/2020/03/31/my-first-love/). Friendship has also impacted my spiritual, emotional, and mental healing after both bouts with extreme respiratory problems. 

In its purest form, friendship is “the happiest and most fully human of all the loves,” according to Lewis. He believed that Friendship is a special bond that’s held together by mutual interests, similar worldviews, and common experiences not related to procreation or sustaining life. He wrote, Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” 

Friendship, as defined by Lewis, has played a significant role in my life story and spiritual journey. Paraphrasing the author, my close friends weren’t necessary for me to survive a heart attack in 2010, but they’ve given value to the rest of my life. One such person who comes to mind is a friend named Rudy. 

We met in the 7th grade playing baseball and basketball at lunchtime while in middle school. Our early friendship is a classic coming-of-age story. I was a bookworm, the ”schoolboy” among our group of friends. We both played on the high school baseball and basketball teams. While carousing around town as young men, got ourselves into and out of many sticky situations.

Later in life, Rudy connected with his spiritual inner-self by turning to God and the church as I worked tirelessly trying to create my own destiny. My professional aspirations came crashing down after spending the summer of 2010 in the hospital. Seeing Rudy’s boyish round cheeks and happy smile was one of my first memories when I emerged from the fog of an induced coma.

Sandra later told me that he visited me nearly every one of the 100+ days I had been in the hospital. In between visits to my bedside, he made the waiting room howl with laughter retelling stories of our youthful shenanigans. He also led evening prayers before heading home for the night. For 5 days in November 2018, he played the same role. 

For nearly a decade, I’ve wandered through books learning about faith, hope, and love. What I’ve seen along the way has been eye-opening. Rudy’s heartfelt belief has shown me how it looks in real life. The journey began because of my mom’s love and encouragement to trust God. It continues in part because of my friend’s love and infectious belief in God’s grace.

So what does friendship have to do with COVID-19, especially when we can’t gather as friends? It reminds us that true friends bonded by mutual interests, similar worldviews, and common experiences bring value to our lives. As C.S Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “friendship is the instrument by which God reveals to each of us the beauties of others.”

We will survive the current crisis. God and the universe will make everything okay. Maintaining social distance is critical. Healthcare professionals will be there to help those of us who get sick. Even though friendship won’t directly keep us alive, when it’s all said and done, it will play a meaningful and loving role in our survival.

 

 

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

***

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!