All posts by eddiemgarcia

The Boo Voice

The travieso trying to wiggle away from my big sister Barbara around 1967

In my last post, I wrote about the obstacles that make life extra challenging in 2021. Coronavirus, isolation, family Covid fatigue, and every day problems make for a seemingly unbearable existence. I posed a question: Are the things that make us feel awful real or is suffering all in our minds? I wrote that the mind is a major cause of our pain and that there has to be something more than temporary distractions to help us deal with sorrow. 

You can read the last post by going to this link: https://esereport.com/2021/02/08/its-all-in-your-mind/ 

Seventeen years ago, I had my first exposure to the possibility that “it’s all in my mind.”  I was running up the stairs at the Long Beach Convention Center and suddenly felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. The weird sensation went away in about 10 minutes. It happened again a few weeks later. I was on a flight that was making a smooth descent into San Antonio International Airport when, out of nowhere, I had a hard time breathing. 

I was only 40 years old at the time and in fairly good shape. I made an appointment with my doctor anyway because of family history of heart disease. In the clinic, the doctor covered all of the bases – extensive blood work at the lab, an EKG, echocardiogram, and cardiac stress test. He chuckled because I was on the treadmill jogging and chatting at the same time without losing my breath. Someone with heart disease wouldn’t be able do that.

Tests confirmed that there was nothing wrong with my heart. The doctor speculated that something else could be causing the feeling of being out of breath and referred me to a psychologist. The thought of going to a therapist didn’t register in my east side Mexican American working-class brain. We didn’t do therapy. Like Dave Chappele once joked, “psychologists were for upper middle-class white people. The rest of us had liquor stores.” 

My dad used to say that putting all your energy into work when life gets hard was the answer to the blues. That’s what I did after my mom died, but it wasn’t working so well for me. I went along with my doctor’s recommendation. I figured that I had nothing to lose. During our first meeting, the therapist described how heart attack symptoms are similar to those of a panic attack caused by anxiety. 

Rather than actually losing oxygen, the mind tricks the body into thinking that it’s out of breath. It was hard to wrap my mind around what I heard, but I kept going with it. Several sessions later, the therapist’s diagnosis was generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) triggered by my mom’s passing a year earlier. The condition impacts only 3.1% of Americans. Depression can go hand in hand with anxiety.

According to mental health advocates, GAD is “chronic, exaggerated worry and tension that is unfounded or much more severe than the normal anxiety most people experience.” The Mayo Clinic says that GAD is caused by a “complex interaction of biological and environmental factors.” What that means is that anxiety is partly caused by chemicals in the body that aren’t working correctly and partly caused by something negative that happens to us. 

I was a happy-go-lucky kid, There wasn’t a tree I wouldn’t climb or a fence I wouldn’t jump over. My mom used to say that I could be a little bit travieso (loosely translated as “naughty”). When I was about 10 years old, I wrecked my bike and scratched myself up pretty good riding downhill on a trail I wasn’t allowed to be on. My mom didn’t know about the details of that accident until 25 years later when my brothers, sisters, and I were sharing stories about youthful shenanigans .

Despite being somewhat of a daredevil, I had a tendency to worry, overthink, and overreact. It could be anything. I would lose sleep the night before a spelling test in elementary school worried about flunking. In high school, I couldn’t concentrate in class on gameday because I worried about making a mistake that would embarrass the team and school. Those bad things never happened. Nothing triggered those thoughts.

When mom passed away, I felt like a helium balloon floating aimlessly and untethered to the real world. She was my safe harbor when the winds of life’s storms howled. She was my biggest cheerleader. With mom gone, I worried incessantly about everything. This perfect storm of biological and environmental factors led to the therapist’s diagnosis. 

He recommended a combination of medication, therapy, and group mindfulness classes designed to address the chemical and triggering elements of anxiety. Given everything I understood about what the doctor told me, it made sense to me. I decided to give the proposed treatment my all. Within a few months, I was back on track building a life with my family and working on a career. I graduated from mocking psychology to being a therapy advocate.

The more I understood about anxiety’s causes, effects, and solutions, the more I wanted to learn how to manage it. The short story about unreasonable worry is fear of the unknown. An anxious mind comes to conclusions (usually doom and gloom) in the absence of verified information. As the old saying goes, anxiety makes mountains out of molehills. I refer to unwarranted thoughts that swirl in my mind as the “Boo Voice.” 

The therapist and mindfulness classes from 2004 prepared me for the most turbulent decade of my life. For 10 years, unknown life and death health situations hovered over me like a black cloud. Staying in the moment and consistent dialogue with doctors prevented my mind from escaping to unhelpful places. After heart transplant, my Boo Voice and I engaged in brutal battles. Using the same formula from 2004 has played a major role in my recovery.  

At some level, whether diagnosed with anxiety or not, we all have a Boo Voice. Everyone has different triggers. During these uncertain times, worry consumes most of our days. Will family members get sick and die? Will our kids lose out in their education? Will the vaccine work? When will life get back to normal? On top of all that, we still have to deal with the little daily annoyances that can ruin our days. 

How can we keep our Boo Voices from getting the best of us? Try this 3-part strategy. It helps me get through the toughest of times.

  1. Communication

The best option is a therapist, support group, spiritual advisor, or journal (all 4 is most effective). If these don’t fit your budget or comfort level, your significant other or bestie will work. The downside is that those close to you have skin in the game, so they’re not optimal. The most important thing is to talk it out.

  1. Meditation – Mindfulness

This is another concept that didn’t fit into my boyhood worldview. Taking mindfulness classes in 2004 and studying Buddhist principles for 10 years changed my mind. Meditation is really hard to do, but worth it. It helps you focus and calm the mind. A great tool is the Calm App. It’s about $70 a year to subscribe. The first year is free for Kaiser members.

  1. Pursue a Healthy Passion

Alcohol, drugs, food, sex, parties, and other guilty pleasures are quick, but temporary bandaids for the Boo Voice. When you remove the bandage, the cut is usually deeper. I’m not preaching. I get it. I’ve never been threatened by a good time. Healthy is the key word. I love writing, reading, and mentoring others. Find your healthy passion and do it.

Like everything worthwhile in life, what I just laid out is not easy. It takes hard work and dedicated commitment. I wish I could say that I’ve conquered my Boo Voice once and for all. Of course, I haven’t. Most likely I will battle it for the rest of my life because of biology. Medication helps with that part.

Fortunately, you most likely don’t have generalized anxiety disorder. Events and circumstances are the cause of worry and depression. I work hard on my 3-part strategy to manage the environmental causes of anxiety everyday and it makes my life so much better. You can do it too. Give it a try. It takes time. Be patient. I’m on year 17 working with this strategy and life continues to get better every day.

It’s All in Your Mind

Mom and Dad circa 1966

“You have power over your mind – not outside events.” – Marcus Aurelius, 1st-Century Roman Emperor and Philosopher

***

Imagine for a minute that you’ve been transported to the mid to late 1960s. Standing at an elegant bar is a handsome, well-groomed man with the subtle scent of English Leather cologne on him. He’s wearing a slim-cut black suit, crisp white shirt, dark tie, and black shoes polished to a soft sheen. He casually leans against the bar with his right forearm on the varnished oak countertop with a drink in his right hand.

Deep in thought, the gentleman takes a slow drag of a cigarette held between his left index and middle fingers as it softly sits on his pursed lips. He squints through the smoke looking into an empty space while he’s deep in thought. Any number of things that complicate his life could be swirling in his mind. Frank Sinatra, you say? Dean Martin, perhaps? Or could it be Don Draper? 

The answer is none of the above. The image is how I remember my dad when I was about 4 or 5 years old. He looked like the quintessential man of the 60s, especially when he dressed up. My dad worked at the post office, so he didn’t usually wear a suit and tie. I think he owned 2 suits, 1 black and 1 charcoal, for special occasions. His normal dress code was a pair of slacks, a button up long sleeve shirt, and always shined dress shoes.

Family and close friends called my dad Lico. He was smart and read regularly, even though I’m not quite sure he ever graduated from high school. He served on an aircraft carrier in the United States Navy during WWII. He was articulate and charming, armed with a quick wit and a smile that could light up a room. He was also stubborn, sarcastic, and uncompromising. His condescending words and facial expressions of disapproval cut deeper than any spanking.

In many ways, my dad was a man of his times. He worked hard to provide for his family and unabashedly believed in traditional gender and parent/child roles. In his world, the man was king of his castle. Dad’s word was final, no discussion, no debate, no nonsense. He was a classic rugged-individualist who believed that no one – NO ONE – was responsible for his own success or failure other than himself. 

In other ways, he was way ahead of his time, especially for a Mexican American father in those days. He didn’t want his children to work in “traditional” Latino jobs. He encouraged us to read, explore, and get a college education. He thought deeply and could be philosophical about the ways of the universe. Understanding that life was unpredictable and unforgiving, he always had a thoughtful response in any situation. He expressed these thoughts through what I call Licoisms

He had a treasure trove of these sayings. Some of my favorites include: “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” (be patient), “it’s easier said than done” (don’t take anything for granted), and “get off of your high horse” (show humility). “It’s all in your mind” was my least favorite Licoism when I was a kid. Every time I thought life was unfair and looked for sympathy, that was his response.

When I was about 12 years old, I remember getting ready for a backyard party. It was a blistering hot day, and I was expected to wear slacks and a button up shirt because my dad’s relatives were going to be there. I complained endlessly to my mom about the heat. I wanted to wear shorts and a t-shirt. She empathized with me, but still told me I would have to take it up with my dad. Well, I knew that wasn’t going to fly.

Nevertheless, before guests started to arrive, I worked up the courage to ask him if he felt hot wearing long sleeves and dress pants. He turned and looked at me with his trademark sarcastic smirk. I braced myself for what I expected would be a flurry of cutting Licoisms flying my way. He asked if I knew what the temperature was outside. At least 100, I guessed. He followed up by saying, “it doesn’t matter what I wear, it’s still 100 degrees. The heat is all in your mind, mijo.”

As the years passed by, I began to appreciate the saying. After spending a summer in the ICU, it came in handy. My body lost all muscle function from being in a coma and lying on a bed for about 70 days. I couldn’t even lift a finger. Doctors said strength would return with rehabilitation. It sounded impossible. Although he had been gone for 15 years, I heard Lico’s voice telling me, “it’s all in your mind, mijo.”

Let’s face it. Let’s be real. Life isn’t easy. The past year serves to remind us of that. The pandemic, political division, isolation, the summer fires, smokey skies, and on and on. Added to all of that was the grind of daily life. Throughout my personal life, I’ve had my share of struggles. There was that hot summer day in 1975, the passing of my mom, dad, and a sister, a health crisis, and yeah, that every day stuff. 

Did those things not happen? Yes, they did. Was it all in my and our minds? Of course not. It’s life’s way of saying that nature is in charge. We all experience unfortunate events and phenomena. They’re circumstances that aren’t within anyone’s power to control. Can they harm us? The short answer is it depends. Marcus Aurelius tells us that we have power over our own minds and not much more. That’s what my dad meant by, “it’s all in your mind.”

I don’t know where he came up with that pearl of wisdom. I’m sure life experiences, his intellectual curiosity, and catchphrases from his Depression Era generation all contributed to his thinking. Did he read the ancient philosophers? Maybe, maybe not. I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. One thing for sure is that he understood that suffering is mostly caused by our own thoughts, not by the chaos that surrounds us.

Although my dad was a wise man, he didn’t have the answer on how to tame the anguish that churns in our minds. His solution? There wasn’t much that a cigarette and a highball glass full of V.O whiskey and water on the rocks couldn’t resolve. I don’t think that worked for him. I’m pretty sure he suffered from depression and anxiety. I’ve followed a similar path, also with little success. Other people use the same strategy with food, shopping, sex, drugs, etc.

Whether it’s fear of an uncertain future or the inconvenience of kids learning from home because of a pandemic, life sucks if we allow the craziness around us to find a home in our consciousness. A plan to achieve long-term inner peace and some kind of happiness shouldn’t have to depend on any of the sensually pleasing distractions that temporarily relieve our pain. There has to be a better way to deal with nature’s whims. 

Now imagine for a minute that you’ve been transported to a time in the very near future. Covid is still here making family and friends sick, your kids are driving you up the wall because they’re bored at home, your spouse is on your nerves more than usual, and California is in full-blown drought. That’s not even the worst of it. Your company is going belly up and you don’t know from one day to the next if you’ll have a job.

Despite all of that, you don’t feel stressed, sad, frustrated, or angry. You’re not thinking of giving up or murdering your entire family. While driving home in dreadful traffic, you whistle to your favorite song on the radio, rather than flipping the bird to some idiot on the road. You can’t control what’s happening outside of your car. It’s all in your mind. So, you feel calm as you inch through the freeway. 

Is it even possible to feel at peace in this situation? I think it is and I’m intent on discovering the secret. Please keep reading ESEReport.com in the coming weeks and months. I’m going on an adventure to find the answer to inner peace and happiness. I plan to be brutally honest with myself and readers. I’m not sure I’ll get there, but the ride should be fun. I hope you find a few minutes in your hectic day to come along with me.

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The East Side Eddie Report launched in July 2013 to provide readers with a unique viewpoint on community issues from the perspective of someone from the “other side of the tracks.” The content focused on encouraging leadership in the Latino community. In December 2014, ESEReport.com created the “Summer in the Waiting Room” series to chronicle my 10-year battle with heart failure.

That struggle taught me that trusting in something bigger than ourselves can change lives. My passion for telling stories that help and inspire others guides my life journey. As ESEReport.com continues to evolve, the mission is to inspire readers with faith, hope, and love.

I welcome your guidance in helping me achieve ESEReport.com’s mission. Please go to the link below to complete a short 5-question survey. It should take less than a minute. Thanks for your help!

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It’s Never Too Late

Ready for another day!

“It ain’t over till it’s over.” ~Yogi Berra, Hall of Fame baseball player and manager

“Ah, nothing is too late until the tired heart ceases to palpitate.” ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, American poet

***

My Compa Pancho and I are avid sports fans and we text often when there’s news in the sports world. When legendary baseball player Hank Aaron died recently, I shared a video of a commercial that featured Aaron and Giants slugger Barry Bonds. The TV ad was aired during the year that Bonds was chasing Aaron’s all-time home run record. It was a clever tongue and cheek play on the historic chase.

So far so good, but there’s always a hitch when it comes to something about the Giants. Pancho is a die-hard Dodgers fan. Anytime I mention the Giants, he immediately prepares for hand-to-hand verbal combat and a flurry of shit-talking begins. To be fair to my compa, I do my share of talking shit about the Dodgers. Anyway, I was waiting for him to bring up the same old tired and unproven steroids BS about Bonds.

But that’s not what happened. His response was shocking. Like a ball coming out of left field, Pancho shared with me that a friend from his boyhood neighborhood committed suicide. The friend hanged himself. Not really knowing how to respond, I texted my condolences. Pancho went on to describe how the man’s family was devastated.

The last time Pancho saw his old neighbor was a few years ago. The man was riding a bike and looked skinny, tired, and old. He had struggled with depression and substance abuse for most of his adult life. According to Pancho, he was high on drugs when they ran into each other. After a few minutes of small talk, they went their separate ways. His life came to a tragic and lonely end in a losing battle against mental health, drug, and alcohol problems.

I spent the rest of that evening and most of the next day thinking about Pancho’s old friend. His story brought to mind the never-ending cycle of troubles that complicates our lives and keeps us on a continuous roller coaster of emotional high and lows. Too many times, the ride gets hair-raising and we think it’s too late to bring it back to safe place. It’s easy to give up, but my life story has taught me that no matter how hard life gets, it’s never too late. 

I ran across a poem a while back by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that was perfect for what I was thinking about. Longfellow, one of America’s greatest poets, wrote the verse in 1875 as the keynote for his 50th college reunion where he read it to a group of 70+ year old classmates. The poem is about the reality that none of us will be able to stop time and it’s never too late to keep learning and growing.

The line that inspired me most from the poem reminds me of a famous quote from Hall of Fame baseball manager Yogi Berra. During the 1973 World Series, Berra was the manager of the New York Mets. The team lost the first 2 games and winning the series looked like a longshot. When reporters asked how he felt about the Mets’ chances after being so far behind, he famously said, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” The Mets went on to win the next 3 games in a row.

These 2 stories can be inspirations for anyone who’s thinking about giving up when life gets too hard. Both anecdotes encourage us to believe that it’s never too late, no matter the situation. At one time or another, all of us have fallen prey to the notion that an opportunity passed us by, with no way to return again. This leads to regret, second-guessing, and fear of not getting another chance. The inevitable next step is to give up.

I’ve always considered myself to be a person ready to take on life’s challenges head on. I didn’t think giving up was in my DNA. That arrogance was crushed during the first month of 1983 when I received a letter from San Jose State University informing me that I didn’t meet the academic requirements to stay enrolled. I flunked out and gave up on myself. 

I spent the next several years, drinking excessively, partying, and soothing my bruised ego in unhealthy ways. Once the hangover from that blurry time cleared up, I started to work my way back into the university. I ran into a mental roadblock almost immediately. During the first semester back at SJSU, I confided in a professor that I thought I was too old to start over, it was too late to earn a degree. His response motivated me and changed my life. 

The professor shrewdly concluded that I would grow older someday with or without a college education. Choose my path forward thoughtfully, he advised. With those wise words, I carried on with my studies and graduated a few years later. I worked tirelessly over the next 2 decades building a life and family with Sandra while developing a meaningful and successful career.

“Ah, nothing is too late; Till the tired heart shall cease to palpitate.” 

Then, for a brief moment many years later, my heart actually ceased to palpitate. While I was sleeping comfortably on a hospital bed in the ICU during the wee hours of the morning on June 17, 2010, my heart went into cardiac arrest literally stopping for a few seconds. A team of doctors, nurses, and cardiac technicians frantically worked to get my heart pumping again. About 1,000 volts of electricity sent through defibrillator paddles did the job.

I had two more chances to give up during the 10 years following the close call. On my 55th birthday in 2018, a surgeon was putting the finishing touches on surgery to place a titanium pump in my heart. My lungs started to swell. It took 5 days of smart medical decision-making by the surgeon and anxious waiting for my family before the doctor closed my chest cavity. I didn’t think I could go through another rigorous rehabilitation. It was too late, I thought. I’ll never be the same. Nevertheless, life continued forward.

Seventeen months later, transplant surgery hit me like a speeding big rig and the meds made a mess of my psyche and emotions. By the third month of a slow and depressing recovery, I convinced myself that I was too old and too weak to come back yet again. Just when I was about to throw in the towel on this latest fight, I took advantage of the resources at my disposal. With God’s grace, an awesome transplant care team, Sandra and the girls’ love, and a little hard work, I marched on.

So, here’s what I’m trying to say. Longfellow and Yogi had it right. It’s never too late. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, something will happen to make it a less than perfect day. Your internet service could go down in the middle of an important Zoom meeting, co-workers and/or your boss could get on your last nerve, you could get into an argument at home, your car might break down.

What are we to do when any given day inevitably turns imperfect? Keep going. Don’t look back. It’s not too late. As long as you heart continues to nourish your body and soul, there’s a chance that whatever is causing your suffering and grief is fixable. Over the next several posts, I plan to get philosophical and share my thoughts on how to overcome challenges big and small.

Until then, keep in mind – just believe – that everything will work out in the end. With faith, hope, and love, “it ain’t over till it’s over.”

***

Here’s the link to Longfellow’s full poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44639/morituri-salutamus-poem-for-the-fiftieth-anniversary-of-the-class-of-1825-in-bowdoin-college

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