Getting to the Goal with Faith

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With Sandra spending another the night in the hospital for tests – 10/9/18

I admire the work former 49er quarterback Colin Kapernick has done on civil rights and I loved the work that he did between the 20-yard lines. The problem was that he couldn’t get the job done when it counted. He got into the red zone in spectacular fashion, but failed to get into the end zone when championships were on the line.  Niners fans still feel the “oh so close” pain of 2011-2013.

For non-football fans, Let me explain. The goal of the game is to score points by getting into the end zone. The 20 yards that separate the team from the goal line is called the red zone. That’s where things get tough. The opposing players create all kinds of barriers. The final 20 yards is a lonely proposition for the team leader, especially if the team doesn’t cross into the end zone. Just ask Colin Kapernick.

Seven months ago, I started an evaluation process to determine my eligibility for a heart transplant. The first 6 ½ months were fast-paced and hectic. I took countless tests and completed several procedures. While it hasn’t been completely without hiccups, the process moved along with speed and efficiency. God willing, I will soon be on the schedule for surgery to insert a mechanical pump into my heart.

I’m now in the red zone of the first part of this process. The march to the red zone was filled with excitement and optimism. CT scans, heart catheterizations, lung capacity tests, and psychological evaluations filled my days.

In just a few weeks, the surgeon will confirm the date when he’ll perform major open heart surgery and place a machine into my heart.  It’s a lot to take in. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that. There are also many other things going through my mind. I think about Sandra and the girls. I think about how our lives have changed and will change once more. I think about the long road ahead.

Like the quarterback calling plays in the red zone, I feel like I’m in a lonely place. The Kaiser lineup of professionals is world-class when it comes to know-how, talent, and bedside manner. Sandra has been amazing. Working as a team, we collaborate with the health specialists and ask lots of questions until we fully understand the options in front of us. Nevertheless, the consequences of my decisions are mine and mine alone.

Every step the team takes toward the end zone is thoughtful and deliberate. They’re finalizing the details to prepare for surgery: more blood tests, more doctors’ appointments, more orientations. The doctors, nurses, coordinators, and support professionals are clearing the path of any health or medical barrier that could keep me from the objective.

But, I still have 20 yards to go. I’m within striking distance of the first goal and progress feels like it’s happening in slow motion. The biggest obstacle to reaching the goal line is the same stumbling block that led to my obsessive quest for “success” before the heart attack changed everything. My mind wants to jump ahead to the next phase of my journey instead of taking it one day at a time. The failure demons and fear of the unknown are trying to creep their way back into my consciousness.

That’s my nature. That’s the trait that led me to success and ultimately ended with my health catastrophe. The need to control circumstances has always been my way of getting what I want. Every step of the way, I used this strategy to steer my career and public life in the direction I desired. With the end zone in sight, those same forces are tugging at me again and raising concerns about the unknown.

I’m in a pitched battle to focus on the here and now so I can push away thoughts about what might be. The good news is that I have more and better tools at my disposal. The spiritual awakening that has blessed me within the past few years is ready to take the field in my fight for the last 20 yards. Rather than speculate on circumstances that haven’t even happened yet, I plan to surrender to faith, hope and love.

During the 1980s with the 49ers, pro football Hall-of-Fame quarterback Joe Montana always went to the late great Dwight Clark when the team was in a pinch. Although the red zone can be a lonely place, I also have a go to guy. In his letter to the Esphesians, St. Paul the Apostle wrote, “For by grace of God you have been saved by faith. And it is not your doing; it is the gift of God.”

Faith is going to carry me to and through the end zone. There will be additional doctor consultations, blood work, and other details to complete in the weeks to come. I’ll make sure to stay on top of everything and control my commitment to meet each demand and request. I won’t be troubled about what the results of those interactions could be. I’ll leave that to God. It’s His call anyway.

I’ll continue to focus on every minute, of every hour, of every day. I’ll laugh and yell at the TV when the president and his marauding band of court jesters do another stupid thing. I’ll read about my friend Alexander Hamilton. I’ll enjoy dinner and an occasional movie with Sandra. I’ll look forward to Facetime and texts with Marisa and Erica. I’ll hang out with my extended family and friends.

I’ll live each day as if it was my last, not because it could be, but because that’s the right thing to do. That’s all God wants us to do. The inability to get a team into the end zone has ended the careers of many quarterbacks. I feel good about my chances. I have God on my team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trust Your Healthcare Team – It Could Save Your Life

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The other day I sat in front of the neighborhood Starbucks reading The Atlantic magazine and listening to jazz legend John Coltrane through my ear plugs. I could hear my high school buddies saying, “ohhhkay…look at the school boy” in a gently teasing way. While I’m not any smarter than the next guy, I do have a love of learning new things, a trait that I got from my parents.

This enthusiasm for reading is a double-edged sword. On the downside, my passion for American history and politics has me wringing my hands about the uncertain future that confronts our nation during this turbulent time. The upside is that a nearly insatiable quest for knowledge and understanding gives me hope for a health crisis that has dominated my life.

I’ve written much about the roles that faith, family, and friends have played in the 8 ½ year-long saga of heart failure and associated complications. I haven’t spent so much time on the medical team that’s been a Godsend to me and my family. From a faith viewpoint, I truly believe that God assigned this group of people to guide me through a complex medical journey.

The team at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center is an outstanding collection of talented professionals working with high-tech tools in a state-of-the art facility. I can’t imagine a more impressive lineup of individuals working together to serve the health needs of their patients. Every step of the way, Sandra and I have been an integral part of the team.

With everything I’ve learned from this experience, I strenuously offer to friends, family, and all readers unsolicited advice: Work in collaboration with your doctors and healthcare providers, and ask lots of questions.

I would be in better health today if I followed this advice. Like most men (yes, I’m taking a shot at my gender), I thought I was invincible. I was well aware of my family’s history with heart disease, as was my doctor. At annual physicals, he advised exercise and a healthy lifestyle. But, I ate unhealthy food, drank too much on weekends, and worked like there was no tomorrow.

Despite promises to the doctor, my commitments to lifestyle changes never materialized. The trifecta of unwise behavior was too much to overcome my regular exercise regimen. According to the American Heart Association, a healthy way of life can reduce heart failure by 50% for those of us with a genetic disposition to cardiovascular disease. I just didn’t listen to my doctor.

When I survived a heart attack and Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, I promised myself and my family that I would do whatever it takes to live as long as God allowed. With a commitment to do my part and leave the rest to faith, my determination to follow doctor’s orders and learn as much as possible about the disease became priorities for me.

In the aftermath of the heart attack that started this life-changing journey, I couldn’t wait to go home after first going into the hospital. I came home, returned to the hospital, came home again, and returned to the hospital a third time over the following few days. The last stay turned into a 100-day nightmare. After that harrowing experience, I decided to trust the professionals.

For some reason, most of us don’t do that. How many times have you heard someone say, “The doctor doesn’t know what he’s doing”? There are others who might say, “She isn’t a good doctor.” Or the common refrain, “I don’t like taking medicine, it doesn’t work anyway.”

I’ve learned that the practice of medicine isn’t just a science. It’s also an art. Doctors aren’t miracle makers and drugs aren’t magic cures. It’s critical to develop trusting relationships with healthcare providers. That means being honest about how you feel. Maybe it makes you feel like a strong person to tell doctors that you feel fine. Being tough won’t keep you from ending up in the ICU because you weren’t straightforward with your doctor.

Most of us don’t like to hear bad news. That might be why we avoid going to the doctor on a regular basis. But, at some point, you have to accept what is and work to resolve what’s ailing you. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are more knowledgeable than we are when it comes to the science of medicine. We know how we feel. That’s how collaboration guides them to do what’s best for you.

One of the biggest lessons Sandra and I learned was asking questions every time a doctor said something we didn’t understand. For example, we didn’t know the difference between myocardial infarction and cardiac arrest. Rather than just listening, we interrupted and asked for clarification. You can resolve misunderstandings by simply asking, “What does that mean?”

My cardiologist’s guidance and advice has kept me alive and kicking for over 8 years. After clarifying our discussions during appointments or by e-mail, we agree on a plan of action.  It’s been a team effort. I now work with a talented heart transplant team that has been patient with our multitude of questions. By now, Sandra and I are probably pros at this.

How can you tell if a doctor is good? With a 100-plus days in the hospital, including 5 weeks in the ICU and 3 weeks in physical rehab, I’ve seen many doctors, nurses, and support staff. It’s impossible to judge a doctor on how much he or she knows about medicine. Remember that they know more about that stuff than we do. For me, the answer is simple. The good ones listen as much as they talk. They’re patient with questions and treat you like an equal partner.

I’ve been blessed to work with so many outstanding health professionals. Not only do I cherish the relationships we’ve have built together, the partnerships have given me a wonderful quality of life. They trust me and I trust them to tell it like it is. As an information hog, more information is better than less. They’re happy to oblige. It helps me understand and helps them care for me. I have a sincere affection for all of them.

Good healthcare is a team effort. The decision to be a team player when it comes to my health is one of the best choices I’ve ever made. For almost 9 years, I’ve lived a full life to the credit of faith, family, friends, and a strong medical team. I hope there are more fulfilling years to come. I urge you to make the same choice about your healthcare. Learn to trust your team. It could save your life.

Moving on to the Next Adventure!

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On the stationary bike testing my lung capacity – 2018

The past 6 ½ months has been a whirlwind. It all started on February 27th. The events of that day triggered an evaluation to determine my eligibility for a heart transplant. I’ve been to the emergency room 3 times and hospitalized twice. I’ve had 17 doctors’ appointments and completed 2 CT scans, a 3-D lung scan, 2 lung capacity tests, 4 ultrasounds, and 3 heart catheterization procedures.

On that quiet February evening, Sandra and I were out to dinner when I suddenly passed out. An ambulance took me to the emergency room at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center. The ER doctors admitted me into the hospital to do a battery of tests. The next morning, my cardiologist confirmed that a dangerously elevated heart rate caused my defibrillator to trigger.

A defibrillator is a device implanted into the upper chest and connected to the heart with a wire. The machine is designed to prevent the heart from sending a patient into potentially fatal cardiac arrest. The procedure to implant my defibrillator was done in 2011. For almost 7 years, I had no episodes. February 27th was the second time that it activated in the span of 60 days.

At a follow-up appointment a few days later, my cardiologist shared the bad, but inevitable, news. The heart failure was getting worse and the regimen of medication, diet, and exercise was becoming less effective. She recommended that I consider a heart transplant and referred me to the transplant team. That’s when my plan of care started to speed up.

Sandra and I began with the team’s social worker, who provided an overview of the process. As we listened intently, it was clear that the evaluation was no joke – it was comprehensive and complex. The goal of the process was to ensure that the patient had the unique combination of a failing heart and great health. Initially, that didn’t make sense to me.

The social worker explained that the transplant surgery and recovery is intense. The body’s organs had to be strong enough to withstand the trauma. She went on to describe the components of the transplant workup:

  • Review of medical history
  • Psychosocial evaluation
  • Oxygen consumption test
  • Echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart)
  • Right heart catheterization
  • Chest CT scan
  • Breathing tests to rule out lung disease
  • Regular blood/laboratory tests
  • Colon cancer screening
  • Dental evaluation
  • Abdomen ultrasound
  • Blood clot testing
  • Stomach, liver, and pancreas screenings
  • Transplant support group participation

Negative results for any one of the tests and screenings could be disqualifying. Sandra and I walked out of the meeting anxious, but hopeful. Our biggest concern was how my bout with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) in 2010 affected my lungs. Experts estimate that nearly half of ARDS survivors experience permanent lung damage.

Our next meeting was with the heart transplant doctor. In preparation, I completed a complete panel of blood tests. She was shocked when she saw me. Although the labs showed that I had serious heart failure, I looked as though I wasn’t sick at all. When I shared that I exercised daily and worked a little, she was stunned.

Nevertheless, based on the lab results, she recommended that we begin the transplant evaluation. If the workup concluded that I was healthy enough to proceed, there were three options available: a mechanical heart pump, transplant, or continue with the current plan of care. I was reluctant about the first option, hopeful about the second, and dismissed the third.

Thus began a 6-month sprint to the lab, doctors’ offices, imaging departments, procedure tables, testing rooms, and support group meetings. With each positive result, I inched closer to transplant eligibility. Two potential barriers to my goal of getting a new heart began to present themselves. One hurdle was related to my lungs and the other linked to my blood type.

Predictably, the lung tests registered on the lower end of the spectrum. One exam required an assortment of breathing exercises with my nose plugged and a tube in my mouth while sitting in a glass box that looks like a small phone booth. I did the same on a stationary bike. These bumps in the road extended the evaluation. Due to my history with ARDS and less than optimal test results, the transplant doctor referred me to a pulmonologist.

The lung doctor ordered an additional CT scan, an advanced CT scan, and a lung scan. Additionally, I was tested for sleep apnea. The lung scan was super high-tech. The machine is similar to a CT scan with a 3-D camera that takes images from different angles. The technician injected radioactive material into my veins to follow airflow and blood flow in the lungs.

A few days later, Sandra and I walked into the pulmonologist’s office with high anxiety. Damaged and compromised lungs would be a deal breaker. The doctor was warm and engaging. She mentioned that she rarely meets ARDS survivors and proceeded to explain the procedures and their results. It seemed like it took forever to get to the end.

Her findings were unexpected. The outcome showed no damage to my lungs. NO DAMAGE TO MY LUNGS! This is extremely rare for ARDS survivors. Other than a mild case of sleep apnea that was treatable, my lungs were good to go for surgery. Sandra and I let out an audible sigh of relief and thanked God for the amazing news.

I also have Type-O blood, the most common blood type. This means that there are longer wait times for transplant. Extended delays are dangerous because other organs begin to fail due to lack of oxygen delivered by a weak heart. In my case, the best option to maintain organ health is a mechanical heart pump called a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD).

The LVAD is surgically implanted into the heart and works as an artificial pump. Oxygen rich blood flows through the lungs and enters the LVAD where the machine pushes the life-giving fluid through the aorta and into the rest of the body. The pump, powered by electricity, requires batteries to keep it working. Batteries sit in a pouch wrapped around the waist.

Because I spent the summer of 2010 connected to a variety of life support machines, I was resolved to never put my family through that harrowing experience again. With that in mind, I was initially opposed to a LVAD. I did lots of research and consulted with Sandra and the girls, a priest/friend/spiritual advisor, and LVAD recipients. I now wholeheartedly support this option.

With the workup complete, a committee of cardiologists, the pulmonologist that assessed my lung capacity, the psychologist, transplant nurse, and social worker convened yesterday to evaluate my case. For over 6 months, Sandra, the girls, our support system, and I methodically completed each of the assigned tasks necessary to determine my eligibility for moving forward.

I mentioned to that transplant team nurse that it was like going to college all over again. Doing the work and taking exams were the easy part. Waiting for the confirmation that graduation was a sure thing was nerve-wracking. In a similar state of mind, I checked and rechecked voice-mail and e-mail waiting for word from the committee.

Finally, at around 2:00 PM, the caller ID on my cell displayed the transplant department’s office number. The verdict was in. The white smoke drifted into the air. A decision was forthcoming. I nervously answered the call with trembling hands. The transplant team nurse came on the line. She was calling with good news.

The committee met, she said. The doctors were positive and upbeat. They approved to proceed at once with LVAD surgery and recommended placement on the transplant list as soon as I healed from that operation. Within the hour, Sandra and I sat in a transplant department office with my doctor, the nurse, social worker, and LVAD coordinator. After getting a full briefing on the committee’s decision, there were hugs all around.

While sitting in the passenger seat of the same 2010 silver Ford Explorer that faithfully waited in the hospital parking lot for 3 months that fateful summer, I came to realize that I’ve been through an amazing 8 years. The experience included a heart attack, cardiac arrest, ARDS, medically-induced coma, physical rehab, spiritual awakening, heart failure, and transplant workup.

I’m eternally grateful that I haven’t gone through this all alone. I’ve had God, family, friends, medical professionals, and readers of this blog walking by my side every step of the way. I pray that you all will continue the journey with me. Now I’m moving on to my next adventure. I don’t know what the future will bring. I just know that I’ll face it with faith, hope and love.

 

 

 

Dad’s Death Taught Me How to Live

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My dad and me on my baptism ca. 1963

Several weeks ago, a friend observed that I was sending mixed messages on social media. One minute I’m dying and the next minute I’m at a party. He wondered aloud, “Which one is it?” After some reflection, I understood the question and acknowledged how readers of this blog could come to the same conclusion.

With respect to the first part of my friend’s observation, I’ll turn to Mark Twain. When the great 20th-century American humorist heard that a newspaper had published his obituary, the crafty old man quipped that, “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” To paraphrase the author of the classic Huckleberry Finn story, I’m not dying anytime soon.

Last week, my compadres were more direct after I paid a visit to the emergency room. They wondered what was really going on. Although my energy is limited, they remarked that I seem upbeat and continue to do many of the things that I love to do. In many ways, that didn’t make sense to them. My comadre finally blurted out, “How sick are you, Comps?” The answer to that question is a tad bit more complicated.

After a massive heart attack over 8 years ago, doctors diagnosed hat I had congestive heart failure. This means that the heart doesn’t efficiently pump enough blood needed to nourish the body. I’m not alone. According to the American Heart Association, 5.7 million Americans suffer from heart failure and the disease accounts for 1 in 4 deaths in the U.S.

About half of those with heart failure die within 5 years of diagnosis. With a whole bunch of faith and the support of family, friends, and health professionals, my first 7 ½ years living with heart failure was relatively smooth. Earlier this year, the smooth sailing entered choppy waters.

On February 27th, Sandra and I were out to dinner (for my salt monitors, it was a restaurant that prepares no-salt meals for me). While engaged in conversation, I suddenly became dizzy and lightheaded. Before I could finish telling Sandra about how I felt, I passed out. I woke up to Sandra caressing my head and asking, “Eddie, Eddie…are you ok?”

By the time I became fully aware of my surroundings, an ambulance arrived to take me to the emergency room. The ER doctors admitted me into the hospital to do a battery of tests. The next morning, my cardiologist confirmed that my heart started racing and triggered a device inserted into my heart 7 years ago to prevent fatal cardiac arrest. Thankfully, the machine worked.

Over the past 6 months, I’ve been to the ER three times, hospitalized twice, and had umpteen appointments with the cardiologist. I’m also doing an evaluation to determine if I’m a candidate for a heart transplant. That process is almost complete. So far, the findings indicate that I’m pretty healthy for a guy my age, with the exception of my heavily damaged heart.

The short answer to my comadre’s question is that I’m very sick. By itself, the current care plan of eating right, taking prescribed medication, and exercising isn’t working anymore. I need to take more aggressive steps to extend my life. Fortunately, there are options that didn’t exist a generation ago for heart failure patients.

In the past, many people died waiting for a transplant. Technology now allows doctors to place a mechanical pump on the heart so patients can continue with their lives until a new heart is available. Once the evaluation is complete, the cardiac team will decide if I’m a candidate and recommend a course of action.

This brings us to the second part of my friend’s and compadres’ observations. I still go to parties, work with east side students, exercise every day, listen to live music, and enjoy going to dinner and the movies with Sandra. If my heart is that sick, how can I still do these things? Faith and my dad’s final days provide the explanation.

My dad was a tough cookie. He lived through the Great Depression without a father, went to war when he was 16 years old (he served in the U.S. Navy during WWII), worked 2 and 3 jobs to support his family of 6 kids, and sent us all to college. I learned all I needed to know about being a man from him.

He taught me how take care of a family, work hard, be a gentleman, maintain a vehicle, properly order a drink in a bar, throw a curve ball, and shoot a jump shot. He’s the reason I love to read and have a passion for sports, music, history, and politics. Because of him, I know the proper way to tie a tie, wear a suit, and polish my shoes. He was a man’s man. I can’t avoid the cliche that he’s my hero, because he is.

Dad’s health took a turn for the worse when he was in his mid 50s. He had a heart attack and a series of small strokes over the next 10 years. By his late 60s, he had a major stroke that left him unable to keep his balance or do much more than sit on his easy chair watching TV. The stubborn nature that guided him through tough times prevented him from seeking physical rehab and using a walker, cane, or wheelchair. He was 69 years old when he died twenty-three years ago, bitter about his fate.

His passing was devastating. He loved life and lived it to the fullest. He loved being around people. I was angry at him because it appeared that he had given up on himself. It was all or nothing for him, so he detested being compromised. As I watched him slowly wither away in self-imposed solitude, I learned life’s biggest lesson. I didn’t have to do it all to enjoy a full life.

I made a commitment that I wouldn’t allow my own stubborn nature to get in the way of enjoying life. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful at that most of the time. I was too focused on getting my way on the road to “success.” When my health took a turn for the worse at 46 – 10 years younger than my dad –  I was at a crossroads. Because of my experience with his final days, I chose the road that led to living with my limitations as best as I could. To use a baseball metaphor, I plan to go down swinging.

I’ve written in the past how my faith journey has taught me to accept God’s will. Faith inspires me to live every day to the fullest my energy allows while facing the possibility of a shorter life than expected. Faith has also given me the courage to accept the way my dad lived out his final days. It the end, I now know that it was God’s will. Dad continues to be my greatest teacher. His death taught me how to live.

Why I Write

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Eddie Garcia – June 7, 2018

Four years ago, I embarked on an epic adventure. At the suggestion and encouragement of family, friends, and others, I decided to write about my experiences with a heart attack and Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. That idea evolved into an account of how my life led to that fateful summer. I completed a draft of the first two parts of the story early this year.

For the last six months or so, I struggled to find my voice to share the spiritual journey that came along with the health challenges. With fits and starts, I tried to convey what my heart was telling me. I just couldn’t articulate what I felt, which was a powerful connection to what St. Paul the Apostle called “faith, hope, and love.” Eventually, I stopped writing.

When I started my two-finger  pecking at the keys of the computer four years ago, I made the critical decision to share my story with unvarnished honesty. I wanted to put into words an accurate analysis of what may have caused the heart attack. To that end, I decided to be open about flunking out on my first try at college, being diagnosed with anxiety disorder, and struggling with low self-esteem.

These and other revelations about my life were difficult to share, especially after cultivating the persona of a successful corporate executive and public servant. As someone who sometimes allowed anxiety to dominate my thoughts, I was scared the first time I posted the dark side of my life. I was well aware that there would be those who criticized my intentions.

As I continued on this literary journey, I found that writing in the form of a storyteller made inputting the words into a computer more like composing fiction. Using interviews with family and friends and my extensive medical record, this approach helped me maintain the integrity of the text and prevented me from exaggerating my tale of survival.

All that changed when I began drafting the final part of my story. I couldn’t find a way to express how understanding faith and accepting God was was the real reason for my experience. There were no stories to tell and no records to pore over. Like faith itself, my spiritual journey seemed impossible to put into words.

Then my health made a predicted downturn and now there are more stories to tell. As my heart continues to weaken, my faith continues to strengthen. The health challenges of the past six months have inspired me to write again. I find that articulating my reliance on faith, hope, and love to guide me through the challenges ahead is easier to do with actual life experiences as a backdrop.

I had reservations about sharing my health circumstances as they happened. The summer of 2010 was so long ago that telling the story was possible without succumbing to emotions of the moment. I ultimately became comfortable with discussing what happened in the past. Posting about health scares in the here and now is a different matter. I again worried that some would question my reasons for sharing something so intimate in real time.

After much thought and consultation with those I trust, I decided to move forward with exposing medical events as they occur, including the photo of me in a hospital gown with a tube sticking out of my neck (https://esereport.com/2018/07/31/you-only-live-four-times/). That was at Sandra’s suggestion. With over 1,000 readers logging in, it has become one of the most viewed articles on ESEReport.com.

That brings me to why I write. First and foremost, I hope to inspire people who are going through similar circumstances. Battling a serious medical condition is a lonely endeavor. I’m lucky to have an amazing support system. I can’t imagine how hard it would be with little or no support. Hopefully, my story will remind those fighting for their lives that they’re not alone.

Now that I’ve found my voice, I also want to use my stories to be an evangelist for the miracle of accepting God. I don’t want to knock on doors and corner people to preach or hard-sell religion. That’s not my thing. I respect all religious and philosophical traditions. Accepting that a higher power is in control of my destiny changed my life. I recommend that you give it a try. With the heartfelt belief that whatever happens is part of God’s plan, you’ll be able to confront what comes your way without fear.

I write because I can. God gave me the gift of putting into words my thoughts and feelings. Like every person He has put on this earth, I’ve been on quite a ride. Writing my story has been therapeutic. Sharing my experiences has put into perspective what’s truly important in my life. I encourage you to write your unique story, even if you decide to share it with the world.

Live Every Day Like It’s Your Last

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Enjoying an afternoon with Sandra and the girls in downtown San Jose

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Live every day like it’s your last day.

When surfing social media, I see these pieces of advice and their variations multiple times a day. I’m not sure how many people posting these sensible nuggets of counsel really believe what they’re saying or merely passing on a slogan. For those that use them for sloganeering and self-motivation, the trick is turning the catchphrases into true core beliefs. That’s not easy to do.

I think I have solid credentials to write about this. I spent most of my adult life sweating the small stuff and looking for tomorrow’s opportunities. I monitored every detail of my professional life. When things didn’t turn out just so, my stomach would tie up in knots until I fixed the mishap and made adjustments for next time. My mind was working around the clock.

At home, the slightest hint of disapproval from Sandra would gnaw at me for days. My busy schedule and non-stop preparing for the next move would keep me distracted for weeks at a time. When that caused strains in family time, I was constantly in a state of looking for the next open weekend or vacation to make amends.

For an anxious person, the small stuff and trying to shape the future are amplified even more. I was diagnosed with general anxiety in 2004. A Harvard study published in 2012 reported that patients with a genetic disposition for heart disease “who have generalized anxiety disorder – constant, pervasive worrying, even about mundane matters – are more likely to have heart attacks and serious heart problems.”

Here’s how heart disease researchers think it works. The heart labors harder because anxiety sufferers are in a constant state of adrenalin fueled “fight or flight.” In that state, the body prepares for an altercation and the blood thickens to prevent excessive bleeding from a cut or blow. For people like me with a family history of clogged arteries, the combination of narrow vessels, thick blood, and pieces of plaque floating around could be deadly.

Throughout my life, I heard the wise advice to not sweat the small stuff and live every day like it’s your last a zillion times. I regularly vowed to follow it. Unfortunately, I was never able to really embrace it, until God intervened during the summer of 2010. It turned out to be another one of His amazing gifts to me.

For over 100 days, He gave me a bunch of big stuff to sweat about. Before I signed the surgery approval form, the surgeon was required to advise me that my chance for survival was 50/50. When ICU doctors recommended putting me into a medically induced coma, I agreed knowing I might never wake up. I emerged from the coma paralyzed from medication and a month on a ventilator. I didn’t know what laid ahead.

That summer, God taught me that what I wanted wasn’t as important as what He wanted for me. Heart disease and complications ravaged my body. He wanted me to fight for my life and my family. He didn’t want me to think about tomorrow or the next day. He wanted me to concentrate every minute on the task at hand.

Once I awoke from the coma, I had no choice but to put His lessons into action. At first it was difficult as I wanted to go back to my old ways. I learned that I had to take it one day at a time. I couldn’t give up when simple things like lifting a spoon to my mouth or walking to the bathroom seemed impossible. During the next few years, I kept learning that worrying about unimportant things didn’t help. Looking too far ahead was fruitless. Living for the day became a way of life.

The world looks so much differently now. I see people “hangry” at restaurants because the food is taking too long. I hear people grumble about co-workers and agonize about wanting to make more money. Scrolling through Facebook and Instagram, we read about family spats over an unknown slight. I understand those very human emotions, so I want to sit with every person feeling pain and share the gift God gave to me.

Last week, I dedicated my daily walk on social media to a young man and family friend who has lived with muscular dystrophy since he was a kid. He spends most of his life in a wheelchair. When I see his smiling face while enjoying a concert or hear about how he is doing, I marvel at how he faces the challenges that most of us can’t even imagine. He and his family are the personification of courageous fighters. I hope to follow their example every day.

When the small stuff starts getting to you, take a deep breath and let it go. If you suffer from anxiety, depression, or any assortment of ailments that get in the way, seek professional guidance and share your story so you can find the silver linings. I was so consumed with the small stuff and the future that I almost let the beauty of life pass by.

Here’s some advice: Don’t sweat the small stuff. I know it’s easier said than done, but I’m convinced that this is what God wants from all of us. There are so many things that can be barriers to living that philosophy. I learned how to dismiss the mini roadblocks the hard way. My life changed drastically overnight. Don’t wait for that. Live every day like it’s your last.

 

 

 

 

 

You Only Live Four Times!

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My brother David once told me that I was like a cat with 9 lives. He was talking about how I bounced back from failing at my first try at college and rebounded from devastating election defeats. I went on to finish college with honors and ultimately served in public office. Of course he didn’t know at the time that his comment also could have been about my battle with heart failure.

Taking a cue from Drake, I’ve taken on YOLO – You Only Live Once – as my motto for this fight, with a few adjustments along the way. First, I stayed alive after a heart attack in 2010. Second, I survived cardiac arrest when doctors shocked me back to life. Third, I lived to tell the tale of a summer on life support in the ICU due to a rare lung complication from the heart attack.

After that summer, I adopted YOLT – You Only Live Thrice (yes that’s a word) – as my rallying cry. For some reason, God has chosen me to stay around for a while. Not questioning His will, I’m just going with it. Last week, I added another life to my résumé. Now my motto is YOLF – You Only Live Four Times (weirdly, there’s no single word for the fourth time).

Boy do I have a story to tell…

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a candidate for a heart transplant. This is great news! Getting on an organ transplant list is a rigorous process. The candidate has to have the odd combination of great health and a nearly inoperable heart. It requires a long evaluation period called the heart transplant workup, a comprehensive list of medical and mental health exams.

A key part of the workup is a procedure called the right heart catheterization – otherwise known as a right cath. It’s a procedure that measures lung pressure. This is critical to getting on the transplant list. A previous right cath showed that I had high lung pressure, not a good sign. After taking a new medication for a couple of months, the doctors wanted to check it again.

Heart catheterizations are common – according the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about 1 million are done each year in the United States. To measure lung pressure, a heart surgeon inserts a wire called a Swan-Ganz through a small incision in the neck and into the arteries that connect the lungs and heart.

The procedure is done in a cold and sterile operating room. Lying on a narrow operating table, heated blankets kept me warm as the right cath team prepared for the procedure. To ensure the accuracy of the measurements, patients aren’t sedated.

With my head turned to the right, the team placed a small tarp-like covering over the right side of my head to give the doctor a clear view of my neck. I could see the nurse in front of me and hear the doctor and technicians behind me. The doctor explained the procedure and asked if I had any questions. Once the prep was complete, the doctor numbed my neck with local anesthetic.

Everything was going smoothly like the last time I underwent a right cath. I felt the doctor pushing on my neck as the he threaded the Swan-Ganz into my neck and arteries. Midway through the procedure, I felt a weird tickling sensation in my chest. It was like the wire was poking against the inside of my heart. I didn’t feel that the last time, so I told the doctor about the sensation.

Acknowledging my comment, the doctor described making an adjustment to the insertion and continued. The sensation started intensifying. Before I could relay this to the doctor, he announced to the team that he was pulling the wire out. He asked if I felt better and I responded, “yes.”

Suddenly, my heart started racing! I was taking shallow breaths and felt like I was sprinting. I heard the doctor shout, “Place the pads!” He then asked me, “Are you still with us, Mr. García?” I was scared, but replied, “Yes, I’m still here.” For the first time in the 8 years since the heart attack, I believed that I was going to die.

With my eyes tightly shut, a million thoughts raced through my mind. The old tale that you “see your life flash before your eyes before dying” didn’t happen. I thought about my faith journey and God’s will. I worried that I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Sandra and the girls. These thoughts swirled through my mind in a matter of a few seconds.

The doctor calmly said, “We’re going to give you a shock, Mr. García.” Then…POW!

Some have said that the shock of a heart defibrillator is like getting kicked in the chest by a donkey. I think my donkey was driving a car when it hit me. I felt a massive blow to the chest and saw a bright flash of light as my eyes opened. My body jumped off the table and I screamed “Oh, shit” and the F-word about 62 times (or something like that). I could feel the electric current from head to toe.

The doctor confirmed that my heart was back in rhythm. I was going to be okay. He repeatedly apologized for shocking me without sedation, but my heart rate was rising too fast. His action prevented me from going into potentially fatal cardiac arrest. Lying on the table, I was shaking like a scared Chihuahua and my teeth were chattering uncontrollably. The nurses that rushed to the room covered me with heated blankets, held my hands, and comforted me.

When I calmed down, I too apologized for yelling out the F-word so many times. The team smiled and assured me that I just went through a traumatic experience. I asked for Sandra and Erica who were in the waiting room. The doctor went out to talk to Sandra and they came into see me shortly thereafter. I met them with a big smile to assure them.

The doctor sent me to the ICU so my cardiologist could determine if there was any damage to my heart. All tests came back negative. My heart just got annoyed with the intrusion at that moment and decided to send a strong message. I guess my heart is so moody sometimes.

God once again decided that it wasn’t my time. Seven hours after the shock, I agreed to go back in and finish the right cath procedure. I wasn’t nervous and I was no longer scared.

As St. Paul might say, I went back into that cold room with “faith, hope, and love.” The procedure was smooth, just like the other million or so that will be done this year. The result was another mini-miracle. My lung pressure decreased significantly with the new medication. My cardiologist was happily shocked (pun intended) with the results.

I checked off another part of the workup. I feel good. With the fourth life God has given, I will continue to do the things that I love: spending time with Sandra and supporting Marisa and Erica as they pursue their dreams, working to help east side kids and emerging community leaders, and taking daily walks to music that makes me smile.

For a few days after the shock, I was haunted by the words, “Are you still with us, Mr. García?” At the time, I didn’t know if he was asking me if I was still alive or if I was still conscious. I kept hearing the question in my mind. Eventually I turned to my faith and realized that it didn’t matter what he meant. Faith gave me the courage to write this post.

The experience highlighted another lesson I have learned from this long journey. There’s a silver lining to every cloud. There are so many people enduring what I’m going through or suffering from cancer, depression, anxiety, a job loss, a broken marriage, and countless other life challenges.

For those who are going through tough times of your own, I encourage you to put your trust in faith, hope, and love.  Look for the silver linings. They’re there. They’ll help you carry on through the challenges. Trust me on this one.

By the way, if my brother is right, I still have 5 lives to go. Stay tuned!

Life is for Living!

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The García family this weekend at the Bay Bridge Series in Oakland

For the past four years, I’ve been taking you on a journey about a life-changing health crisis. The left side of my heart started failing 8 years ago after an artery called the widow-maker was 100% clogged. The result was a heart attack that inflicted massive damage to that side of the heart.

For 8 years, the healthy right side of my heart was compensating for the nearly inoperable left side. Now, the right side of my heart is starting to get tired. This was completely expected. Thankfully, it’s taken longer than doctors predicted. Nevertheless, we’re here now.

Three measurements tell the story of how my heart is working:

The first is the Ejection Fraction (EF), which calculates how efficiently the muscle over the left side of the heart pumps oxygenated blood to feed your other organs. Standard EF is 55-65%. My EF is 10%.

The second is called Cardiac Index. It’s a complicated formula that measures how well (or poorly) the blood flows from the left side of the heart to the body. Normal blood flow is 2.6 to 3.7 liters per minute. My Cardiac Index is 1.6.

The third is Pulmonary Hypertension (PH). This is blood pressure in the arteries that connect the right side of the heart to the lungs. The indicator is called Mean PH. A healthy Mean PH is 25-35. My Mean PH is 42.

To make a long story short, I’m getting sicker.

The right side of my heart is starting to fail. At the same time, God and I are getting tighter. I’m so grateful that my 8-year long spiritual journey has led me to this moment. He has taught me about hope, faith, and love. I’ve learned to fully acknowledge my circumstances and accept what He has given. I’m ready to take on the next phase of my life.

It was therapeutic to jot down my thoughts about the heart attack, the complications that left me in a medically-induced coma, and long rehab. As I wrote, my mind and soul opened to receive the gift of faith. I debated about writing about what’s next. Sharing my faith journey as it happens is inspiring, but I’m not so sure about writing about my ongoing health in the same way.

The inspiration for my story, Summer in the Waiting Room, has been to bring hope to individuals and families facing seemingly discouraging circumstances. With faith, family, and friends, I was able to overcome long odds and continue living a meaningful life. I hope sharing the next phase of my health journey in real time will encourage others confronting life-changing decisions.

Taking medications as prescribed, regular exercise, sticking to a healthy low-fat and low-salt diet, and great medical care has kept me alive and kicking since 2010. Sometime in the future, that regimen won’t work anymore. My heart has been a workhorse and it’s running out of steam. To address this reality, my cardiologist has laid out a few options.

The choices include a heart transplant, a mechanical pumping device, and continued adjustments to medications. Each alternative has its pros and cons. The first is wrought with potential complications, including rejection. The second is less invasive, but may require a dramatic change in lifestyle. The third is the least complicated and the least effective.

In the not so far future, I’ll have another set of life-changing decisions looking at me in the face. Spiritual soul-searching, doing homework on the options, and praying and consulting with Sandra, Marisa, and Erica is the game plan going forward. This is where faith steps in. With this in mind, I recently paid a visit to a parish monsignor who has become a dear friend.

The monsignor has always been available to guide me through my faith journey. He’s been along for the whole ride. He visited the hospital during that challenging summer 8 years ago to provide comfort, prayer, and guidance to Sandra, and the girls. As I outlined the decisions I’m soon to confront, he thoughtfully suggested a path for reflection.

We ended our visit with the Prayer for Discernment:

God our Father,
You have a plan for each one of us,
You hold out to us a future full of hope.

Give us the wisdom of your Spirit
so that we can see the shape
of your plan in the gifts
you have given us,
and in the circumstances
of our daily lives.

With a clear mind and a faithful heart, I’ve spent many hours reflecting on my circumstances and consulting with my family. Of the three choices that will define my future, I like one, I’m reluctant about another, and I’ve dismissed a third. The deliberations will continue with faith, family, and friends by my side.

The good news is that I have time. The decision isn’t imminent. My doctors had the foresight to begin the process early. I’ve taken a multitude of tests to determine my eligibility for a transplant or implantation of a mechanical device and I have a few more months of tests to go. Conditions have to be just right to get a positive recommendation from a committee of specialists and doctors.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to live the life that I love. As time goes by, fatigue will play a bigger role in how I do that, so I’ve learned how to better manage my energy. Mastering that has allowed me to carry on working my passion of advising Latino emerging community leaders and supporting east side high school kids. I still walk and exercise every day.

If I’ve learned anything from the past 8 years, dwelling on what went wrong is not the way to go. Life is for living. This past weekend, Sandra, Marisa, Erica, and I were together laughing, telling stories, and enjoying each other and extended family. I even got in a few dances as a DJ spun tunes at the Giants vs. A’s tailgate. It was a whirlwind weekend.

This morning my world is back to normal. I have lots to think about and more to be grateful for. There are serious decisions for me to make down the road. I want to do what’s best for me and my family. With their support and God’s guidance, I know it will all work out.

On another note, thank you for allowing me to share my story with you for the past four years. Sharing my thoughts has been a blessing to me. I hope it helps others facing similar life-changing decisions. Stay tuned. God willing, there’s a bunch more to come.

Finding True Happiness

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Kicking back on a summer day – 2018

I don’t think I’m a selfish person. Part of this assessment comes from my personality and part is my upbringing. Whether I offered to carry groceries into the house for my mom as kid or pulled the wagon of milk cartons to kindergarten class, I was always the boy that made himself available to lend a helping hand.

Growing up, the concept of needing something overshadowed wanting something. My parents provided everything I needed: unconditional love and support, food, shelter, clothing, and an occasional jelly donut from Peter’s Bakery. Unlike other kids, I didn’t have a Lite Bright set or electric race car track. That was okay by me.

I think I’ve been pretty unselfish as a man too. Nonetheless, I’ve done many selfish things in my life. I first started realizing this when I made the 6th grade basketball team. The kids who lived in the big houses “up the hill” wore red suede Nike high tops to match our uniforms. I wanted those shoes too.

The problem was that they cost $24 ($105 in today’s money). My parents couldn’t afford that, so the answer was “no.” It was the first time I remember feeling deep disappointment about not getting something. After wearing canvas basketball shoes for a couple of seasons, my mom saved enough money to buy the suede Nikes for my 8th grade year.

I had mixed feelings. I felt bad because I knew my mom sacrificed and scrimped to pay for them, yet I was happy because I got what I wanted. In high school, I couldn’t wait to get a part-time job. That way, I could get the things I wanted without having to ask my parents.

My parents’ insistence on working hard made sense. If I wanted something, all I had to do was work for it. There were a couple of hitches that my parents warned about. Getting what you want won’t necessarily make you happy and focusing on your desires can lead to selfishness. In hindsight, I should have paid better attention to those lessons.

After flunking out of college on my first try, I proceeded tirelessly to make amends. What I wanted was redemption from that failure. I knew that if I worked hard enough, I would get what I wished for. With every new career accomplishment or material acquisition, I would soar with happiness. With each setback, I would dwell in self-pity and displeasure.

Not completely heeding my parents’ advice impacted me negatively. When I was happy, I was generous with my spirit and my time. When I was disillusioned, I could be selfish with my mood and attention. I wanted to be the best father, executive, husband, public servant. But, I was a slave to my wishes and justified it with my “successes.”

Most of us are under the impression that getting what we want leads to happiness. That belief drove my quest for redemption from that early failure in college and dominated the first few years of living with heart failure. Exploring faith has enlightened me about the intersection of selfishness and unhappiness.

Finding true happiness has been a result of my faith journey. I’ve become a big fan of St. Paul the Apostle along the way. His lessons on love are inspiring. Paul emphasizes that “love isn’t self-seeking.” He also teaches us that the path to true happiness is accepting that life isn’t about achieving and acquiring.

One could say that just prior to having a massive heart attack, I was a man that “had it all.” My life was full with a beautiful loving wife and two wonderful daughters, a career I couldn’t dream up as a kid, the stereotypical middle-class luxury car and nice house in a desirable neighborhood, lots of friends, and a future seemingly without limits.

I look back and now realize that I wasn’t really happy. I hadn’t been for most of adulthood. I was too busy trying to be successful, too busy looking for that magic bullet that leads to genuine contentment.

That didn’t mean there weren’t joyful times. Being with Sandra and the girls and giving back to the community as a corporate executive and public official made me happy. Unfortunately, those instances were short-term and the professional generosity had strings attached.

Psychologists call this circumstantial happiness. That was me. In fact, that’s most of us. Research published in Psychology Today shows that “happiness is not the result of bouncing from one joy to the next.” The pattern of unhappiness sprinkled with moments of joy started in college and continued well into my battle with heart failure.

Since my life altering illness, I spend most of my time alone. I had never done well by myself. Being around people is a big part of those happy times. Left alone with my thoughts, I sulked over the desire to return to my normal life. I wanted the exciting career back. I wanted to shoot hoops with the kids. I wanted to eat bad food. I wanted to dance with Sandra well into the night.

Then my outlook started changing. The more time I spent alone reflecting on life, the more I got to know myself. Despite my ambition, I wasn’t meant to be an executive that expects something in return for a good deal or a public official doing good works for votes and recognition. I was destined to be the same unselfish little boy that carried groceries for my mom, but in a man’s body.

True happiness is a state of mind. Like good art, you know it when you feel it. For the first time in my adult life, I’m truly happy. I still feel anger, frustration, sadness, and anxiety. But those sensations are no longer the main event. They’re merely brief circumstantial encounters that interrupt my general state of contentment.

My existence and happiness aren’t dependent on getting what I want anymore. I accept all that I have and I’m grateful for everything that’s happened to me, including the probability that my life expectancy isn’t promising. St. Paul helped me understand how I feel. While awaiting a death sentence, he wrote, “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”

Yup, I get it now and I’m happy.

Why It Matters – New Blog Series

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Image by cbsnews.com

History matters. Politics matter.

You have to know a little bit about the first to better understand the second. American history is required for all high school students, but it could be pretty boring. “All men are created equal…“Four score and seven years ago…” “Ask not what your country can do for you…” Blah, blah, blah…YAWN!

I was one of those weird kids that loved history. I was so inspired by my high school teachers that I chose history as my college major. That led to a fascination in politics. I spent the next 25 years working in and around politics. It was an amazing and eye opening experience. That’s how I learned that you have to understand one to get the other.

Whether you hate Donald Trump or love him, we are at a crossroads in American history right now. Politics is why we’re in this uncomfortable state of affairs. History tells us that it didn’t start with Trump. Politics will ultimately show us the way out of this sticky situation. I want to share what I know about both to help those who want to make sense out of this mess.

I’m starting this blog series with that in mind. There are people who read my posts and might call me a “know-it-all.” That’s okay. I’m not and I don’t want to be. I’ve just had some educational and career experiences that have helped me appreciate how it works. It’s also given me the confidence that we’ll get through this interesting time as a nation.

Let’s kick-off with one of the president’s favorite rhetorical sayings, “If we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country.” Well, he’s missing the point. The United States of America isn’t just a country, it’s an idea. It proposes that people can be safe, prosperous, and happy if they are free. It’s one of the boldest ideas in human history. It was the first democracy in the modern world.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, those boring documents we were forced to study in class, layout the plan. The Preamble of the Constitution says it all. Check it out at:

https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/preamble

It’s a fancy 18th century way of saying that the United States government was set up to make sure that all people are treated fairly, protected from harm, offered equal opportunities, and guaranteed freedom. These are still pretty bold ideas. For the past 240-plus years, the government hasn’t always done that. Slavery, Native American genocide, and segregation are just a few examples of our government’s failures.

People have diverse viewpoints about how to accomplish these ideas. That’s where politics comes in. Politics is the art of figuring out how to make all this happen. The fact that people have different understandings, beliefs, backgrounds, and experiences is the reason why politics are so messy.

The Constitution, tradition, and our value system have always guided our leaders on how to resolve differences. Usually the formula works and sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, it isn’t working very well right now. I’ll explore that next time.