Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (excerpt #47)

 

Patient on ventilator -image does not reflect actual events - Image by www.heart-valve-surgery.com (click on image to read all excerpts)
Image does not reflect actual events – Image by http://www.heart-valve-surgery.com 

Author’s note: The following passage is from the manuscript of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.  This is the 47th excerpt in the series. Click on the image to read ALL excerpts.

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The next morning, I had stabilized enough to move to the coronary care unit. The dilation issue with my eye was resolved and I started responding to commands and answering questions by shaking my head (I couldn’t talk with the tube blocking my vocal chords). Despite the fact that I was alert and responding, I don’t remember much in the hours and days following the cardiac arrest episode.

My sister Sisi arrived that morning. While she and Barbara were in the room with me, I used my limited sign language skills to communicate with them. Barbara learned to sign so she could converse with her oldest daughter, Becca, who is deaf. Sisi, close in age to Becca, learned at a young age and studied sign language formally. So, both of my sisters are fluent in American sign-language.

The first-born of my nieces and nephews, Becca stole my heart the minute I first saw her. I was just a kid and I mastered a few signs, which allowed me to talk with Becca in “broken” sign language. Barbara later recounted that I weakly signed to her and Sisi that I wasn’t going anywhere and to tell Sandra and the girls that I would be okay. Barbara interpreted my messages as a way to assure my family that I wasn’t giving up any time soon.

Later that day, Erica arrived from Washington, D.C.  The flight home was uneventful with her friend Maya by her side. Other than small talk and junior high school girl gossip, they didn’t say much. Just as she had been after the heart attack twelve days before, Erica appeared as though the events of the past two weeks were nothing more than a bump in the road.

She later told me that faith kept her from worrying about what could happen and she believed that I would fight my way out of this. I have no memory of when she got to the room, but Sandra told me that I was alert and smiling when she walked in. Erica brought a couple of souvenirs for me, a copy of the Declaration of Independence and a baseball from the Smithsonian Institution. Sandra said I held the gifts in my hands like they were treasure.

Two days after the dreadful cardiac arrest, my lungs continued to clear and doctors considered removing the intubation tube.  The plan moving forward once my lungs had stabilized was to consider options to resolve my heart issues. Unfortunately, as the effect of the sedatives weakened, I beat the doctors to the punch and removed the tube myself.

The tube inserted down my throat was almost a half inch in diameter and long enough to reach all the way to the trachea, which is the “windpipe” that goes directly into the lungs. I vaguely remember what it felt like to have the tube in my throat, and it’s a scary and helpless sensation. Pulling the tube out could have caused tremendous damage ripping through my windpipe, potentially scarring vocal chords and all tissue leading out of the mouth.

Once again, everyone was on high alert. When news reached the waiting room of my antics, Sandra uttered two words that would be repeated throughout the summer, “Now what?” Gathering around the doctor who had resolved the issue, everyone listened intently as he explained what had happened. According to a nurse, I was getting restless and tugging at the tube, and when the nurse turned away, I yanked it out.

Scrambling quickly to stop any bleeding from the throat and continue providing oxygen to my lungs, doctors and nurses stabilized me and put a clear oxygen mask over my nose and mouth. To ensure that I didn’t pull the mask off, the nurse sedated me and strapped my hands to the bed to keep them from moving.

When Sandra finally saw me, I was fast asleep with a mischievous grin on my face and hands tied down. She couldn’t help chuckling with renewed hope because her travieso (troublemaker) was showing signs of life.

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Next Wednesday: Sandra and the girls inspire me to prepare for the fight of my life…

Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (excerpt #46)

ICU at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center
ICU at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center – Click on image to read all excerpts

Author’s note: The following passage from the manuscript of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.  This installment is excerpt #46.

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As Sandra waited for an opportunity to see me come out of recovery, family and friends continued to stream into the hospital. By mid-afternoon, visitors had filled the waiting room to capacity and started to line the walls in the wide hallways that led to the ICU.

The waiting room was a simple and narrow rectangular space, about 25 feet long and 10 feet wide, painted avocado green along the back wall and painted white on the wall adjacent to the hallway. Four small rectangular windows hung on the white wall to allow those inside to look out to the hallway and those in the hallway to look into the room.

Chairs and a few end tables scattered with magazines lined the room, a 20-inch television dangled catty-corner on the right window-side, and a telephone hung near the bathroom door on the backside of the room.

The hallway was sparse and wide allowing gurneys and other medical equipment to easily and quickly maneuver through. Next to the waiting room windows, silver letters and numbers that read, “ICU 2300-2309,” adorned the avocado colored wall.

To the right of the windows were two large non-descript white windowless doors that opened up into the ICU. A plain black phone and a fire extinguisher hung securely to the green wall next to the doors. The floors were made of beige and brown linoleum tiles immaculately polished so the reflection of the fluorescent lights above bounced off the surface.

The wide hallway, usually quiet and serene, buzzed with nervous chatter as visitors steadily arrived on June 18th. Behind the plain double doors in the ICU, I was struggling to stay alive. My blood pressure was 40/30, morbidly below a healthy 120/80, and the oxygen saturation in my lungs maintained a level slightly above 80%.

Doctors monitored me closely as oxygen levels continued to plummet. When oxygen levels consistently stay below 90%, organs begin to lose function causing irreparable damage to the body, especially brain function. Dr. Fisk explained to Sandra that the cardiac arrest episode had done significant damage to my heart and impacted my lungs. The next 48 hours would be critical for my survival.

While doctors were grappling with the breathing problems, one of my eyes had dilated and caused me to be disoriented and confused. My lungs were saturated with fluid caused by the heart’s increasingly diminishing function. Blood pressure had increased to 90/60, but the heart was beating so weakly that fluid kept backing up into my lungs causing my heart to work even harder.

In addition to all of the coronary drugs flowing through my veins, doctors administered Lasix, a diuretic that increases the flow of urine to help clear the lungs of fluid. The fear of my weak heart racing again or slowing to a complete stop required Amiodarone, a strong and toxic medication that prevents the heart from beating at the extremes.

As the day wore on, the team of doctors decided to install a tube into my mouth, through the throat and vocal chords, and straight into the lungs to deliver oxygen to the body. This procedure, called intubation, causes extreme pain and requires patients to be sedated. With the intubation tube sending air into my lungs and the Amiodarone regulating my heart rate, oxygen levels began to rise and I began to stabilize for the time being.

Concerned that the extended time with a low oxygen rate may have caused bleeding in my brain, doctors ordered a CT scan. Hours later, the scan indicated that the episode had not negatively impacted the brain or caused any bleeding. Although I was in critical condition, the ICU medical team had bought enough time for cardiologists to focus on my heart.

Outside in the wide hallways with shiny beige and white floors and avocado colored walls, the crowd of visitors swelled. Before the day was over, Sandra estimated that over 100 people had stopped by to show support, pray, and offer help.

Adding to our already large family, came friends from work, the community, family friends, former players from my coaching days, and Sandra’s friends. At one point, visitors filled two waiting rooms and the hallways that led to them. Hospital personnel concerned about the growing crowd asked Sandra to encourage people to leave.

She told the staff that she couldn’t ask people to leave and she wouldn’t do so.

I used to joke with Sandra that my funeral would be brief and attended by just a few people, but the presence at the hospital on that long day shattered that prediction. Sandra recounts how she was overwhelmed by the support. The love and prayers coming from the ICU waiting rooms and hallways permeated into the room I shared with monitors and round the clock nurses.

The “longest day,” June 18, 2010, finally came to an end. To the relief of all, I slept through the night.

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Next Wednesday: The battle to improve my lung function continues as my heart remains weak…

Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (excerpt #45)

Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center (image from www.allianceroofingcal.com)
Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center
(image from http://www.allianceroofingcal.com)

Author’s note: Excerpt #45 of the manuscript of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life, is the last post for 2014. The story will return on Wednesday, January 7, 2015. To read all 45 excerpts, click on the image above. Happy Holidays!!

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After three hours, Dr. Fisk emerged from the surgery room and walked into the packed waiting room with no emotion on his face. We would all later come to understand that Dr. Fisk’s bedside manner was straightforward. He made no effort to offer the silver lining families so wanted to hear. He bluntly told Sandra that they had cleared out the blood clot, but more damage was inflicted on my heart and the prognosis for a complete recovery was grim. Everyone stood in stunned silence.

When I moved from the operating room to the Cardiac ICU, Sandra and the growing group of supporters followed along to the waiting room. The regular cast of characters that would be Sandra’s support system for the next three months began to form there: Marisa (Erica would arrive from Washington, D.C. the next day), Sandra’s parents, her sisters, brothers-in-law, and close friends Juanita and Melody.

As the day wore on, the circle of support continued to grow.  My sister Barbara would arrive later in the day as would Rudy, Will, and Rosa García, one of Sandra’s colleagues and loyal longtime friends.  This group would form the core of visitors that virtually inhabited the waiting room day after day throughout the month of July.

According to Miguel, Sandra was “like the captain of a ship.”  She was the center of the growing concentric circle of support and immediately took command of the situation communicating with doctors and assuring others that everything would be okay. The room was filled with tension, anxiety, and fear as the growing group waited to hear any update from the recovery room.

As people arrived, they went through a gauntlet of greetings, hugs, tears, and prayers ultimately getting to Sandra. According to Barbara, she was “strong and stoic” focused on the flow of information coming from the ICU. She would remain the anchor of the waiting room throughout the summer weathering each storm with the same determination and faith.  Melody said that Sandra “stayed strong for everyone else” no matter how good or bad the news was from doctors.

Throughout the ordeal, Marisa was nervous and anxious, hungry for any tidbit of information that would help her understand what was going on. Erica was quiet, showed little emotion, and questioned the faith of others when fear and despair set in. Mrs. Peralta and Kimberley served as the spiritual backbone leading the waiting room through prayer and reflection.

Shelley kept the room balanced with insightful questions for doctors to ponder sprinkled with witty comments that would bring much needed humor and relief to the room. Val and Mr. Peralta sat quietly in the background providing steady support.  During the first few weeks, Mrs. Peralta, Sandra’s sisters, Barbara, and George would be Sandra’s inner circle of advisers to help her make life and death decisions when doctors posed another dire development.

Rudy was the storyteller recounting our youthful adventures to howls of laughter and sharing intimate moments of brotherhood that brought tears and reflection to those listening.  With his outgoing personality, Pancho would play a variety of self-appointed roles while Eddie and Miguel quietly reinforced a sense of hope. Will, Juanita, and Melody provided vital emotional support to the family by their presence.

A day in the waiting room became part of Melody’s daily summer routine.  She wasn’t working at the time, so she would see Rudy off to work in the morning and get ready for the 30-minute drive to the hospital where she was “drawn to the waiting room by the love and support that filled the room.”

Food played a central role in the life of the waiting room as breakfast turned into lunch and lunch into dinner day after day. Of course, there were snacks throughout the day. As visitors came by to support Sandra and the girls, they would invariably bring something to eat or drink.  Visitors brought donuts, pastries, and coffee in the morning. Throughout the afternoon and evening, they would bring fruit, water, candy, soda, tacos, and sandwiches.

There was never a shortage of food and drink, and by mid-summer, the waiting room resembled a mini warehouse or a well-stocked emergency preparedness bunker on the eve of a devastating natural disaster. Sandra would remark that the outpouring of support, friendship, and love was “overwhelming.”

As I recovered from surgery on June 18th, Sandra made the first of many difficult decisions that confronted her during the next three months. Erica was still in Washington and scheduled to return with her class two days later on Sunday.  After consulting her mom, sisters, and the hospital social worker, Sandra decided that Erica should come home immediately.

Sandra called Ms. Kathy Cook, the 7th grade American history teacher who led the school’s annual trip to Washington, D.C., to tell her what had happened. Ms. Cook went to Erica’s hotel room to tell her that I was sick again and she had made reservations for Erica to take the first flight out of Washington the next morning. Maya Ruiz, Erica’s good friend from school, volunteered to travel back home with Erica.

Maya’s father Rogelio and I worked together on the school board where he served as the district’s general counsel. We had met years earlier, and became fast friends when we began working together and the girls began middle school. Our friendship would grow stronger that summer despite the fact that I was in a coma and incoherent during most of that time.

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Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life, will return on January 7, 2015.

Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (excerpt #44)

Image by www.medicaldaily.com (click on image to read all excerpts)
Image by http://www.medicaldaily.com
(click on image to read all excerpts)

Author’s note: The manuscript of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life, is divided into three parts. The title of Part 2 is The Waiting Room. Excerpt #44 is the third installment of  The Waiting Room.

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Once again, God entered the fray and intervened to calm me as my life hung in the balance. On June 7th, He sent Stacey Cook to the emergency room to strengthen my faith in Him, and on the morning of June 18th, my sister Patty was in the ICU as His messenger of hope and deliverance.

On both occasions, my medical condition was dire. On both occasions, I was at the right place at the right time. If I was anywhere else other than a hospital, I wouldn’t have survived.  My relationship with God had reached another plateau. My faith was moving from being a loyal member of the Catholic Church to a true believer in God’s will.

At the moment I thought I had fallen asleep, my heart had actually come to a complete stop after racing to that stratospheric 280 beats per minute. The medical team immediately went into action to get my heart beating again. Nurses started CPR as technicians quickly prepared the AED paddles needed to shock my heart back to life.

Seconds were rapidly ticking away as the heart monitor standing behind the bed stopped beeping with the familiar peaks and valleys of the LED lights bouncing across the screen, and began to emit a high-pitched steady sound with a solid flat line indicating that the heart was no longer beating.

With AED paddles securely in place on my chest, Dr. Fisk prepared to activate the shockwaves that would send electronic signals to reactivate my heart. In most cases, the doctor would need to send several signals to the heart to regain a normal heartbeat. When Dr. Fisk administered the first shock, my back arched, my chest heaved forward, I sat up, and the heart monitor began beeping again. The procedure had worked.

Two months later, while I continued to heal in a regular hospital room, a nurse named Cat walked in with a wide grin and sincere joy in her eyes. She told me that she was on duty the morning of June 18th and she had heard that I was still in the hospital so she came to see me to share an anecdote about that hectic morning.

She told me about rushing to my room after hearing the public address system announce a “code blue” indicating that an emergency life-or-death situation was unfolding in the hospital.  With a broad smile, she recounted how Dr. Fisk shocked me with the AED paddles and I instantly sat up with a grimace on my face. With eyes wide open, I shouted “oh shit”! Everyone stopped what they were doing and, for a few seconds, the room became quiet and still.

With a thin deadpan smile, Dr. Fisk calmly said, “I think we have a heartbeat.” The room erupted in laughter and relief. Nurse Cat had never experienced something like that in ten years as a cardiac nurse. She wished me the best and urged me to “keep up that fighting spirit” before saying good bye and walking out of the room.

When Sandra and Marisa arrived at the hospital on the morning of June 18th, they hurried to the surgery department while doctors were preparing me for a procedure to dissolve another blockage that completely obstructed the same artery doctors repaired after the first heart episode.

Valerie, who worked just a short drive from the hospital, was already there and had seen me. She sobbed uncontrollably, with tears streaming down her cheeks, as she tightly embraced Sandra and Marisa before the two of them were escorted into the surgery prep room.

The nurse advised Sandra and Marisa to be upbeat and positive when they saw me. I was on a gurney with a clear oxygen mask strapped over my nose and mouth, and I looked scared with the “deer in the headlights” stare. They both assured me that I was going to be fine. I tried to assure them by weakly raising my arms in a two-handed thumbs-up. They both kissed me before my gurney rolled into surgery.

Back in the waiting room, Sandra’s parents, sisters, and their families began to arrive. It had been a surreal week and a half that was difficult for everyone to comprehend. I went from 18-hour workdays to surviving a heart attack to once again fighting for my life in an operating room while my family anxiously waited for the surgeon to walk through the door to deliver the news.

Within an hour, others began to arrive: Melody and Juanita, with Rudy and Will following later in the day, relatives from Sandra’s side of the family, and friends from work. The waiting room was in a state of shock. Eddie Velez stood silently in the waiting room confused, saying to himself, “this is not good.”

As people continued to arrive, there was a collective sense of, “what else can happen”?  George, who arrived in the early afternoon, would later call June 18th, “the longest day.” In the operating room, the heart surgeon performed the same procedure I underwent 11 days earlier.

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To read excerpts #43 click here: https://esereport.com/2014/11/24/summer-in-the-waiting-room-how-faith-family-and-friends-saved-my-life-excerpt-43/

Next Wednesday: The aftermath of cardiac arrest…

Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (excerpt #43)

Image by jhems.com (click on image to read all excerpts)
Image by jhems.com
(click on image to read all excerpts)

Author’s note: The manuscript of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life, is divided into three parts. The title of Part 2 is The Waiting Room. Excerpt #43 is the second installment of  The Waiting Room.

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Sandra started the morning on Friday, June 18, 2010, feeling good about my prognosis. I was still in the ICU, but I slept through the night breathing well, and it seemed like I was on the proper regimen of medication to manage my congestive heart failure. Erica was in Washington, D.C. with her class for the school’s annual trip for incoming 8th graders, so it was just Sandra and Marisa at home. They slept together in the master bedroom to comfort and support each other.

In addition to managing my health crisis, Sandra was preparing to close school for the summer and planning for the new school year. She was exhausted as she stepped into the shower and absorbed the soothing water raining down on her. She felt uneasy about going home for the night and leaving me in the hospital alone, but did so at the urging of family, friends, and doctors.  As a woman of faith, Sandra was confident that I would be just fine in God’s hands.

When Sandra got out of the shower, the phone started ringing and Marisa, recognizing the caller ID, told her that someone from Kaiser was calling. Sandra said “it’s probably daddy calling to say good morning” and quickly answered the phone as Marisa watched nervously assuming the worst had happened.

Sandra ended the call after a few minutes of intently listening and responding with one word answers. She told Marisa that something had happened earlier in the morning. The doctors had stabilized the situation, but she and Marisa needed go to the hospital right away.

They were soon on the familiar route to the Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center – Highway 101 to Interstate 280 to Lawrence Expressway – when the hospital called again. Activating the cell phone’s hands-free device, Sandra placed the call on speaker phone so both she and Marisa could hear the caller. Again, it was a doctor from the hospital providing more information about that morning’s episode.

Another blood clot formed on an artery and I had gone into cardiac arrest. Once stabilized, doctors were getting me ready for another angioplasty procedure. The doctor told Sandra and Marisa that they would be able to see me before I went into surgery. While Sandra called her mom to let her know what was going on, Marisa anxiously sat through the long ride to the hospital.

My body had a negative reaction to Plavix, a common blood-thinning medication prescribed after the first surgery. It wasn’t working, so a blood clot formed on the metal stent doctors placed in my heart almost immediately. This is a rare occurrence caused by the body’s rejection of the medication.

By the early morning of June 18th, the clot had closed off the blood flow to the heart’s lower left chamber causing my heart to pump furiously in its efforts to deliver oxygenated blood to the body. Within seconds of the closure in the artery, my heart raced to 280 beats per minute, alarmingly above the average heart beat of 65 beats. In less than a minute, I went into cardiac arrest.

Cardiac arrest is a medical way of saying that the heart stops beating. Without blood circulation and delivery of oxygen to the body and brain, the patient loses consciousness.  On a heart monitor, the normal peaks and valleys of a heartbeat suddenly turn into a flat line. If cardiac arrest goes untreated for more than five minutes, the lack of oxygen could cause death or, if the patient survives, severe brain damage.

The best chance of survival requires immediate cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED), the electronic paddles that shock the heart so it could start beating. Unless someone nearby is trained in CPR and an AED is readily available, the chance of survival for someone who suffers from cardiac arrest is remote.

I was fortunate to be in the hospital ICU when my heart began to race uncontrollably then suddenly stopped. My memory of that episode is brief, but harrowing. It seemed like one minute I was watching the NBA Finals with George, and the next minute I was sitting up in the bed violently screaming for help because I couldn’t catch my breath.

For me, the whole scene was hazy and chaotic as doctors and nurses appeared to be moving in fast motion, then slow motion, as they worked to save my life. According to my medical record, I repeatedly shouted, “I can’t get enough air.”

Dr. Stephen Fisk, a short and slender pulmonary doctor in his late 60s with gray thinning hair and a trimmed white beard, was trying to calm me down by telling me to relax so he could help me. The fear of dying entered my mind for the first time as the doctors and nurses hovering around me looked concerned and even scared themselves.

As Dr. Fisk urged me to relax, I noticed a nurse standing calmly at the foot of the bed with a soothing smile telling me, in a soft but audible voice that could be heard above the bedlam, that everything was going to be okay and that I would be fine.

The nurse looked exactly like my sister Patty who had died of a heart condition seven years earlier. A sudden warmth and comfort came over me as the madness around me disappeared and I peacefully fell asleep.

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SPECIAL NOTE: To accommodate your Thanksgiving Week schedule, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life is posted today instead of Wednesday.

Next Wednesday: Doctors scramble to save my life a second time after cardiac arrest…

Summer in the Waiting Room: Part Two – The Waiting Room (excerpt #42)

Click on image to read all excerpts
Click on image to read all excerpts

Author’s note: The manuscript of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life, is divided into three parts. The title of Part 2 is The Waiting Room. Excerpt #42 is the first installment of  The Waiting Room.

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Chapter 5 

Buen Corazón

My earliest memory of a hospital waiting room is from the day my sister Sisi was born. I had just turned five-years-old the month before. We were at the old Kaiser Santa Clara Hospital that was built in the early 1960s. I remember waiting in the main waiting room at the lobby of the hospital with my brothers and sisters, all of whom were teenagers by then.

Sitting in arm chairs were older people reading magazines or engaging in whispered conversation.  My brother David and sister Patty had their noses stuck in either books they brought from home or the magazines that were strewn on the little tables that sat around the chairs.

My sister Barbara was trying to keep me and my brother Stevie from getting in the way of hospital visitors as we scampered around the lobby looking for mischief.  Our exploits came to an abrupt end when a giant nurse wearing green hospital scrubs scolded us for playing on the elevators.

That first visit to a hospital waiting room was fun and exciting to me as Stevie and I darted in an out of the elevator on different floors until we got caught by that super tall nurse.  And all ended well when we brought home a baby sister the next day.

My next experience in a waiting room wasn’t the same. I was about nine or ten-years-old when a cousin named Albert, who was in his early 20s, was in a terrible car accident that left him badly hurt and in a coma. He was driving a small sports car on the winding highway that weaves its way through the steep Santa Cruz Mountains connecting the Santa Clara Valley to the beaches in Santa Cruz.

Near the summit, Albert’s car was sideswiped by another vehicle that sent him and his car tumbling 200 hundred feet into a deep ravine.  I remember my dad driving through those same mountains to be by his sister’s side.  That waiting room was small and windowless, so it just added to the gloom of those of us who were waiting there.  Albert never recovered from the coma and died a few months later.

From that day forward, visits to hospital waiting rooms were brief and usually meant doom and gloom with an occasional sigh of relief if all ended well. My grandmother Joaquina died of a heart attack when I was 10-years-old. The news came via the waiting room.

My dad’s first heart attack in the early 1980s and my mom experiencing the same a few years later were marked by the stress and anxiety of the waiting room while doctors performed surgeries behind the operating room doors.  Both of those episodes ended with huge sighs of relief for successful operations.

A decade later, my dad suffered a major stroke early one morning as my mom and I sat alone in a small, cold, windowless emergency department waiting room at the old Alexian Brothers Hospital in east San Jose.  This time it didn’t end very well.  My last memory of my dad was watching him convulse with a faraway look in his eyes while doctors ushered my mom and me out of the emergency room.  Minutes later, the doctor walked into that little waiting room to deliver the bad news.

From June 18th through August 31st, 2010, the ICU waiting room at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center was a living breathing metaphor for sadness, joy, despair, hope, anticipation, disappointment, and triumph. In that waiting room, faith was tested and strengthened, family bonds grew tighter, and the true meaning of friendship emerged.

It became a gathering place for those who loved me, Sandra, and the girls. It was a place to share food, stories, and a sense of community. Day after day, week after week, throughout the summer of 2010, friends and family stopped by to check in on Sandra and the girls, gossip, laugh and cry, or just sit and take it all in.

My compa Will would later describe the scene as a three-act play that kept everyone riveted and coming back for more. Act I was the early part of July when my prognosis for survival changed almost on a daily basis. Act II continued from late July through mid-August when survival seemed possible, but my future uncertain. The final act during the last weeks of August brought a sigh of relief as I stabilized and began the long road to recovery.

It was compelling drama that drew people there. Will and Juanita remembered rushing home from work every day because, “we couldn’t wait get to the hospital to be with everyone.” Amid the emotion, camaraderie, steadfastness, and love, “the waiting room” supported Sandra while she fought for me and I clung to life just two rooms behind the plain double doors that led to the ICU.

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SPECIAL NOTE: To accommodate your Thanksgiving Week schedule, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life continues NEXT MONDAY with Part 2: The Waiting Room.

Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (excerpt #41)

ICU Waiting Room at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center
ICU Waiting Room at Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center

Author’s note: The manuscript of my book, Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life, is divided into three parts. The title of Part 1 is The Giant Dipper (https://esereport.com/2013/12/04/summer-in-the-waiting-room-how-faith-family-and-friends-saved-my-life-prologue/). The following excerpt #41 is the final installment of  The Giant Dipper.

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Although I felt miserable and frail, I didn’t want to go back to the hospital. I knew the routine: ER technicians and nurses would put a hospital gown on me in the emergency room, stick IVs into my arms, insert a catheter into my urinary tract, and paste electrodes to my chest to monitor my heart. Doctors would come in, do some tests, and admit me.

So I tried to remain composed and I breathlessly made it through dinner. After dinner, Pancho stopped by to see me, only to watch me cough up blood-soaked phlegm and struggle to breathe. I started to feel tightness in my chest so Sandra finally demanded that I go to the emergency room. The girls were worried and also insisted that I go to the hospital immediately.

Sandra, the girls, and I climbed into Sandra’s silver Ford Explorer for the short ride to Shelley’s house to drop off the girls. It was like déjà vu all over again. Sandra and I continued on to Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center. The drive to the hospital was filled with fear and anxiety for Sandra.

I slipped two nitroglycerin pills under my tongue to sooth the tightness in my chest. I began to fall asleep during the ride, probably due to the codeine in the cough medicine I had been taking all day. Sandra thought I was losing consciousness and screamed at me to stay awake and shook me to keep me from passing out while she sped down the freeway.

I remember little of that ride, other than the warm and comfortable feeling of falling into a deep sleep and hearing Sandra’s voice in the distance begging me not to fall asleep. When we arrived at the emergency department, a nurse with a wheelchair waited for me at the curb.  Sandra jumped out of the car and helped the nurse hoist me onto the wheelchair for the sprint to the emergency room.

It was just after midnight on June 17th.

While I lay on a gurney in one of the individual emergency rooms for the third time in less than 10 days, nurses began to follow the emergency room procedure I had come to know all too well. My vital signs were worse than the last two visits to the ER: blood pressure, 72/48 and oxygen saturation, 88%.

An initial X-ray showed that I had patches in my lungs, beginning signs of pneumonia or worse. This was something new. ER doctors stabilized my condition and admitted me into the hospital for more tests. A few hours later, my gurney rolled into the ICU. I was scared as I read those words on the wall to the entrance of the unit.

I was clearly in trouble, and it was apparent that the doctors didn’t know how to fix whatever was ailing me. Marisa and Erica, the Peraltas, Rochas, Leyvas, Velez, Medinas, and Rudy stopped by to see me throughout the day. During the evening, doctors came in to tell me and Sandra that my heart was very weak and not pumping efficiently.

The CHF (congestive heart failure) that caused my last visit to the ER wasn’t getting better.  Once the right combination of medication was identified, they said, my heart would work better and management of CHF would be more productive.

Just before bedtime, George stopped by to see me for about an hour. We watched the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers duke it out on TV in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals, and we laughed, joked, gossiped about local politics. Neither one of us mentioned anything about the work at the office.

When he left, Sandra came in to tell me that I needed to have faith because God had a plan.  She knew that I would recover and everything would be okay. We prayed and hugged and kissed before she left for home for the night. Although weak and tired, I felt optimistic and decided, for the first time in my life, to put my destiny and life completely into God’s hands.

I turned on my side, tried to fluff up the hard hospital pillows, closed my eyes, and fell into a peaceful sleep.

The last 10 days had thrown my life into a tailspin. I had ridden the Giant Dipper of life for 46 years and survived all of the ups and downs, and twists and turns that the wild ride had to offer.

The path included an idyllic childhood, promising high school years, failure in college and an alcohol induced fall from grace, a hard won comeback to graduate from college, build a family and achieve some success in business and public service, and finally a deep dive caused by a health crisis.

Surely, I had to be at the bottom of the violent dip, but as I slept comfortably in the Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center ICU, little did I know that I was only part way down the Giant Dipper’s famously ferocious plunge.

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To read all excerpts click here: https://esereport.com/summer-in-the-waiting-room/

Next Wednesday: Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life continues with  Part 2: The Waiting Room.

Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (excerpt #40)

Image by http://midlevelu.com/
Image by http://midlevelu.com/ click on image to read excerpt #39

Author’s note: The following passage is the 40th excerpt from Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life.

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The next morning, I felt a little bit better despite developing a persistent dry cough, which was more of a nuisance than anything else. I also felt like I would get back to normal eventually.  After breakfast, I sat up in bed and started making phone calls to friends, political colleagues, and co-workers.

My office mates were going to stop by the house to see me, so I decided take a shower, which proved to be a difficult and energy intensive task. Walking gingerly into the family room with a wet towel and dirty pajamas tucked under my arm to take to the clothes hamper in the garage, I could see that Sandra wasn’t pleased.

In a serious and agitated tone, she told me that I was doing too much, too fast, and she wasn’t comfortable with the office team visiting. I told her that I felt fine, and that just a few minutes with the team wouldn’t hurt. I would take the next three weeks to recover and build up my strength.

My relationship with God was off to a good start in the emergency room, but it would take a while to fully form. Back at home, it took a couple of steps back. I thought I had beaten the odds and once again was in control of my own destiny.

It was good to see my colleagues when they came to visit. They each looked shell-shocked, not sure what to say or how to react when they saw me. One of them later remarked that it looked like I was “putting on a show” to let everyone know that I was okay.  After some small talk about how I was feeling and my experience at the hospital, I immediately held an impromptu staff meeting.

The meeting didn’t last very long because, as a few colleagues told me a year later, the situation was awkward due to the tension everyone was feeling from Sandra. She clearly wasn’t happy about me trying to do business as usual. Exhausted, I ambled back to the bedroom to continue the pattern set the day before: sleep, medication, salt-free food, sleep, repeat process.

The persistent dry cough intensified so I called the advice line at Kaiser seeking relief. The nurse indicated that some patients with heart conditions like mine were allergic to a specific medication prescribed to manage blood pressure levels. After consulting with my cardiologist, the nurse provided an alternative blood pressure medication to alleviate the cough.

It didn’t work. By bedtime, the dry cough had developed into a hacking cough that produced pink frothy phlegm and kept me from sleeping through the night.

Sandra called the clinic to make an appointment the first thing in the morning. When we arrived at the clinic, my blood pressure measured 78/50, dangerously low. My oxygen saturation level was at 92%, lower, but not alarmingly, than the normal range of 97-100%. The doctor, concerned about the blood pressure reading, listened as I tried to persuade him that it was low due to the medication

I explained that I felt fine other than the cough. Despite my protests, the clinic doctor sent me to the emergency room where doctors immediately stabilized my blood pressure and oxygen levels, and re-admitted me to the hospital. It was almost exactly 48 hours after I was discharged.

After a battery of tests, the diagnosis was clear to doctors. I had a condition called congestive heart failure, otherwise known as CHF. The damage caused by the heart attack on June 7th was so extensive that the ejection fraction of the lower left chamber of my heart was well below the normal 55-65%.

In other words, my heart wasn’t strong enough to pump sufficient oxygenated blood into the body. The pool of blood left in the lower left chamber began to back up causing gooey build-up in the lungs. I was drowning in my own fluids. This explained the low oxygen saturation level and coughed-up pink discharge.

The medication prescribed to make my heart work more efficiently wasn’t working so the doctors adjusted certain medications, removed some, and added others to get the right mix. A nutritionist, psychologist, and pharmacist visited me to discuss the importance of eating a salt-free diet, managing stress, and taking medicine exactly as prescribed.

I had a better understanding of the physiology of CHF, and a renewed commitment to resigning from the school board and taking the time I needed to heal before going back to work.  Three days later, once my lungs were clear and my heart was stable, I was released from the hospital on June 15th. It had been an exhausting eight days.

Staying away from the hospital wouldn’t last long. The next morning, June 16th, I again called the advice line because the coughing didn’t allow me to sleep through the night. I was tired, sleepy, weak, and terribly uncomfortable. I was becoming increasingly frustrated and irritated as I coughed incessantly and struggled to catch my breath.

The advice nurse suggested that I consult with my doctor to determine what would be best to stop the coughing. I was prescribed cough medicine with codeine to help me sleep. I spent the rest of the day sleeping sporadically, coughing uncontrollably, and spitting up reddish-pink gunk.

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To read all excerpts click here: https://esereport.com/summer-in-the-waiting-room/

Next Wednesday: Part 1 of Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life concludes with two more trips to the emergency room in less than three days.

Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life (excerpt #39)

Home Sweet Home (click on image to read excerpt #38)
Home Sweet Home
(click on image to read excerpt #38)

Author’s note: The following passage from Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life concludes the events of June 7, 2010, the day that a massive heart attack forever changed my life.

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The surgeon described to those gathered in the cramped waiting room how cardiologists measure heart function to determine how much damaged resulted from a heart attack. They use a calculation called the “ejection fraction,” which is the percentage of oxygenated blood that is pumped from the lower left chamber of the heart into the blood stream with each heartbeat.

In a healthy heart, 55%-65% of blood in the lower left chamber is released into the body with every thrust. Dr. Wong explained that the ejection fraction of my heart after completion of the procedure measured less than 30%. I would never be the same, he added. I would have to dramatically alter my lifestyle.

The room remained silent. Shelley later said that she was “in shock,” and that she “couldn’t grasp what had happened.” Pancho started weeping and saying that “this can’t be real.” Our godson William Medina sat down, put his face in his hands, and began to sob.

Dr. Wong concluded by saying that I would be in the intensive care unit (ICU) in recovery for a couple of hours, then assigned to a room in the cardiac care unit (CCU) where the family could visit. There was a sense of relief combined with apprehension in the waiting room when everyone gathered in a circle to hold hands, pray, and thank God for saving my life.

Just before midnight, hospital personnel rolled the gurney that I was on from the ICU to the CCU. Although groggy, I remember seeing my family and friends lined along the wide hallway waiting to see me: Mr. and Mrs. Peralta, George, the Medinas, Miguel, and Pancho were the first to come into view. Things were moving again in slow motion and what I do remember seeing was blurry and out of focus.

It appeared to me that everyone was concerned as they saw the bed roll by. When I saw Sandra and the girls, I don’t remember the looks on their faces, rather I felt safe and comfortable and that everything was going to be fine. During that brief moment, Valerie and Miguel said that I stuck out my arm, pushed my hand against the wall to stop the gurney, and asked Marisa and Erica if they were okay.

George remembered it a little differently. He said that when I saw the girls, I appeared as though I wanted to protect them, so I instantly put on my “game face,” waved to the orderlies asking them to stop, and weakly smiled at the girls as if to say, “I’m okay.”

Regardless of how those few seconds unfolded, one thing is clear. I was in a state of semi-consciousness, yet my immense love for Sandra and the girls, and my fatherly instincts kicked in to provide me with an unrelenting reason to fight for my life. Faced with the real prospect of death, the deepest parts of my soul knew, without being fully conscious, that my family gave me the strength to live.

I spent the next couple of days in the hospital recovering. I learned about my condition, took short walks through the wide hallways, and received a light, but steady, stream of visitors that included my sister Barbara and her family, extended Peralta family, friends, and co-workers.

My assigned clinic cardiologist met with me and Sandra to review the prescribed medication, salt-less diet, and exercise plan I was to follow. Unlike the blunt honesty of Dr. Wong, she was optimistic explaining that I underwent a standard procedure, and that I should be back to work within a few weeks. She also strongly advised that I resign from the school board to minimize the stress and pressure that that commitment brought to my life.

After going through the long process of being released from the hospital, I was discharged on the afternoon of June 10th. Riding in the wheelchair to the Sandra’s waiting car, I felt weak and lethargic, but my mind was already thinking about returning to the office in three weeks. I planned to follow through with my commitment to resign from the school board, but I was still interested in the progress of the A-G Initiative.

My body was exhausted, but my brain seemed to pick up right where it left off. When I got to the curb, the hospital volunteer and Sandra helped me into our new 2010 silver Ford Explorer, not an easy task due to the height of the vehicle and my 208 pound dead-weight frame. Sandra promptly drove away from Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center leaving my previous life behind and embarking on a new one.

Even though I was drained, it felt good to be home. I had never spent a day in the hospital before June 7th. After three days there, I was sure it was a place I didn’t want to return to ever again. At home, Sandra made sure that I was comfortable while I rested and recovered from what seemed like a surreal dream.

The first day home was uneventful: sleep, medication, bland salt-free meal, repeat process.

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To read all excerpts click here: https://esereport.com/summer-in-the-waiting-room/

Next Wednesday: Within 48 hours of coming home, a steady cough and shortness of breath send me back to the emergency room…

Summer in the Waiting Room: The day that Changed My Life – Part 7 (excerpt #38)

Erica, Sandra, and Marisa (Sandra and Eddie Garcia Family photo) click on image to read all excerpts
Erica, Sandra, and Marisa – 2013
(Sandra and Eddie Garcia Family photo)
click on image to read all excerpts

Author’s note: The following passage from Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life is the 7th of nine parts that details June 7, 2010, the day that a massive heart attack forever changed my life.

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Marisa intently listened to mom as fear and panic washed over her. She ended the call and explained to Erica what was happening. Fighting back her anxiety demons, she could only think of the worst. Standing in their living room, Shelley and Pancho stood motionless shocked by the sudden news.  Marisa kept asking no one in particular, “Is my dad going to be okay?”

Erica sat silently staring off into the distance. After a brief silence, Shelley called her sisters to share the news, and Marisa and Erica quickly dressed to go to the hospital to be with their mama. Shelley and girls ran out the door to the car for the 30 minute drive to the Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center while Pancho stayed back to get Arachuli and Opie ready to follow along.

Sitting alone in the circular waiting room, Sandra continued to pray. Her lifelong faith in God had always kept her optimistic and balanced. She now faced the most serious crisis of her life, and her faith was intact. She truly believed that all would be well. While she prayed and relied on her faith to keep her from losing hope, the Peralta clan stirred into action to be by her side.

After initially demanding that  Shelley “stop playing around,” Valerie hung up her cell phone and rushed out of the house. Sandra’s parents were getting ready for bed when she called, and immediately changed their plans as did Kim and Miguel. In the waiting room, Sandra continued calling family members: my sisters Barbara and Sisi, and my brother David.

Finding Steve would be another story. He rarely told anyone where he lived, or more accurately, where he was staying.  Steve’s battle with alcohol and anger over the years made him a moving target. Even though he hadn’t had a drink in years, his nomadic lifestyle was well entrenched.

A cousin once jokingly said that “the only way to get a hold of Steve is by smoke signals, and marijuana smoke would get the message through faster.” With the exception of Steve, Sandra had contacted all of our immediate family members. While sitting in the loneliest of places, she was thinking about our life together, the present crisis, and what the future would hold.

Within 45 minutes of that first call to Shelley’s house, Sandra was surrounded by her mom and dad, and her sisters and their families. The Peralta’s were the first to arrive and found Sandra sitting quietly with a shocked look on her face. The three of them embraced and cried. Mrs. Peralta stood back and said, “Don’t worry mi hija, everything is going to be okay.”

The scene repeated itself after each one of her sisters came into the waiting room. Sandra and the girls hugged tightly and sobbed as they held each other. Marisa, always inquisitive, asked question after question. Erica, not saying a word, didn’t outwardly reveal her feelings.

Here was a family that celebrates together, mourns together, goes camping together, argues makes up and argues again while on vacation together. We served as godparents to each other’s kids for baptism and First Communion. Each Peralta grandchild calls at least one of us “nino” or “nina,” and together we’re compadres.

We attend school talent shows, little league games, dance recitals, and swim meets to support our nieces and nephews. On any given Saturday night, we get together at the local Red Lobster, Sizzler, or neighborhood coffee shop for dinner. “Party of 21, please,” one of us will say to an incredulous look from a restaurant host or hostess.

I’m sure there are those who wonder if the closeness of this family is just a show. However, when the family faced the ultimate test as one of us fought for his life on the operating table several rooms away, they all squeezed into the surgery waiting room to support Sandra and the girls. Eddie Velez was out of town on business, so he was the only one of the “21” not able to join the others.

“Party of 19, please.”

The family sat and prayed as the minute and second hands of the plain-looking clock on the wall slowly ticked away. Soon, others started to arrive: George, Will and Juanita Medina, and their kids William and Andrea.

In the operating room, after identifying the location of the blockage, the doctor immediately worked to dissolve the blood clot by inserting a medium weight wire, called an aspiration catheter, into the tube that led to my heart to puncture the clot.

Once the lump of blood had broken up and moved along the bloodstream, Dr. Wong replaced the wire with a balloon-like device and inflated it. He did this at the point where the artery was blocked to temporarily keep the vessel open so he could insert the coronary artery stent, a metal webbed cylinder placed inside the artery to help keep it open permanently.

Pulling the aspiration catheter out of the left side of the heart, Dr. Wong proceeded to repeat the process on the right side to determine if there were any blockages there as well. Finding no additional obstruction, the doctor removed the tube and catheter from my heart down to the groin, out of the incision he cut on the right inner thigh, and sealed of the tiny opening.

The procedure was complete. All had gone well.  It was 9:36 PM, a little more than two hours after Sandra and I showed up for my appointment at the doctor’s office.

Dr. Wong emerged from surgery and walked into the waiting room to tell Sandra and her support system that the procedure was a success and that there were no complications. In his no nonsense manner, he advised her that my heart was badly damaged and it would be a rough road ahead.

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To read excerpt #37, click here: https://esereport.com/2014/10/15/summer-in-the-waiting-room-the-day-that-changed-my-life-part-6-excerpt-37/

To read all excerpts click here: https://esereport.com/summer-in-the-waiting-room/

Next Wednesday: June 7, 2010 continues…