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…

Summer in the Waiting Room: The Day That Changed My Life – Part 6 (excerpt #37)

Image by share.kaiserpermanente.org (click on image to read past excerpts)
Image by share.kaiserpermanente.org
(click on image to read past excerpts)

Author’s note: The following passage from Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life is the 6th of nine parts that details June 7, 2010, the day that a massive heart attack forever changed my life.

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All of a sudden, the slow-motion movie turned into a full-speed action flick. As I was laying on a gurney, the medical team pushed me out of the emergency room and rushed through the wide hospital hallways to surgery. Doorways and the art on the walls appeared to be flying right past me in reverse as I could hear the squeaking of rubber-soled shoes against a polished floor coming from the hurried footsteps of those maneuvering the gurney.

I remember very little after the race to the operating room. My last memory was of Dr. Wong, wearing a white cap and a mask that covered his mouth and nose, standing over me explaining without emotion what he planned to do next. This was the first time during the entire day I felt extreme, unbearable pain.

Dr. Wong, in a clear monotone voice, advised that my heart was badly damaged and the prognosis for surviving the procedure was grim, 50/50 at best. When he was done with the explanation, he gave me a clipboard and pen to sign the consent form. I remember saying, “doctor, please put me to sleep, my chest hurts.”  Everything went dark.  It was 7:59 PM.

The first step in the procedure required a small incision in the right thigh near the groin. The surgeon inserted a narrow tube through a vein that led to an artery in the heart. He then maneuvered the tube through the artery under the guidance of a tiny scope that followed the path on a computer monitor.

Once the tube was in the heart, dye material was injected into the sheath so the doctor could determine exactly where the blockage or blockages were located. The image on the computer monitor left no doubt that the Left Anterior Descending Artery (LAD) in my heart was completely blocked.

This is one of the most important arteries in the whole system, and once blocked causes irreparable damage to the heart. The way it works is that oxygenated blood leaves the lungs and enters the upper and lower left chambers of the heart. The LAD delivers blood to the muscle over the lower left chamber that pumps oxygen-rich blood into the body.

When the LAD is 100% clogged, as mine was that night, the muscle under the LAD stops pumping the blood needed to oxygenate the rest of the body. Doctors have 15 to 20 minutes to dissolve the blockage before other critical organs like the lungs and brain begin to shut down due to lack of oxygen. As a result, the LAD is more commonly known as “the widow maker,” a term that Dr. Wong shared with Sandra later that evening in a matter-of-fact manner.

In the operating room, the surgeon prepared to perform a procedure that he had successfully executed several times a day for many years. Sandra sat alone in the surgery waiting room stunned by what was happening. In the small circular space adjacent to the operating room, she felt like a lonely insignificant being in a vast tube. As the wonderful life she meticulously planned for us suddenly and ruthlessly began unraveling, she turned to her unconditional faith in God.

As she prayed and tried to make sense of the surreal nightmare, Sandra started to call the support system that had carried her through every up and down of her life. At the advice of an emergency room nurse, Sandra’s first call was to her sister Shelley’s house to let Marisa and Erica know what had happened.

The girls had just returned to Shelley’s house from swim practice. Tía Shelley was making tacos, rice, and beans for dinner. They all came to the table to eat, as Pancho, ever the sports fan, glanced at the TV from time to time to catch a glimpse of SportsCenter as their two young children (my nicknames for them are Shirley and Opie) excitedly sat in their seats because their older cousins were joining them.

Once they were all settled in and dinner was served, the racket of six voices talking at once filled the room. The girls love being with their tía and tío because Shelley and Pancho are young at heart and bring comedic relief to any situation. With her quick wit and his loud exuberance for everything, Shelley and Pancho made sure that there was never a dull moment.

Pancho’s sense of excitement ensured that even the smallest accomplishment, announcement, or mishap would bring on a dramatic response accentuated with a flourish of exclamations like “WOW,” “UNBELIEVEABLE,” and “THAT’S AWESOME!” His energetic statements sometimes led to laughter, especially if his reaction was more entertaining than the event that caused him to shout out in the first place.

He once won a Tivo device at a San Jose State basketball game because he was the most animated and loudest fan in the arena. Another time, I had invited him to a dinner where Magic Johnson, his favorite basketball player, was the speaker. Boyish anticipation consumed him as we stood in line at a VIP reception to take a photo with Magic. I thought he would explode with enthusiasm when he shook his idol’s hand and posed for the camera.

When Sandra dialed Shelley’s cell phone from the waiting room, she was greeted with Pancho’s voice. “Eddie had a heart attack,” she said somberly, “and he’s in surgery now.” Knowing his penchant for reacting excitedly to any shocking news, Sandra calmly told Pancho not to say anything until she had a chance to tell the girls herself.

After a long pause, Pancho, with eyes wide as silver dollars, shouted into the phone, “COMADRE…YOU’RE LYING!”

Today, that moment lives on in family lore as one of the funniest Pancho reactions of all time. Sitting at the dinner table that night, Shelley and the girls weren’t laughing. Shelley jumped up to grab the phone from Pancho. Sandra explained what had happened. She asked Shelley to put Marisa on the phone and to contact their sisters Valerie and Kim.

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To read excerpt #36, click here: https://esereport.com/2014/10/08/summer-in-the-waiting-room-the-day-that-changed-my-life-part-5-excerpt-36/

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

Next Wednesday: June 7, 2010 continues…

Summer in the Waiting Room: The Day That Changed My Life – Part 5 (excerpt #36)

Image by www.drvenkatesan.wordpress.com Click on image to see past excerpts
Image by http://www.drvenkatesan.wordpress.com
Click on image to see past excerpts

Author’s note: The following passage from Summer in the Waiting Room: How Faith, Family, and Friends Saved My Life is the 5th of nine parts that details June 7, 2010, the day that a massive heart attack forever changed my life.

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I sat in the wheelchair looking up at Sandra not knowing what to say. She looked back at me just as speechless. The EKG in the clinic showed that I had a “ST Segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction” (STEMI), the most severe kind of heart attack.

When having a STEMI, a major artery on the left side of the heart, the Left Anterior Descending Artery, is completely blocked off by a blood clot. As a result of the blockage, the heart muscle around the clogged artery starts to die. This artery is nicknamed the “widow maker” because the immense damage to the heart muscle significantly decreases the chance for survival.

After what seemed like an eternity, I asked the doctors how they planned to proceed. The lead doctor, a cardiologist named Terrence Wong, explained that he would do a medical examination and perform an angiogram – a procedure that injects iodine die into the heart to determine where the blood clot is located.

Once the doctor identified the location of the blockage, he planned to dislodge the clot and insert a stent (a net-like metal tube) in the affected artery to prevent it from collapsing. Without complications, Dr. Wong estimated that the entire process would take about two hours.

The heart surgeon was in Santa Clara on special duty that night. His regular practice was at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland. He specializes in angioplasty surgery, the stent insertion procedure. On his website, he’s a self-described, “straight-talking physician that ’tells it like it is’ so that each patient is well informed of their options and the implications of their decision.”

The course of action he described was clear and concise. Still not fully understanding the gravity of the situation, I asked Dr. Wong when he planned to do the procedure. I assumed he would medicate me, send me home, and ask me to return in a day or two for the operation. His answer was straightforward and simple, yet powerful.  “Right now,” he said.

Again, Sandra and I looked at each other in utter disbelief without a word coming out of either of our mouths. After a brief pause, she kissed me on the cheek, hugged me, and told me that everything was going to be okay. I told her that I would be just fine as the nurse whisked me away into one of the rooms that lined the emergency department.

The emergency team, working at a frantic yet organized pace, immediately disrobed me, changed me into a hospital gown, inserted an intravenous tube (IV) into one of my arms, connected me with electrodes to a bunch of machines, and injected me with several medications to stabilize my heart. It was 7:45 PM, four minutes after I rolled into the emergency room.

Between 7:41 PM and 7:45 PM on June 7, 2010, for the first time in my life, I felt the presence of God. The concept of God had always been elusive to me. Like many Mexican American kids, I was baptized in the Catholic Church, attended catechism to complete First Communion and Confirmation, and married Sandra in a traditional Catholic wedding before an ordained priest in the neighborhood church.

My dad wasn’t a spiritual man, so our family’s exposure to religion and the Church was through my mom’s deep belief and faith in God. Growing up, we would accompany her to mass, mostly for the big days on the Catholic calendar like Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Easter.  Despite a lifetime of participating and believing in the pageantry and protocols of the Church, I never developed a relationship with God.

I learned my dad’s lessons well and truly believed that my lot in life and my destiny were in my own hands. The Golden Rule, integrity, and hard work would pave the way. I was also a student of history, and I knew that the ages were cluttered with the political machinations of men causing havoc and misery through the auspices of the Church. I questioned why God allowed so much pain and destruction to occur in His name?

During those four minutes, with my life in the balance, I had no control of the outcome. The pain in my upper chest continued to intensify. I faced the prospect of imminent death as I watched the team of medical professionals methodically work to keep me alive.

Being an anxiety-ridden mama’s boy raised in the cocoon of Viewmont Avenue, I had always thought that panic and fear of dying would overwhelm me in this situation. But, at that life or death moment, I was comfortable with someone else in full control of my destiny. According to the admitting doctor’s written comments, I was “alert, generally well appearing, and in no acute distress.”

Those four minutes were like a movie in slow motion. There were nurses, technicians, and doctors surrounding the bed, each doing a specific task to prepare a heart attack patient for surgery. I couldn’t hear a sound, but I knew that they were talking as I could see their mouths moving. Their movements looked like a beautiful and well-choreographed ballet.

Although I didn’t fear death, I was concerned for Sandra. I kept trying to sit up to see her standing just outside of the room with worry enveloping her eyes and face. An emergency room technician gently pushed me back down so she and her colleagues could continue their work. In the organized chaos I heard a soothing voice say, “Sandra will be fine. You need to relax Eddie so we could help you.”

Edward, my given name, is on all my medical records. Why did the ER tech call me by the name used only by friends? How did she know Sandra? The calming voice sounded familiar. I looked up and instantly recognized her face. Her name was Stacey Cook and her daughter played pee-wee baseball with Erica years before when I was the team’s coach.

I really didn’t know Stacey other than being the mom of the team’s star player. She would sit quietly and calmly in a lawn chair watching her daughter play. During the season, I learned that she was a great softball player in her own right, yet she never criticized the coaches or the parent volunteers. Our only interaction was her positive comments after a game, “thanks Coach,” or “nice job today Coach.”

With that same assuring voice, she helped me trust that Sandra was fine and everything would be okay. I truly believe that God sent Stacey’s familiar voice and warm smile to be with me in the emergency room at the most critical point in my life. Until that moment, I didn’t have a strong belief in God’s power to control destiny. However, in those four minutes, my faith in Him was beginning to form.

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

Next Wednesday: June 7, 2010 continues…

Summer in the Waiting Room: The Day That Changed My Life – Part 4 (excerpt #35)

Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center Emergency Entrance (image by www.flickr.com) Click on image to read all excerpts
Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center Emergency Entrance
(image by http://www.flickr.com)
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 4th of nine parts that details June 7, 2010, the day that a massive heart attack forever changed my life.

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Sandra got home and urged me to call the Kaiser advice-line again to schedule an appointment. I got a different nurse on the line, and she asked the same questions. This time, I told the nurse that pain was shooting down my left arm. She suggested that I see a doctor immediately. I insisted that it was extreme anxiety, but I accepted her advice and agreed to take the earliest available appointment.

I rationalized that a doctor would quickly diagnose an anxiety or panic attack, prescribe medication, and send me on my way so I could return to all of the critical matters that stood before me. It was close to six o’clock, almost twelve hours after my day started.  The nurse scheduled the appointment for 7:30.  I called the school district office to explain that I was sick and wouldn’t be at the graduation ceremony.

While I dressed, Sandra told the girls that they would have dinner with Tía Shelley and Tío Pancho so she could drive me to the clinic for the appointment. Marisa remembers that I “walked quickly to the car, sat down, and started squirming in my seat.” At this point, the girls weren’t alarmed about anything serious.  At Pancho and Shelley’s house she remembers telling them jokingly that I had been so stressed that I was probably having a heart attack.

The ride to the Kaiser Santa Clara Medical Center clinic was uneventful. Sandra drove as fast as she could while I continued to writhe, the discomfort on my shoulders and upper chest increased as every minute went by. She dropped me off at the entrance to the clinic and quickly drove away to find a parking space.

I labored into the building, took the elevator to the second, floor, and made my way to the doctor’s office where I met Sandra and checked in at 7:26 PM. We sat in the waiting room for just a few minutes when the nurse called me in to see the doctor. A quick check of vital signs weren’t alarming: temperature – normal at 98.6 degrees, blood pressure – 128/61, weight – 208 lbs., heart rate – a little high at 116 beats per minute, but that could have been caused by the rush to the office.

Slightly relieved, I was even more convinced that I was having an intense panic attack. The doctor reviewed the vital signs, asked me a few questions about how I felt, and immediately ordered an electrocardiogram (EKG) to determine if there were any irregularities in my heart function.

The nurse attached electrodes to my chest, programmed the EKG machine, and watched it whiz and purr as the needle on the printout page rapidly moved in a zigzag motion drawing tiny peaks and valleys on the white computer paper.

As soon as the machine stopped whirring, the nurse ripped the computer print-out from the machine and quickly disappeared into the hallway. The doctor came back seconds later to tell us the EKG reading was abnormal and I should proceed to the emergency room for more tests.

By the time the doctor finished her diagnosis, the nurse was in the hallway standing behind the wheelchair that was to take me to the hospital emergency room on the other side of the large complex.  With a fast gait, she pushed the wheelchair out of the clinic hallway, into the clinic lobby, and out to the main hallway that led to the hospital about a half city block away.

The nurse moved swiftly as she fumbled with her cell phone. Sandra offered to push the wheelchair so the nurse could use her phone, when suddenly the gait turned into a trot, and ultimately a jog to the emergency room. Tall ceiling to floor windows formed a breezeway that connected the clinic to the hospital, and I could see out to the cafeteria and parking lot beyond that life was moving at its usual pace while my life appeared to be heading toward crisis.

My mind swirled with random thoughts that ranged from doom to confusion to relief. Could I be having a heart attack? Why didn’t the doctor say that? Was she just taking precautions by sending me to the emergency room? Why was Sandra pushing the wheelchair at a jog and why was the nurse excitedly talking on the phone, and to whom? I couldn’t hear what she was saying due to the noise that was filling my head with questions.

We got to the elevator in the hospital and went the one floor down to the main lobby and the emergency room. When the elevator doors opened, we raced across the lobby floor straight into the emergency room where I arrived at 7:41 PM.  Three doctors wearing white smocks waited for us, and within seconds, I got my answer.

One of the doctors said, in a calm and a matter-of-fact voice, “Mr. García, you’re having a heart attack.”

I was stunned!

It had finally all caught up to me: the genetic predisposition to heart disease, the high-fat diet as a kid, the lifetime of anxiety, the urgency to make up for my college failures, the tireless climb up the corporate ladder, the A-G Initiative, the County budget, the tension with my siblings, my fears about losing yet another election.

Combined, they had conspired to create the perfect toxic cocktail that led to a medical disaster. All the while I thought my anxiety was haunting me and intensifying, my blood was thickening and clotting and trying to avoid narrow gaps in arteries lined with plaque caused by genetics and periods of unhealthy living.

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

Next Wednesday: June 7, 2010 continues…

Summer in the Waiting Room: The Day That Changed My Life – Part 3 (excerpt #34)

My Quiet Spot (Sandra & Eddie García family photo) Click on image to see all excerpts
My Quiet Spot
(Sandra & Eddie García family photo)
Click on image to see all excerpts

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

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Miraculously, I got home safely, stepped out of the car, and listlessly walked up the driveway and walkway that led to the porch. Marisa and Erica were at home because school was out for the summer, so I stopped at the front door to take a deep breath before I walked into the house. I didn’t want the girls to notice the strained look on my face and the uneasiness in my gait.

They were in the family room watching television as I walked away from their view to the bedroom.  I was sweating and the anxiety was building up inside of me like the volcano my friend metaphorically described. I took off my necktie and suit jacket, and threw myself onto the bed.

Marisa later said that she saw me walk into the house with the usual grimace I had on my face when I was stressed out.  She heard me walk down the hallway and slam the bedroom door shut, then silence, then a thud.  She rushed to the bedroom door and asked if everything was alright, I curtly answered, “yes.”

Marisa figured that a work or political matter was on my mind because she lifted the phone to call a friend and heard my voice on the other line.  She later ironically remarked that I seemed so upset that I was probably figuratively “having a heart attack.”  In the bedroom, I wasn’t talking business. I was on the phone with the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan advice nurse.

Positive that I was having a full-fledged panic attack, I explained to the nurse that I had an anxiety and panic episode nearly six years earlier. I was now experiencing the same symptoms, just a little more intense. The advice nurse asked standard questions about age, weight, medical history.

I mentioned that the cause to my anxiety was a result of my mom’s passing and my sister’s premature death at the hands of heart disease. I also confessed that my fear of having a heart attack led to minor symptoms of anxiety, but that I was able to manage though it.  This time, the symptoms didn’t want to go away despite my efforts to deal with them. She then asked pointed questions:

Nurse: “Do you feel a heavy weight, like an elephant, on your chest?”

Me: “No.”

Nurse: “Do you feel tingling radiating down your left arm to your hand?”

Me: “No.”

Nurse: “Do you feel short of breath?”

Me: “Sometimes, until the breathing exercises settle it down for a while.”

Nurse: “Do you feel light headed or dizzy?”

Me: “No.”

Based on my answers, the nurse said that the symptoms I described sounded like a panic attack and recommended I take a warm shower and rest. Heart attack was the furthest thing from my mind. I was so convinced of my self-diagnosis, I persuaded the nurse as well. If the symptoms persisted, she continued, I should call back immediately.

I called Sandra to update her on my conversation with the advice nurse and got ready to get in the shower. Erica told me a couple of years later that she caught me walking between the bedroom and shower to ask if she could go the movies with some friends, and I answered “yeah, sure” in a “grumpy way.”  Like Marisa, she too thought I was just stressing over one of the many things on my mind.

I started a steamy shower, sat down on the shower floor, and closed my eyes to clear my mind of the multitude of thoughts that raced through it.  Once out of the shower, I put on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and walked out the sliding door from our bedroom to the patio, my favorite place to relax.

The backyard and patio had become a sanctuary for me and Sandra.  About five years earlier, Sandra and I designed what we thought was the perfect backyard for our home, a Mexican motif with winding clay-colored sidewalks that lead from a tiled gazebo to a large arbor covered with climbing pink trumpet flowers.

A green lawn separates the two structures and a variety of plants, bushes, and flowers grow behind a four-foot retaining wall topped with bull-nose bricks.  Three tall pine trees dominate the far corner of the yard and majestically stand over the property.  My favorite part of the yard is a small patio behind the arbor covered by a natural canopy made of the pine tree branches and the intertwining of the neighbor’s willow tree and the climbing trumpets that cover the arbor.

The only sounds that can be heard from this relaxing quiet spot are birds chirping, the wind going through the pine trees, a neighborhood dog occasionally barking, or a jet departing from San Jose International Airport leaving the valley for parts unknown. Sitting in the small patio behind the arbor helps me relax and keep the troubles of the real world from my thoughts.  This time I couldn’t relax, I kept thinking about how anxiety and panic were consuming me.

The symptoms weren’t getting any better or any worse. I closed my eyes to take in the soothing sounds of the swaying trees above, but the tightening in my chest, the ever growing heaviness on my shoulders, and the frequent need to catch my breath drowned out everything but the noise of my hectic life reverberating in my head.

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

Next Wednesday: June 7, 2010 continues…